There is a scale that is increasingly proving to be part of the evolution of the world. This scale is the pentatonic! It appears to be one of the oldest and most used scales on the planet. The word “pentatonic” comes from the Greek word “pente” meaning five and “tonic” meaning tone. Simply put, the pentatonic scale consists of five notes within an octave, which is why it is sometimes also called a five-tone scale or a five-note scale.
Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC) was one of the first people to make a scientific study of the tones that seem to occur naturally in the world and may have been the first person to systematically investigate the pentatonic scale, but thanks to a series of recent archaeological discoveries, now we know that the use of the pentatonic scale predates by thousands of years any and all studies that have records of music.
In 2008, in southwestern Germany, in a region known as Swabia, archaeologists found flutes made from vulture bones during excavations. These flutes have five holes and incredibly were tuned in the pentatonic scale. After analyzes carried out by the researchers, it was found that the flutes date from 30 to 40 thousand years ago, a period prior to writing.
The Pentatonic Scale is the backbone of Japanese and Chinese music. Many say that it may have originated in China and it is definitely there that some of the oldest and most profound studies on the medicinal power of music can be found. Confucius (552 – 489 BC) was one of the greatest thinkers and philosophers in Chinese history. It is believed that he was the author of some Chinese Classics, among them the Book of Rites, whose chapter 19 was entirely dedicated to music and its therapeutic potential. According to these ancient studies, music is related to the five elements of traditional Chinese medicine (Wood, fire, Earth, metal and water) Each element is represented by a musical note (Wood – E, Fire – Sun, Earth – C, Metal – D and Water - A), forming a pentatonic scale. Old studies and records from the Confucian period demonstrate a great deepening in the use of music as a therapeutic and spiritual tool.
*There are scholars who believe that Pythagoras was in China and India and that his theories may have been influenced by these cultures
The Hindustani Ragas
The “raga” is a melodic form, but it is not just a scale. There are about 72 parent scales. And each scale has hundreds of ragas, which can be pentatonic (five notes), hexatonic (six notes) or full scale (seven notes). The possible combinations are endless. ( Ravi Shankar)
Classical Indian music is known for its enormous cultural variety, for its music with a complex microtonal system, a musical characteristic more easily found in Asian music, which makes it a music with a greater complexity than Western music. Each region of India has its particularities, in the north classical music is called Hindustani and in the south it is called Carnatic. Ragas are a very common melodic system among Northern traditions and the pentatonic scale is commonly found in Northern traditions, being played in both ascending and descending scales. The pentatonic scale is present in Ragas with less complexity, favoring the search for an intuitive musicality.
Latin American countries have a strong musical culture linked to the pentatonic scale inherited from ancient pre-Columbian peoples. This heritage comes from the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans and their music was based on the pentatonic scale. Pre-Hispanic instruments are known as Autochthonous instruments, and the most commonly used were flutes, ocarinas, sikus, whistles, rattles and drums.
The ancestral music of North American countries also had diverse influences. The native peoples who inhabited Mexico seem to have played a large part in all of North America's musicality. The music of these peoples is also related to the pentatonic scale, in songs, percussion instruments and especially in the Native American Flute. A flute with a powerful sound, but with a simple execution, an experience that agrees with the philosophies of ancient native peoples, who did not follow specific metrics, but their intuition.
Archaic evidence demonstrates a possible relationship between the origin of American peoples and the arrival of Asians during the Ice Age, through the region that is now known as Alaska.
Could this possible Asian ancestry not have brought some musical influences to people across America?
Researching a little more about the existing cultural relationship between Asia and America, some traces of this ancestry began to appear. An interesting example of this possible intercontinental musical relationship is the Native American Flute and the Japanese Shakuhachi Flute. Both are vertical flutes and not transverse (like the vast majority of flutes around the world) and both flutes are pentatonic. There are so many similarities between them that suspicions about the relationship between their origins cannot be disregarded.
Pentatonic scales are very common all over the world, including Middle Eastern and Celtic music, Hungarian folk music, ancient Greek music, southern Albanian music. It is the main scale in Ethiopian music and some other peoples of Africa. It is present in the tuning of Indonesian gamelan, in melodies from Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam, in the Afro-Caribbean tradition, the Polish highlanders of the mountains and many other peoples. It is even the basis for Gregorian Chant.
This scale has been crossing millennia following the evolution and history of humanity. If we observe all the ancient and original peoples on the planet, we will realize that they developed their musicality based on intuitive and spiritual experiences. Music was a ritualistic tool and it makes sense to find the pentatonic scale at the origin of many peoples, since it is a simple scale and at the same time powerful. The true representation of detachment within the universe of music, demonstrating that its simplicity is the great secret of all its grandeur and omnipresence, as it demystifies music as an extremely complex tool and demonstrates that it can be played by anyone who feels the music coming from your soul.
Cover art: Geenss Archenti Flores – instagram @geenssarchenti
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- How to cite this paper: Zhang, H. and Lai, H. (2017) Five Phases Music Therapy (FPMT) in Chinese Medicine: Fundamentals and Application. Open Access Library Journal, 4:e4190.
- The Culture of Music and Ritual in Pre-Han Confucian Thought: Exalting the Power of Music in Human Life – By Barry D. Steben
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