We are not advocates of teaching music solely by ear, or even primarily by ear. That is not to say that if you learned that way or teach that way that we would have you stop, nor would we judge you. Some of the most amazing musicians ever to grace the streets, stage, or studio have learned this way. But we value both learning music by the note and also by ear. Both skills together make for the best speakability as a musician. Why not harness the pentatonic scale to do both, ear training and music notation training?
In years of teaching music however, and even as I reflect on my own music education, I’ve found that sometimes we can error a little bit on the side of teaching by note by waiting too long to introduce ear training. I have noticed two problems that can present from this:
- An untrained ear as the student/musician develops.
- Missed opportunities for deeper learning, especially for students that may learn easier by listening than through memorization of the staff.
As a way of trying to engage both learning methods, I have begun teaching the pentatonic scale first, before the major (Ionian). Most beginning band books and many beginning books for instruments begin with the major scale, and while I can understand why, I think the pentatonic provides some important benefits as the primary and first point of entry to scales. It is after all shorter, and it is generally playable much earlier by brass players. A trumpet or coronet player can make the low G concert (A on the horn) and the G concert in the staff much easier than they can the A and Bb concert. Trumpet players will probably not be able to play the octave on the Bb MAJ Pent as early as they can on the G-, but that’s not big deal—just assure them they will get that later.
So, here is an easy and fun way of teaching the pentatonic once the student has learned the six notes (Pent + the octave):
Objective 1: Pentatonic scale
- G- (Minor) Pentatonic: G Bb C D F (G)
- Bb MAJ (Major) Pentatonic: Bb C D F G (Bb)
Explain that these are the same, but that because of the minor 3rd between the root and the third that the G Minor is called minor.
Objective 2: Listen and align
Learn to recognize pitch/scale degree and notate the music from the pentatonic scale.
Amazing Grace is composed completely of pitches found within the pentatonic scale. If the student is familiar with the melody (which they most likely are), assign them the task of working out the melody on their instrument and notating the melody (just the pitches) on the staff. I would not advise trying to get them to notate the mixed meter at this point—the focus here is on pitch recognition, and better understanding of the staff.
At this point, you can have the student begin working on making Amazing Grace beautiful, and speak to them about dynamics and phrasing. Let them learn to present this classic spiritual in appropriate style and form. Once they have learned it, encourage them to find some recordings of it they enjoy and even learn to emulate them.
Objective 3: Listen and align again, this time with the addition of rhythm (teach them to recognize and notate it).
Mo Better Blues is a beautiful blues, and the melody again is composed completely of the pentatonic scale. Most of the recordings are in C or higher, but you can record it for your student in G Minor Pent. in simple rhythm without approach notes or syncopation. This will make it easier to learn. This is an excellent opportunity to begin students on a simple blues. And with the simple rhythm they can easily notate the rhythms as well as long as you have taught them the eight note and the tie.
Again, once they have achieved the objective you can have the student begin working on making Mo Better Blues beautiful, and speak to them about dynamics and phrasing. Let them learn to present this classic in appropriate style and form. I think the recording from the film is an excellent recording, but may be a little fast. This recording from Jacky Terrason is a nice and easy tempo for transcribing.
Many students will likely be able to go from learning the pentatonic scale to playing and transcribing their first blues and their first spiritual in about a month—and improving their ear training and understanding of the scale/notation at the same time.
Try it. Let us know how it went!
Questions? Ask away….
P.s. For adults or older students that are capable of handling and processing the serious subject matter of Mo Better Blues, it really is a beautiful movie, but a tragic portrayal of much of the darkness that exists in some circles of the music business and industry. But the movie (not the music or the video linked above) does contain nudity, violence, sex, and, drugs. We will have another post on this on a later date, because it is worthy of discussion.