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Many melodies contain notes that are not from the scale they are composed in. For example, "Stairway to Heaven" solo contains an A minor pentatonic scale plus an additional F note. I've read that this is not uncommon. Does it mean it is still A minor pentatonic or not? Can playing notes not in a scale be done for compositions made using pentatonic scale or also heptatonic?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

There's a common practice in Jazz and Blues to choose the scale based not on the piece as a whole, but just the chord that's currently playing. The ballad section is not totally in A-Minor either, but flirts with Dorian-Minor as well (the F♯ in the D-Major chord). The solo section of Stairway has these changes

Am / G / | F / / /

You can play A-Minor (or A Minor Pentatonic) over the first measure because the G harmony functions like a seventh (so the A-Minor over the top feels like a suspension). But during the all-F measure, the solo voice really needs to make sense over F, so adding F (and landing on F) become useful to make the solo follow the changes.

As for playing notes outside the current scale, sure, why not? They're then called "non-scalar" tones. But if used too often (subjective, I think) then a non-scalar tone really becomes part of the scale. This is one of those "I know it when I hear it" things, and it's difficult to describe without reference to specific examples.

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Anybody know how to get a bar-line | in there? ... or repeats? – luser droog Nov 17 '12 at 3:02
One glaring counterexample is the guy from Primus who deliberately plays all the wrong notes! – luser droog Nov 17 '12 at 3:03

There are actually two things here. One: do you need to strictly stick to a key? To a prosriptivist, yes. That's what it means to "be in a key". Some theoreticians may disagree (but there are always factions).

Two: is "Stairway to Heaven" in A minor pentatonic or some variant? No. It is in A minor. However, common performance practices in jazz and blues involve soloing over a 6 note blues scale, similar to a pentatonic. Not having the sheet music in front of me, I cannot say for sure that this was what was performed, but I can make an educated guess (based upon Led Zeppelin's strong blues background) and bet that what I just described (soloing on the 6 note blues scale) is what was performed.

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If you play notes which are outside of the scale and still call it "in the scale", you're really stretching the capabilities of the English preposition "in"! I believe there is room for staying in the scale while incorporating grace notes, glissandos or portamentos.

That F in the Stairway to Heaven solo can be regarded as shifting to another mode. Three major pentatonic modes (and their relative minors) occur in a given key. The solo does not stick to A minor pentatonic but uses modal runs within the A natural minor key (pentatonic and diatonic), plus blues microtonal bends.

It is not a solo in A minor pentatonic with out-of-scale digressions; that is hardy the concept.

The descending G E D C A G F run near the beginning of the solo is a blend of two modes. It starts as A minor pentatonic, but ends like an F major pentatonic. These overlap by four notes, so you don't know where one ends and the other begins; it is ambiguous. The F chord and bass note occur at around the beginning of the A G F phrase, so if a turning point between the two modes can be identified, that A might be the point where it occurs.

It is an effective twist which surprises the ear of the rock and roll listener who is used to hearing auto-pilot pentatonic noodling in one mode over similar progressions.

The F major pentatonic fits the underlying chord which is how modal improvisation works, at least some of the time.

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