I'm aware that the origin of the pentatonic scales probably preceded the diatonic scales, so does that mean that the designation of scale degrees for a pentatonic scale would be 1,2,3,4, and 5, or is it generally accepted that the scale degrees for pentatonic scales are based on the diatonic scales as in 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, degrees and are designated in that fashion?

  • I trust you refer to the major pent. rather than the more used (in the guitar world) the minor pent.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 16:27
  • Are we talking about history of making music or history of analyzing music? Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:04
  • @aparente001- Actually, I'm asking about current analysis language, but the history helps me understand the reasons why. Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 13:59

3 Answers 3

  1. Numbers: 1 2 3 5 6 don't represent pentatonic scale degrees. They list 5 pitches of a major scale used in the specific pentatonic scale – major pentatonic in this case. In jazz/pop nomenclature major (ionian) scale is a typically used reference, so e.g. a scale commonly called minor pentatonic has pitches 1 b3 4 5 b7. There are some other conventions, e.g. this page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentatonic_scale shows examples of some pentatonic scales using minor (aeolian) scale as a reference.

  2. Scale degrees: tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant and subtonic were developed to describe western music. If a pentatonic scale is used in the context of western music, these scale degrees are probably still the actual reference and it's reasonable to use them. If you speak of a pentatonic (or any other) scale used the context of non-western music, and you want to use other terminology then probably you should introduce the reader (with western music education) to that terminology first.

  3. Pentatonic is any scale with 5 pitches. There are many pentatonic scales in use. Expression like "third note of a pentatonic scale" is meaningless unless you specify what pentatonic scale you have in mind. On the other hand it happens that degrees of western major and minor scales degrees have similar function (e.g. mediant in C major: E has a similar function as mediant in C minor: Eb, despite they are different notes). One cannot expect the same to apply universally to all pentatonic scales.

To summarize: in the context of western music, use degrees of western scales. If you write about music that is based strongly on pentatonic scales and not on western scales, then numbering the scale degrees 1 2 3 4 5 may make sense, but make sure to explain to the reader what do you mean by these numbers or refer to the existing nomenclature.


I usually see the pentatonic scale degree numbers like 1 2 3 5 6.

Obviously, those aren't ordinal numbers.

If you want to break away from the notion that those are the numbers of a "gapped" major scale, to dispel the notion that the pentatonic scale was derived from a major scale, just think of the numbers as references to intervals above the tonic.

The minor pentatonic is sometimes labeled as 1 b3 4 5 b7. If you consider something like b3 is not strictly speaking an ordinal number (what would the flat third day of June be?) then it seems easier to see how these numbers can be thought of a intervals above the tonic (it's a flat third above the tonic.)

If someone referred to the third of a C pentatonic scale, my only question would be whether major or minor, the tone being either E for major or Eb for minor. I would not expect them to mean either the E for ordinal third tone in C major pentatonic or F for the ordinal third tone in C minor pentatonic.

You might have trouble finding what is "generally accepted" with a survey of literature. I have a few books with sections about the pentatonic scale, and none of them number the scale tones.

If a pentatonic tune is put into a tonal harmonic setting, I think it makes a lot of sense to use the numbers like 1 2 3 5 6, because the harmonization will most likely treat those scale tones like the analogous tones of the diatonic scale. I think it's fine to use that number, for that reason, even if you hold with the idea that the pentatonic scale pre-dates, and was not derived from the diatonic scale. It just makes things easier to talk about in the context of the harmony.


Since the diatonic scale has become the base for so much where terminology is concerned, then yes, the (major) pent. notes maybe should be called 1,2,3,5,6.

However since it's accepted that the pent. scale pre-existed the diatonic, then the pent. notes ought to be simply 1,2,3,4,5!

It's probably easier for most of us to use the diatonic scale as the datum point, and I think we'd understand 1,2,3,5,6 as it stands - after all, using the number 6 couldn't make it part of just a pentatonic scale, could it?

  • Be good if the dver provided what might be a far superior answer!
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 18:42
  • 1
    What you think “should” or “ought to” be the way things are does not answer a question about the way things are. And that would be true even if there weren’t a far superior answer. Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 20:22
  • I'm not convinced that the pentatonic "precedes" the diatonic in the sense that one grew from the other (though I'm sure, yes, it was in use in Asia long before the diatonic was in Europe). But I'm not sure there's a narrative that makes the pentatonic an evolutionary ancestor of the diatonic. Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 22:21

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.