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So a "pentatonic" scale is just any scale with 5 scale degrees (pitches). Yet, in most music we always just seem to assume that it's the scale with the following number of semitones (half steps) between each degree: 2,2,3,2,3. I've read about the different modes of this scale, achieved by starting the scale on different degrees to achieve a different feel giving us, e.g., major and minor pentatonic scales). But what is the actual term for this general pentatonic scale, regardless of mode? And are there other named pentatonic scales, possibly used by different cultures?

To make a comparison, the diatonic scale is a specific heptatonic scale with intervals 2,2,1,2,2,2,1, and therefore 7 different modes. But there are other heptatonic scales that also have 7 modes. Likewise, there is a specific pentatonic scale with intervals 2,2,3,2,3, and therefore 5 different modes. What is that scale called?

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  • I’m not used to seeing "the diatonic scale", because my understanding is there is more than one diatonic scale. The heptatonic scale with 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 half steps has been called "the major scale" in every context I’ve seen it. Sometimes it is also called "the Ionian mode". Dec 24, 2022 at 0:04
  • Fair point; I guess it would be more correct for me to say a diatonic scale. But still, when I say that, you know the heptatonic intervals to which I'm referring, and the possible modes of such a scale (e.g., Ionian). But what word could I use to refer to the set of pentatonic scales with intervals 2,2,3,2,3 (i.e., not a specific mode)? As discussed in the comments on @It's HEDLEY's answer, "anhemitonic" isn't sufficient either. Dec 24, 2022 at 4:53
  • Can you explain why "anhemitonic" is not sufficient? Is it because 2-2-3-2-3 and 2-3-3-2-2 are different patterns but are both anhemitonic and pentatonic? Dec 24, 2022 at 4:57
  • Correct, that is the issue. Dec 24, 2022 at 4:59
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    Then I agree that your question has no answer. Not every concept has a specific, unambiguous term for it. Dec 24, 2022 at 5:00

2 Answers 2

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All scales, regardless of the number of pitches they contain, have modes. A mode is simply a rotation of the starting scale. For a heptatonic example, consider the harmonic minor scale: 2-1-2-2-1-3-1. It has seven unique modes.

The 2-2-3-2-3 pentatonic scale has 5 modes:

  1. Major (2-2-3-2-3), most common
  2. Egyptian (2-3-2-3-2)
  3. Blues minor (3-2-3-2-2)
  4. Blues major (2-3-2-2-3)
  5. Minor (3-2-2-3-2), 2nd most common

These are all in the class of pentatonic scales labeled "anhemitonic", meaning that the scales contain no semitones. This term doesn't quite fit your requested definition though, as "anhemitonic pentatonic" could also refer to scales with other intervals, such as 2-4-2-2-2.

The term you're looking for doesn't exist. The pentatonic collection you're asking about is referred to by "anhemitonic pentatonic" or "major pentatonic" for the 1st mode. No musician would think of some other pentatonic scale with a different structure. It's the latter that would need a specialized term.

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  • Hey, thanks for the quick response! You kind of just restated the content of my question though. Mentioning "anhemitonic" is helpful, but as you say, it is a "class" of scales; one with intervals 2,2,2,3,3 would be another example. I'm asking if there's a technical term for the 2,2,3,2,3 scale specifically (regardless of mode), similar to the term "diatonic" for 7-tone scales. Dec 23, 2022 at 21:31
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    @Rabadash8820 "Major pentatonic" and "Anhemitonic pentatonic" are the terms of art.
    – Aaron
    Dec 23, 2022 at 21:44
  • Seems "anhemitonic" is an ambiguous term then. According to the Wikipedia article: "anhemitonic scales do not contain semitones", which is a fairly general definition; an "anhemitonic pentatonic" scale would just be a 5-tone scale without semitones. But you're saying that it more specifically means a pentatonic scale with intervals 2,2,3,2,3, so there's ambiguity. Also my understanding was that "major pentatonic" refers to a specific mode of this pentatonic scale. Dec 24, 2022 at 4:49
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    @Rabadash8820 The term you're looking for doesn't exist. The pentatonic collection you're asking about is referred to by those two categories given in my post. No musician would think of some other pentatonic scale with a different structure. It's the latter that would need a specialized term.
    – Aaron
    Dec 24, 2022 at 4:51
  • I see. I was mainly interested because I'm making a database of musical scales, and I wasn't sure which identifier to use to distinguish this class of common pentatonics. I've just been calling them "Western" pentatonic scales. But if there's no term, then there's no term. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Dec 24, 2022 at 4:59
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In answer to your header the "common" one would be pentatonic minor. Ask 100 guitarists and most would ask 'why, are there others?' Some may have extrapolated the 2nd most "common" - the major pentatonic, which is a mode (or is it the other way round..?) as both have a sensible reasoning behind their names - min. pent. has m3 (A>C in key Am) for example, while maj. pent. has at least M3 between ^1 and ^3 - C and E (in key C). A little contrived, but there we are.

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