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When studying non-chord tones all the definitions use steps in the diatonic sense, but what about non-chord tones in pentatonic melodies? Are melodies written in pentatonic scales considered "steps"? Or are some of them still leaps?

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    It might be helpful to break "leaps" into two categories, "skips," which are thirds, and "leaps," which is anything bigger than a third. A little context would help though - for what purpose are you calling them steps?
    – nuggethead
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 20:49
  • I write melodies using pentatonic scales and am learning about figuration in my harmony textbook which defines various non chord tones and I need to know how these relate to pentatonic melodies. Skips are not really a thing when learning about non chord tones. They are usually either labelled as "by step" or "by leap" when discussing how tones are resolved or approached
    – user35708
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 20:58
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    It depends on your definition of 'step'.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 23:28
  • @nuggethead - where does the notion of skips and leaps come from - your own, or others' ideas?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 11:54
  • @tim now you mention it, I don't know!
    – nuggethead
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 12:26

4 Answers 4

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Steps are the intervals between two notes of, generally considered, diatonic scales. Thus they're either major 2nds or minor 2nds. Also referred to as conjunct motion, semitones being half steps, tones being whole steps. For example, in key C, D>E is a whole step, while E>F is a half step.

Any wider intervals than those are skips or leaps, also referred to as disjunct motion. Such as in the C pentatonic scale between E and G (m3). So, in the pentatonic scales (both major and minor) there are steps and skips.

Whatever scale is in consideration, those will be the intervals, so it doesn't really matter which scales are in discussion. All full major scales will only contain steps, while pents (and others, like harmonic minor) will contain both steps and skips. The fact that notes are non chord tones isn't a consideration. In a melody with consecutive notes of a semitone or a tone maximum, those are steps; anything larger are skips.

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  • We'd have to decide on a specific definition of a step with regard to harmonic minor, though. Is F to G# truly a skip as an augmented second?
    – nuggethead
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 9:42
  • @nuggethead - thought for the day! As it's still a second of some sort, rather than a third as found in harmonic minor, I'd argue that it's more likely a step. Maybe that's the criterion. I feel a question coming on...
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 10:33
  • "So, in the pentatonic scales (both major and minor) there are steps and skips." Says who?
    – user35708
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 15:11
  • @armani - on the premise that steps are semitones and tones, and skips are m3 and wider, why shouldn't that apply?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 15:14
  • So it is the mathematical intervals that decide when something is a step or a skip not the distance from one tone of a scale to another? Is that what you are saying?
    – user35708
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 15:31
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Some of the 'steps' in a pentatonic scale, being wider than a 'whole step' (yes, the terminology overlaps, doesn't it!) do feel more like a 'leap'.

I suspect you're trying to apply 17th century rules of voice leading in a major/minor context to pentatonic music. This may not be very useful.

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  • is there some other new syllabus on music theory that teaches voice leading that I am not aware of?
    – user35708
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 10:29
  • The 'rules' are about writing smooth 4-voice arrangements. This wasn't always the aim, even in Bach's time! Angular melodies, dramatic leaps are good too! Know the principles of smooth voice-leading, do other stuff too!
    – Laurence
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 10:57
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It all depends. The concept of a step is usually tied to a very specific concept of harmony, so if you want to use to for other situation you need to generalize it. But if you define a step to be the interval between to adjacent scale notes you get a sort of inconsistency in your terminology and common terminology. In a pentatonic scale we expect to have two steps and then a jump.

More general a scale can be taken as subscale of another scale. Should the terminology then be consistent among these scales?

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It's defined by context. If one is talking about the scale itself, then one tends to refer (colloquially) to the "steps" in the scale. However, if talking about the intervallic content, then one is likely to describe the larger-than-a-whole-step intervals as "skips".

The ideas of chord- and non-chord tones is one that doesn't really apply to pentatonic scales, at least not in the same way it does to diatonic scales. Neither the "building chords in thirds" nor the "every other scale tone" applies cleanly to pentatonic scales, so one can essentially adapt the concepts as is convenient to the scenario at hand.

In the pentatonic case, it's probably most convenient to think of notes in the scale and notes not in the scale, and make this synonymous with chord tones and non-chord tones. That will give a consistent definition regardless how one chooses to define/build chords within the scale.

For the purpose of ornamentation, then, it becomes a question of whether the ornaments stay within the scale (in which case some might involve the "skip"), or whether ornamentation can use notes outside the scale.

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  • "If one is talking about the scale itself, then one refers to the "steps" in the scale": you could really go either way on this question. There's certainly no standardized analytical framework for pentatonic scales that I'm aware of where an octave is said to comprise five steps, but this sentence tends to imply that there is. It would certainly be confusing to combine such a framework with the diatonic-based terminology used to describe intervals in every other context.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 9:45
  • @phoog I've edited to soften the language. Did not mean to imply there was a formal language for this.
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 12:32
  • Wiki (and others) seems to think it's more than 'colloquial'.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 13:14
  • @Tim Link? Now that there's some disagreement, I guess it's time to cite some sources. So it would save me some time to know where you were looking.
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 18:12
  • @Aaron - Wiki's a start.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 18:54

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