Neo Soul Piano Improv with the Pentatonic Scale
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Most electronics come with a remote control. In fact, in the spaces of our home where we spend the most time, it’s not uncommon to find an overwhelming amount of remotes—the television, cable box, stereo, DVD player, etc. Before long, a simple task like playing a movie involves juggling all the remotes is a specific sequence! Learning to improvise can feel the same way—like having a different remote for each chord in a progression. Students must keep juggling scales as they improvise through a chord progression. The solution to this challenge for your living room is a universal remote that controls all of your electronics from a single keypad. But is there such a thing as a universal improv scale? In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx demonstrates how the pentatonic scale can work as a single, universal scale for piano improv over an extended chord progression. You’ll learn:
- What is a Pentatonic Scale?
- 2 Neo Soul Chord Progressions
- 3 Pentatonic Patterns for Piano Improv
- 4 Piano Improv Examples with the Pentatonic Scale
You’ll find that playing a great-sounding solo has never been so simple.
Today’s lesson on Neo Soul Piano Improv with the Pentatonic Scale is perfect for intermediate level piano students who enjoy learning to improvise over a variety of chord progressions and styles. However, even beginner students will be able to achieve remarkable results with the simplicity of improvising with a single, 5-note scale. Our lesson sheet is in the key of Ab major/F minor, which has 4 flats (B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭). However, you can easily change the key of this material with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music. The lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks appear for download at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
What is a pentatonic scale?
Pentatonic scales contain 5 notes (penta = “five”, tonic = “tone”). The most common pentatonic scales do not contain any ½ steps and are used to improvise or compose melodies with a solid tonal character.
The name in music theory for a 5-note scale without half steps is an anhemitonic pentatonic scale, where the term anhemitonic specifically denotes a construction “without ½ steps.” While this name seems like a mouthful, it does provide a helpful classification. As we shall soon see, the two most common pentatonic scales, major pentatonic and minor pentatonic, are actually one in the same!
The most common example of an anhemitonic pentatonic scale is all the black keys on the piano: G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭. In common use, this scale is much more widely referred to as a major pentatonic scale when it begins on G♭. On the other hand, when this scale begins on E♭, the resulting scale is a minor pentatonic scale: E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭.
Another type of pentatonic scale is a hemitonic pentatonic scale—a five note scale which contains one or more ½ steps. While today’s lesson does not focus on this type of scale, an example would be the scale C-D-E♭-G-A. This scale is called a minor 6th pentatonic scale or a dorian pentatonic scale. It is especially useful for improv over minor 6th and half-diminished chords.
Now that we’ve defined the pentatonic scale in broad terms, let’s look more closely at the specific pentatonic scale we’ll use for today’s neo soul piano improv lesson. Since the chord progression we are exploring in today’s lesson involves quite a few borrowed chords, you might hear it in A♭ major or it’s relative key, F minor. We’ll examine it both ways.
Major Pentatonic Scale Formula
The major pentatonic scale is constructed from the following tones of a major scale: 1-2-3-5-6. Alternatively, you can think of this scale as omitting the 4th and 7th degrees. The result of omitting scales degrees 4 and 7 is that the ½ steps between 3→4 and also between 7→1 are removed. In addition, the tritone interval between degrees 4 and 7 is also absent. The example below illustrates how to use this formula to construct an A♭ major pentatonic scale.
[Tap or click on each keyboard below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]
A♭ Major Scale
A♭ Major Pentatonic
Minor Pentatonic Scale Formula
The minor pentatonic scale is constructed from the following tones of a natural minor scale: 1-3-4-5-7. However, in the example below, this formula is expressed as 1-♭3-4-5-♭7. In this case, the ♭3 reminds us we are dealing with a minor 3rd interval. Likewise, the♭7 represents a minor 7th interval. Additionally, the formula 1-♭3-4-5-♭7 allows you to construct a minor pentatonic scale with reference to a major scale, which is faster for most students. In fact, the example below also presents the natural minor scale in this manner: 1-2-♭3-4-5-♭6-♭7. In other words, the F natural minor scale can be constructed by lowering the 3rd, 6th and 7th tones of the F major scale. Alternatively, you can build an F natural minor scale by starting on the 6th tone of its relative—A♭ major. (Check out All Major and Minor Scales Reference for a list of all relative scales.)
[Tap or click on each keyboard below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]
The scale examples in this section illustrate an important point. Did you notice that the A♭ major pentatonic scale and the F minor pentatonic scale contain the exact same notes? In addition, the same notes have been removed in both examples: G and D♭. So which is it…A♭ major pentatonic or F minor pentatonic? The answer is…“yes!” This is because A♭ major pentatonic and F minor pentatonic are two versions of the same anhemitoic pentatonic scale beginning on different starting notes.
Now, let’s examine two neo soul chord progressions that we’ll use to practice piano improv with the pentatonic scale. Each progression features prominent use of minor 7th chords and major 7th chords. These are the two most common chord types found in neo soul music.
Extended Neo Soul Chord Progression
Our first progression features hip harmonic movement loaded with chromaticism, including secondary dominants, tritone substitution and modal mixture. As a result, this progression is somewhat ambiguous as to whether it is in F minor, or it’s relative, A♭ major. Since it centers around F minor, this is certainly one way to interpret it. Let’s take a listen:
One weakness of an analysis in F minor is that the final chord, G♭▵7(♯11), is hard to account for in F minor. It would have to be a ♭II▵7, borrowed from F Phrygian 😳. Since this chord is a ½ step above Fm11, it sounds natural sliding down to F minor. This sort of “slide stepping” is common in contemporary styles.
On the other hand, an analysis in A♭ major fits well. In this case, the G♭▵7(♯11) is the ♭VII▵7 borrowed from A♭ Mixolydian. This is a more common example of modal mixture.
Sometimes, we can only definitively assert whether a piece is in a major key or its relative minor by where it concludes at the final cadence. Since this progression is only an excerpt, we simply speak of it as A♭ major/F minor.
Simple Neo Soul Progression
In today’s lesson, John also demonstrates several improv techniques over a simple neo soul chord progression with two chords: Fm7 to G♭▵7. This progression also sounds hip and is perfect for beginner students who want to explore neo soul piano improv with the pentatonic scale.
Piano Improv with Pentatonic Scales
The pentatonic scale (major or minor) is great for piano students exploring improv because it does not contain any weak tones (aka “avoid notes”). Each note of the major pentatonic scale forms consonant intervals with a major chord built on the same root (ie: A♭ major pentatonic over A♭ major 6). Likewise, each note of the minor pentatonic scale works over a minor 7th chord build on the same root (ie: F minor pentatonic over Fm7).
Did you notice in both examples above that 4 of the 5 pentatonic scale tones are chord tones (Root, 3rd, 5th, 6th/7th)? For example, in A♭ major pentatonic, the notes A♭, C , E♭ and F are chord tones of A♭6. The only other note, B♭, is a chord extension. The same is true of F minor pentatonic and Fm7.
In the next section, we’ll discover that this pentatonic scale also has a unique capacity to work with chords built on other roots!
Neo Soul Pentatonic Improv
Check out what happens when we overlay the F minor pentatonic scale on our simple neo soul chord progression. Instead of using G♭ major pentatonic on G♭▵7, we can actually keep F minor pentatonic. This works because each note of F minor pentatonic is either a chord tone, an available extension (9, 13), or an available alteration (#11) of G♭▵7. The following diagram illustrates this concept.
In fact, we can even use F minor pentatonic over our entire extended neo soul chord progression! Check it out:
Isn’t that amazing that despite all the harmonic chromaticism in this chord progression, you can still use one improv scale?
Now, let’s take a minute to work out some chord voicings for the left hand while improvising.
Left Hand Rootless Voicings
The following example features rootless voicings in the right hand over a sample bass line in the left hand. This is provided for harmonic context, so you can hear and play the voicings as intended. However, when you are ready to solo, simply transfer the rootless voicings to your left hand and allow the backing track or bass player to carry the roots.
Now, let’s explore some improv techniques with the pentatonic scale that you can use to create a tasteful neo soul piano solo.
Pattern 1: Repeated Partial Scale Approach
This first example is a riff-based pattern that only draws on the first 3 notes of F minor pentatonic—F, A♭ and B♭. We call this the repeated partial scale approach.
Pattern 2: Rearranging Notes by Skips
Our next example rearranges the notes of the pentatonic scale in a pattern containing skips. The pattern is difficult to see at first. However, if you examine the melodic movement starting on the 3rd note (C), the pattern becomes clear. Specifically, it is a 4-note descending pentatonic line: step down 1 scale tone (C to B♭), skip down 1 scale tone (B♭ to F), step down 1 scale tone (F to E♭), skip up 1 scale tone (E♭ to A♭). Then, repeat the pattern with the last note becoming the first note of the next descending line.
Pattern 3: Quartal Shapes
Our final pattern involves the quartal shape C-F-B♭ and its inversions: F-B♭-C and B♭-C-F. You might also think of these notes as an F(sus4) or a B♭(sus2) shape.
Nice work! Now, let’s play some pentatonic improv examples over our extended neo soul chord progression.
This section is laid out in a “trading” format. Trading is a ensemble improvisation technique in which two or more players take turns improvising over a fixed number of measures, usually two or four bars.
John starts the first trading example with a line that combines patterns 1 and 2 from the previous section:
This trading example is created entirely from adjacent pentatonic scale tones and sounds fantastic:
Our third trading example uses the rearranging notes by skips technique demonstrated in the previous section:
Our final example is based on a figure that descends down all 5 adjacent notes of the pentatonic scale using a hip 16th note triplet figure, followed by an upward skip and then a down 1 scale tone in the opposite direction.
As you can see, these pentatonic improv lines sound great, and they really don’t need to be complicated. In fact, we have seen some examples in which the notes of the pentatonic scale sound hip even when used in sequential ascending or descending order.
It is worth mentioning that John’s use of rhythm in these examples is particularly clever. He often introduces a short rhythmic idea and then repeats it. However, instead of using exact repetition, John is using a technique called rhythmic displacement in which the repeated rhythm enters on a different beat. This results in phrasing that is inherently catchy, similar to rap lyrics.
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s Quick Tip on Neo Soul Piano Improv with the Pentatonic Scale. In the process, you’ve learned how to simplify your approach to improvisation by drawing on a single scale that works over seven different chords! How’s that for a universal scale?
If you enjoyed this lesson, they you’ll love the following resources:
- Scales for Improv on Major and Minor Chords (Level 1–2)
- 4 Steps to Play Neo Soul Chords on Piano (Level 2)
- 3 Steps to Play Piano Chord Clusters (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Major 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2)
- Major 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Minor 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2)
- Minor 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Play Contemporary Gospel and R&B Piano in 3 Steps (Levels 2 & 3)
- Play R&B Piano With Only 3 Chords (Level 2)
- Funk & Smooth Jazz Grooves & Licks (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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