The Pentatonic Scale

Irony: Recent research proves that music education improves the brain’s preparedness for all education because it makes both sides of the brain work together.  Learning to play a musical instrument further enhances brain activity, creating neural pathways across the corpus collosum, the bundle of neurons that connect both halves of the brain.  It’s been said that this is the type of “both sides of the brain” thinking that will be necessary to solve the problems students will encounter when they enter the workplace of the 21st century.  Yet, what are schools today doing?  School boards cut budgets, and continue to drop music and other arts programs in favor of more rigorous academic achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, and social studies. Because the United States no longer sits atop the lists of student achievement ranked by nation, it’s thought that a renewed focus on the basics will bring about an increase in those academic standards to elevate the United States in the rankings again.  Apparently no one told our academic experts about the Suzuki method of music training, and how young children “experience” music in much the same way they learn language by experience.  (Visit to read more about the Suzuki method of music instruction.)

The other thought is that students need to be educated in order to be able to collaborate globally, and so academics must receive priority over activities and programs that focus on the arts to allow students in this country to achieve on a par with learners in other countries.  Those thoughts would also be incorrect.  As an example, students from all over the world come to American universities to attain their degrees.  Many of those students learn to play a musical instrument or two (or three) when they’re young, which forms the foundation for the brain to be receptive to school-delivered curriculum.

The problem with competing with the “rest of the world” is and “setting core standards” is rooted in the educational philosophy of this country.  The United States is unique in that every child is expected to receive an education. In other countries, only those students with scholastic aptitude get to go to school, while those that may have difficulties in the classroom do not. Such practices skew the results.

However, if we’re trying to communicate with the rest of the world, one key way to do that is through music. Music not only helps both the left and right brain function simultaneously, balancing logic and structure with creativity and artistry, but certain musical structures can be found in the repertoire of many cultures, including Suzuki’s Japanese ancestry. One of those structures is the Pentatonic Scale.

The Pentatonic Scale is an excellent example of a system, because the tones work together to create songs. The structure of the scale, however, is consistent. For instance, 8 particular tones make up major scale, with the eighth tone of the scale having the same letter designation as the first tone of the scale, except that it’s an octave higher. You may know the tones of the scale with numbers, letters or by names which were derived from the Latin text of a hymn to St. John. The names were made famous in the movie, “The Sound of Music,” where Maria taught the von Trapp children to sing using the syllables, “Do, Re, Mi.”  (If you’d like to read more about the origin of the names, and how they were used to teach tone recognition and sight-singing, check out

If you’re familiar with the song, then take five of those tones – Do, Re, Mi, Sol and La – to create The Pentatonic Scale. It is this scale – these five tones – that can be found in our culture’s music as well as cultures around the world. It makes sense, then, that such a device may enable us to communicate across language barriers and establish common ground. When you consider that the study of music is being curtailed in many schools across our nation, it can be argued we’re eliminating something that could actually promote global understanding and exemplar academic achievement.

Here’s a great video by Grammy-award winner Bobby McFerrin at the World Science Festival in 2009 demonstrating the power of expectation, and how deeply this musical construct is ingrained in our being:

5 notes.  A perfect system.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2018