Is the pentatonic scale universal? Reflections on Bobby McFerrin's Demo of "The Power of The Pentatonic Scale"

Virtuosic vocal improviser Bobby McFerrin "demonstrates the power of the pentatonic scale" at the World Science Festival in June 2009. He spoke on a panel called "Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus."

McFerrin gives the audience visual cues to construct a pentatonic scale. He said at the end of the demo that this exercise has worked for audiences in any part of the world. I'm a little skeptical of the universality of this scale. In fact, there are multiple pentatonic scales. What he demonstrates here is the major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scale as a term is a European construction of scales that 5 tones. Also known as the 'gapped scale,' a pentatonic scale sounds different from the major and minor scales in most western classical music. Over time, this difference became associated with other differences culturally and socially defined: nationality, class, geography, phenotype, etc. For instance, in the early part of 20th century, Hollywood film music constructed an Orientalist sound based on a pentatonic scale and syncopation for the purpose of depicting non-western or "Asian" characters and setting.

I assume that this particular pentatonic scale demonstrated by McFerrin has gone around the world probably due to its application in recorded music, particular recordings made by US artists. Maybe this has something to do with these audiences being a McFerrin-identified audience. In that case, they could well be familiar with the US or western notions of "the pentatonic scale."

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