Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale

  1. Aug 12, 2009 #1
    http://www.boingboing.net/2009/08/01/bobby-mcferrin-hacks.html" [Broken]

    Many of the comments below the video and on other websites point out that it is pretty incredible that the audience knows the pentatonic scale and easily follows what McFerrin wants them to do. McFerrin, at the end of the video, comments that no matter where he goes in the world, every culture can follow the scale just as well as the audience in the video: I'm not so convinced it is instinctive or embedded in us in some way as he seems to imply.

    If you watch closely at the beginning of the video, you will see that McFerrin doesn't give the audience just one note to repeat (and the audience intuitively follows), but he gives a second note as well. This suggests to me that he set up a pattern any human capable of seeing a pattern could get, and had he chose the Chromatic scale or some other scale and demonstrated the first two notes, the audience would be able to follow that scale as well -- that is to say there is nothing special about the Pentatonic scale as shown in this demonstration.

    As an analogy, if I count 1, 2, 3, ..., and ask you for the next number, you would intuitively say 4 and continue counting in that fashion if I asked you to do so -- but the same could be done for the even numbers, odd numbers, prime numbers, etc. The choice of the natural numbers as my analogous 'scale' is as arbitrary for my math sequence as for musical scales.

    This is not to say cultural and other factors don't influence us into thinking the Pentatonic scale is somehow 'special'. One has only to look at the arbitrary number of degrees in a circle to see that this is so -- but I'm only arguing against this specific demonstration as evidence of that there is something special about the Pentatonic scale when I have a plausible alternative explanation for why the audience followed the pattern.

    In any case it is a neat demonstration (one, to the consternation of my other house guests, I participated in with the video audience).

    What do you think? Am I right? Wrong? The sexiest man alive?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 12, 2009 #2
  4. Aug 12, 2009 #3
  5. Aug 12, 2009 #4
    i don't know if i would buy a similar analogy. i don't think it's a simple matter of cognitive processes. it's a sense, and therefore may be more like experiencing color. i bet most every culture gets red/yellow/green/blue, too.
  6. Aug 12, 2009 #5
    I'm not sure what you mean. Could you expound on your statements a bit?

    Humans are pattern finding creatures, and we find patterns within music, math, drum beats, shapes, etc, and virtually all activities. McFerrin (and anyway many of the people who watched the video) probably thinks the Pentatonic scale transcends most human biases as shown by the demonstration, and perhaps is the preferred scale: I'm pointing out this is not necessarily true.
  7. Aug 12, 2009 #6
    what i mean is that we experience some things the same because we have the same hardware in our sensory systems. for instance, we have rods in our eyes, and usually three cones (RGB). although a few people are color blind, and some females have four cones, we mostly experience color the same way. it's firstly a matter of physics/chemistry. i don't see why aural perception cannot be the same way. the mcferrin example seems to be more frequency- than pattern-centered.
  8. Aug 12, 2009 #7


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I wouldn't be suprised, honestly. IIRC the pentatonic scale is the first five notes of the harmonic series. The harmonic series is integral in physically understanding what we like about music.

    For instance, if you play an open string on a guitar, we call that note the fundamental. Then if you go up half the string and play a note there, you will playing the octave.

    it goes on:

    1: fundamental
    1/2: octave
    1/3: the fifth
    (1/4 is just another octave. it's 1/2 of 1/2, so it's two octaves up from the fundamental)
    1/5: the fourth

    Almost all musical structure (especially in the west) is based around I-IV-V. It's popular because it's very symmetric, physically. It's integer divisions of the string... the harmonics.

    The pentatonic scale includes the fundamental, the fourth, the fifth, and two other notes. I wouldn't be surprised if they happened to be 1/7 and 1/11 (the next non-degenerate set in the harmonic series)

    So my assumption is that because humans love symmetry so much, this tonal progression is much more natural to them.

    The major and minor scales by the way, are just higher orders of the harmonic series. It's neat... because it means that every time you play a note, all the other notes are there (in the harmonics) just at lower amplitudes than the fundamental.

    well... frequency is tool for analyzing patterns, really. So I'd say it's still pattern-oriented. Semantically, frequency is a concept in pattern analysis.
  9. Aug 13, 2009 #8

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Very cool!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  10. Aug 13, 2009 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Indeed. I really liked the sound of it, as well as the apparent psychological empathy of the audience.
  11. Aug 14, 2009 #10


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I have to correct myself after refreshing from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmonic_series_(music)#Harmonics_and_tuning

    I changed them both to reflect that the perfect fourth (a note in the pentatonic scale) is not one of the first five notes in the harmonic series like all the other notes of the pentatonic scale are.
  12. Jan 17, 2010 #11
    Hello everyone. As a musician and music educator I have to chime in on this thread. What makes Bobby so brilliant is that he understands how we understand music. Teachers of all disciplines can take a lesson from him.

    How we understand music is based on our culture and context, or what kind of music we've been exposed to. There is not just one pentatonic scale. It sounds different on an equal tempered instrument like piano than it would in the example given regarding pure tuning based on overtones.

    Getting back to context. Bobby teaches us the first two notes of the Major scale. As he jumps back and forth to those two notes, our western ears already have the context of the note that will come next, the major third. Then he teaches the audience the 6th, which again is easy to understand in that we are already familiar with it.

    At this point people jump to the conclusion that the scale itself has power or is expected. While this is true it is only part of the success of this demonstration. Bobby still provides the audience with context as they are singing. After the audience knows and sings the first 4 notes in the exercise, "do" "re" "mi" and "la," Bobby sings an improvisation over the audience's part which includes the only other note they will sing, the perfect 5th, "Sol." He also sings an interval with the audience, the audience on the 2nd and Bobby on the 5th, reinforcing that scale degree and the quality of the perfect 5th interval as 2 to 5 is the same quality as 5 to 1. What he does here is reinforces the CONTEXT. He teaches you the new note even though you don't realize it.

    The last thing to keep in mind is the kind of audience Bobby McFerrin draws. The audience would have included educated people both scientists who probably had quality education in youth that likely included exposure to music at young ages, and musicians who would pick it right up. Also, those that you hear singing would have been the most confident and secure singers in the audience, meaning if you got it you sang and if you didn't you watched.

    I reply not to take any of the magic out of this, but to demystify the topic. There is a scientific understanding here but it is not the scale we are studying, it is our understanding of the scale and the context through which we draw that understanding.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook