The Pentatonic Scale: The Secret to Improv Success

pentatonic improv

Imagine a collection of five notes that would sound good regardless of when or how you played them. Such a thing exists. It is called the pentatonic scale and it is one of the great secrets of improvisation. Creative musicians around the world, playing in many different styles, rely on these notes as a basis for their improvisations. The reason is simple: with no half steps to create dissonance, the pentatonic scale sounds good over any chord progression that stays in one key.

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Pentatonic Scale Formula:

Scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6

The pentatonic scale is similar to a major scale except that the 4th and 7th scale degrees are omitted


Here are two easy chord progressions to play with your left hand while your right hand improvises using the C Major pentatonic scale.



  • Be sure to mix up the notes in the pentatonic scale. Play them in any order.
  • A steady beat is essential. Use a drum machine or app such as iRealPro
    to keep you on track.
  • Vary your rhythms by using combinations of half, quarter, and eighth notes.
  • It is not necessary to fill all the empty space in an improvisation. Less is
    more sometimes.
  • Articulations and dynamics add sophistication to your improvisations.
  • Don’t stop and don’t judge. Keep exploring until you discover licks you like.

Bradley Sowash is a composer, creative pianist, multi-instrumentalist, recording artist, author, and educator specializing in improvisation. He is the co-founder of 88 Creative Keys improvisation camps for piano students and teachers and his best-selling keyboard improvisation books are published by the Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Learn more at

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