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Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Fri Aug 10, 2018 12:14 am
by oldstudent
There is a lot to say about pentantonic tunings. These are harmonica tunings in which the blow notes form a pentatonic scale and the draw notes also form a pentatonic scale. This is the first part of a four-part introduction to pentatonic tunings.

In 2007, Andy Newton discovered one important pentatonic tuning, which he called fourkey tuning, and I have been regularly playing Newton fourkey harmonicas since 2009. But the best way to understand pentatonic tunings is to begin with pentabender tuning, which I discovered only in 2014, and which IaNerd independently discovered and wrote about in this Forum just a few years later.

Although pentabender tuning does not seem to have been discovered until late in the history of harmonicas, it actually is a very natural idea. To explain why it is so natural, let me offer here a short list of desirable properties that we might want a harmonica to satisfy:
1. The notes should always get higher as we move from blow to draw within each hole, and the notes should never get lower as we move between holes from left to right (so no back and forth).
2. In each octave, the blow and draw notes should include all seven notes of a major scale but no other notes (so you can easily play tunes that stay “in key” and you don’t have to worry about accidentally playing something out of the key).
3. The other five notes of the chromatic scale should all be playable as draw bends (so no need for overblowing).

People who are buying their first diatonic harmonica might often believe that it has these three properties: that a “C” diatonic harmonic would have, within its range, reeds to play all the white notes of the piano and only the white notes, and that all the black notes in this range could be played by the technique called bending. Of course, the standard diatonic harmonica (Richter tuning) does not actually have these properties, but we can ask what kinds of harmonicas do.

The answer is that only one tuning satisfies all three of these properties, and it is called pentabender tuning. For example, here is the layout of a 10-hole pentabender harmonica on which one can play without bending the C major scale (the white notes of the piano):
(Here I use the convention of listing, for each hole, the blow note on the left and the draw note on the right, with periods marking the boundaries between holes.)

In this layout, each black key of the chromatic scale is playable as a draw bend in a hole where the blow note is the next lower white note (a semitone down from the black note) and the draw note is the next higher white note. Thus, a simple draw bend yields C# in hole 1 (with CD), Eb in hole 2 (with DE), F# in hole 3 (with FG), Ab in hole 4 (with GA), and Bb in hole 5 (with AB).

Remarkably, there is no other way to achieve the three desirable properties that we listed above. To get to every black note as a draw bend, while covering exactly the white notes with our straight blow and straight draw notes, each black note must be the unique draw bend in a hole that contains the two adjacent white notes of the piano. But recall that the black notes of the piano form a pentatonic scale, namely the F# major pentatonic scale. So our blow notes, which correspond to the adjacent white notes to the left of our black notes on the piano (one semitone down), form an F major pentatonic scale (F,G,A,C,D). Similarly our draw notes, which correspond to the adjacent white notes to the right of our black notes on the piano (one semitone up), form a G major pentatonic scale (G,A,B,D,E). Thus, we have a pentatonic harmonica, which needs five holes to cover each octave.

Pat Missin has accumulated a huge catalogue of harmonica tunings that people have suggested over the years.
The vast majority of these tunings were motivated by the desire to play some nice chords, and almost all of them use three or four holes per octave. But when we start asking for good melodic properties (play all the white notes of the piano without bending, play all the black notes with bending), then we find that we need five holes per octave, and, instead of nice chords, the notes in each breath direction form a pentatonic scale. That is, we get harmonicas with pentatonic tunings.

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Fri Aug 10, 2018 1:25 pm
by oldstudent
Before I try to explain fourkey tuning, let's look again at the basic layout that I described yesterday for a 10-hole C pentabender harmonica. I started the layout at the low end with the note C as the hole-1 blow note:
The range is just under two octaves, from a low C note to a high B note.

But notice also that the pentabender tuning has three notes that are available enharmonically as both a blow and a draw note in each octave: D, G, and A. This happens because the F major pentatonic scale (in the blows) and the G major pentatonic scale (in the draws) overlap, and both include these three notes.

Now if we start the layout for a 10-hole pentabender with one of these three enharmonic notes as the low blow note in hole 1, then we will get a wider range, with 2 full octaves in our 10-hole instrument. To be specific, let's start at the low end with D as the hole-1 blow note. Then our 10-hole pentabender (which still plays the C major scale without bends) becomes:
The range is now two full octaves, from a low D note on the left to a high D note (two octaves higher) on the right.

We could get the same full two-octave range by starting with D or G or A as our blow note. I have thought a lot about each of these options, but I am probably writing too much here, and so let me just say that the option that I'd recommend is this one that starts with D as the low note in hole 1. To keep things from getting too long, let me offer just one reason for this choice.

As we noted, the pentabender harmonica is built around the F major pentatonic scale in the blows and the G major pentatonic scale in the draws. But the notes of the F major pentatonic scale are also the notes of the D minor pentatonic scale. Similarly, the G major pentatonic scale has the same notes as the E minor pentatonic scale. Thus, in my recommended layout for the 10-hole pentabender, which plays the C major scale without bends, the blow notes form a D minor pentatonic scale, starting from the root in hole 1; and the draw notes similarly form an E minor pentatonic scale, starting from the root in hole 1. Indeed, if we play the low notes starting in hole 1 and then add the high hole-10 draw at the end, then we have two full octaves, root to root, of the D minor pentatonic scale in our 10-hole pentabender harmonica:

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Fri Aug 10, 2018 2:59 pm
by oldstudent
OK, now (in part 3) we can say something about fourkey tuning.

Back in 2007, Andy Newton didn't consider the possibility of repeating notes enharmonically. He implicitly assumed that each note would appear just once. But his desirable properties included a weaker version of our property #2 above: He only asked that the blow and draw notes should include all seven notes of at least one major scale. He allowed that other notes outside the scale might also be included.

From this perspective, look again at the 10-hole pentabender harmonica that I introduced above:
Maybe you think it seems wasteful to invest two reeds in those enharmonic notes. In each enharmonic pair, by lowering the draw note down a semitone or by raising the blow note up a semitone, we could make one additional note available without bending. Let's say that we like having the D minor pentatonic scale on the blow notes, so we will leave them alone. Then by lowering each enharmonically redundant draw note down a semitone, we get:

This is a fourkey harmonica, and it plays the major keys of C, G, D, and A, all without bending. Only two notes of the chromatic scale are missing from this layout, Bb and Eb, and both are available as simple draw bends. Indeed, this is the exact layout of the 10-hole fourkey harmonicas that I have been playing since 2009. It's a great tuning.

In this layout, however, we've actually deviated from Andy Newton's fourkey pattern in the hole-10 draw, where we didn't adjust the D draw note because the corresponding D blow note was missing off the right end of the instrument. In a 12-hole harmonica, we would lower this D note to a C#, just as in hole 5, to get the fourkey layout:

In each octave of this fourkey layout, the draw notes form an E-major pentatonic scale (E,F#,G#,B,C#), which is equivalent to a C#-minor pentatonic scale. So Andy Newton's fourkey tuning is also a pentatonic tuning, where the blow and draw notes each form a pentatonic scale.

In our pentabender harmonica, the blow and draw notes formed F major and G major pentatonic scales, and the harmonica played the C major scale without bending. In the circle of fifths, C is the note between F and G. Now in our fourkey harmonica, the blow and draw notes form F major (=D minor) and E major pentatonic scales, and this harmonica can play the C, G, D, and A major scales without bending. In the circle of fifths, the notes between F and E are C, G, D, and A. By changing the angle (in the circle of fifths) between our blow and draw pentatonic scales, we have changed the number of keys that we can play from 1 to 4. This suggests that there are other pentatonic tunings with 2 or 3 keys that might also be worth considering. I will talk about this later.

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Fri Aug 10, 2018 9:19 pm
by oldstudent
Last time, we saw that pentatonic tunings can allow you to play anywhere from one to four major keys without bending, where the number of such keys depends on how far apart the two pentatonic scales are in the circle of fifths. Let me now display layouts for the four types of pentatonic-tunings that all satisfy Andy Newton's desirable properties, with the number of enharmonics decreasing as the number of bendlessly playable major keys increases. In each case, I will display a layout for a 10-hole harmonica where the blow notes form two octaves of the D minor pentatonic scale, which is equivalent to the F major pentatonic scale (same notes).
(Note: In the three-key and four-key tunings, the hole-10 draw note would change from D to C#, like the hole-5 draw note, if we had more than 10 holes in the instrument.)

One-key "Pentabender" tuning (plays C major scale without bends; has F major pentatonic in blows, G major pentatonic in draws):

Two-key "Pentablues" tuning (plays C and G major scales without bends; has F major pentatonic in blows, D major pentatonic in draws):

Three-key tuning (plays C, G, and D major scales without bends; has F major pentatonic in blows, A major pentatonic in draws):

Four-key tuning (plays C, G, D, and A major scales without bends; has F major pentatonic in blows, E major pentatonic in draws):

Having more keys means having more notes, which means that more complex tunes can be played without bending. But less bending means less of the bluesy sound that people often enjoy hearing from little diatonic harmonicas. So after playing fourkey harmonicas for almost a decade, I began to explore the other end of this list, in hope of getting a more interesting sound. Having fewer keys also means having more enharmonics which allow creative optimization of breath changes, and it also means having fewer potential "wrong" notes outside the key that you are playing in.

I played the one-key pentabender tuning for a couple of months this year, and I found that I could indeed play most of the complex melodies that I'd played on the fourkey, and in many cases the extra bends sounded good. But the biggest problem was the range of the instrument, which begins to seem narrow when you have five holes per octave, so that we have just two octaves in a ten-hole instrument.

The evident narrowness of the range here can be less of a problem than you might think. Melodies commonly have a range of about 1.5 octaves (corresponding to common limitations of people's vocal ranges), but if the low note of the melody is incompatible with the low note of our instrument in the key that we want to play then we could have up to half an octave that runs off the top or bottom of the instrument. That, I found, is a common problem when we have only one good key, as is true in the one-key pentabender when we want to avoid bends. However, once we go to the pentatonic tunings that have two or more good keys, then we generally have a choice of two keys that differ by a fifth (roughly half of an octave), and so the problem of fitting a tune into the range of our two-octave instrument generally has a comfortable solution in one good key or another.

So this summer I have been seriously playing the two-key pentatonic harmonica described above. When it is played in either of its two good (bendless) keys, there is only one unbent note outside the intended key, so the "wrong note" problem is minimal. (In the well-centered 2nd position, which is G in the two-key layout above, you actually might not consider any unbent notes to be "wrong," because the extra note outside the major scale is the flatted 7th, which is included in the bebop scale for this position.) Having a choice of good keys has meant that, when transposed to one good key or the other, any tune that I've wanted to play has fit comfortably in the fixed range of this ten-hole instrument, with as most minimal editing at one end.

But the two-key pentatonic harmonica has another remarkable property that makes this tuning particularly interesting. The blow notes form a minor pentatonic scale in the same key as the major pentatonic scale of the draw notes. In the two-key layout shown above, the blow notes form two octaves of the D minor pentatonic scale (when we add the high D draw in hole 10), while the draw notes give us two octaves of the D major pentatonic scale (when we add the low D blow note in hole 1). Thus, a combination of minor and major, which is characteristic of the blues, is built into the very structure of this two-key pentatonic tuning. That is why I have suggested that it might be called "pentablues" tuning.

Here the key of D could be considered as the third position in this two-key pentablues tuning (where C and G are the major scales that can be played without bends). In third position of this tuning, a full seven-note major scale can be played with just one bend note, the major 7th (here C#). A full seven-note minor scale in third position also requires just one bend note, the minor 6th (here Bb). In each of these scales, these are good notes to have as bluesy bends. The enharmonic pairs in this tuning are at the root and fifth in third position, just where you'd most want them.

So this tuning seems to have enormous potential, which I have just begun to explore. I have bought several two-key pentablues harmonicas in various keys from Seydel, using their online Configurator, and I will be playing them at SPAH 2018 this month.

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Sat Aug 11, 2018 4:18 pm
by CrawfordEs
Great information. Thank you.
Lots of things to try here!
I might have to break out my file and soldering iron and give a pentablues harp a try.
I wish I could go to SPAH and listen to you and Jazzmaan play your pentatunings and get some advice.
And see Brendan, and,....
Maybe some year...
August is a busy time with fieldwork, and annual report deadlines, and everything else I might just have to wait until I retire.

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Mon Aug 13, 2018 5:07 pm
by jazmaan
What an excellent summary of pentatonic tunings! Roger has explained it all. Looking forward to hearing the tunings demonstrated at SPAH 2018 tomorrow!

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Mon Aug 13, 2018 9:08 pm
by triona
This is very interesting indeed. Thank you for sharing.
oldstudent wrote:
Fri Aug 10, 2018 9:19 pm
One-key "Pentabender" tuning (plays C major scale without bends; has F major pentatonic in blows, G major pentatonic in draws):
There are quite a lot of enharmonics with plain breath - i.e. without bending - as blow and draw situated in channels beside each other. Maybe this could help to achieve a true bordune (= drone) when played with a properly constant breath for legato from blow to draw - in polyphonic full range chord style with broad mouth tongue block. (I hope it is not too crude to understand. For an imagination of what I mean see my youtube channel indicated in my signature below. But there are no bordunes to hear yet.)

Maybe this might not be intended by the inventors of these tunings. And I know that it is crazy too. Maybe I better should learn to play my bagpipes. :) But I am working and experimenting with the bordune on the harmonica for years. The closest I achieved up till now is using octave tuned harmonicas, either type Knittlinger (f.expl. Seydel Concerto, Hohner Auto Valve seems to be another one which I never had a chance to play) or Viennese (f.expl. Seydel Club Steel or Hohner "Unsere Lieblinge"). A try with this One-key Pentabender or something alike might be worthwhile.

dear greetings

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Sun Aug 19, 2018 11:54 pm
by oldstudent
Thanks for the comments, CrawfordEs, Jazmaan, and Triona!
I played harmonicas with several different pentatonic tunings at SPAH, and I discussed them with some great harmonica players there. I particularly appreciated the opportunity to talk with Brendan Power. All these interactions were very helpful for me. Here are the main points that I learned at SPAH:

(1) If there is any pentatonic tuning that leading harmonica players might be ready to consider, it would be the simple one-key pentabender. People are familiar with diatonic harmonicas that have blow and draw notes only within one seven-note major scale, and they can appreciate the potential advantages of getting all of the other five chromatic notes as bend notes. But when I tried to describe other pentatonic tunings that add more straight notes to reduce the number of required bends, people at SPAH generally reacted as if this sounded like a confusing and unnecessary complication.

(2) Among the various pentatonic tunings that I have discussed here, the one that I am least ready to demonstrate to others is the one-key pentabender, because it can require so many bend notes. I originally began to think about altered tunings because I was not good at bending, and my bends are still not so great. So you might not want to hear me play on a tuning that has the most bend notes.

(3) However, when it comes to playing simple tunes that stay in one major key, I found that there is nothing better than a pentabender. I spent a lot of good time jamming with people at SPAH. I found that improvising an accompaniment to a simple tune is easiest on the one-key pentabender (when it's in the right key for the tune). The two-key pentablues harmonica was also good for improvisational jamming on simple tunes, but pentabender was best. No matter what straight note you play on a pentabender, you are always in the right key; and you can shift between blows and draws depending on what chord the guitarist is playing (draws for the V and iii chords, blows for the IV and ii chords). And if the tune turns out to not be completely simple, so that you have to play a sharp or flat note somewhere, it is always available as a bend note.
However, the range limitations of the one-key pentabender (which has only one good position for playing a simple tune without bending) was a problem on my 10-hole pentabenders, as I sometimes found myself wanting to play above the high end of the instrument. So after SPAH, I ordered a couple of 12-hole pentabenders from Seydel.

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Wed Sep 05, 2018 5:18 am
by Brendan
Out of interest: If you want all chromatic notes without bends, why not play a chromatic harmonica?

Re: Pentatonic tunings

Posted: Wed Sep 05, 2018 7:46 am
by IaNerd
My aforementioned post began with:

"NAME: "Black badge tuning". (Can you see why?)"

It is because the five draw notes--which can be draw-bent to their flat "black note" accidentals--are D, E, G, A and B. Therefore, the black/flatted draw bends of (rearranged) BADGE. Or simply "Black badge".

For sure, "Pentabender" came earlier and is a more openly descriptive name.