Applying Bobby’s Pentatonic Insight

Have you seen this short video from the World Science Festival?

In it, Bobby McFerrin demonstrates that the pentatonic scale is truly hardwired into our brains.

In helping some students practice sight reading recently, I discovered that his insight has an important practical application.

When our anxiety is high, we’re going to revert to the core of our personality (that’s adrenaline inducing the fight or flight mentality). What that means, in singers, is a pentatonic scale.

So when students are doing a sight reading audition, their conscious mind is likely to be overridden by this deep knowledge in two very specific situations: scalar descending lines including Fa and Ti.

Specifically, on descending lines, the anxious singer will sing pentatonic notes instead of diatonic. I repeatedly heard students sing the word Fa (diatonic) and the tone Mi (pentatonic) when descending from Sol. When descending from Do, they are likely to say Ti and sing La.

Knowledge is power, of course, so it’s our job to point out these danger spots and drill them so our students can succeed. Knowing that it’s not just a “dumb mistake” but a reflection of a deep intuitive musicality will go a long way toward empowering students.