Skip to content

Pentatonic in Film Music

The pentatonic scale consists of five different tones (Penta – from the Greek for five). Within the pentatonic scale, a distinction is made between the hemitonic and the anhemitonic scales. The hemitonic five-tone scale allows intervals in semitone steps and in the anhemitonic scale, the tone sequence consists of whole tone intervals. The pentatonic scale is one of the oldest scales in the world. It has been around since 3000 BC. The limited number of notes is one of the reasons why the pentatonic scale is so easy to remember – you can sing along immediately without having any special knowledge of music, and it is even very popular for children’s songs. It is also interesting to note, that it was not until the end of the 19th century that the pentatonic scale was slowly (re)discovered by European art music, although it already existed in many children’s songs at that time. This may have been because it was considered as “too simple music” for the common people. By the way, the black keys on the piano provide a nice example – consisting of a group of two and three adjacent (black) keys. They together form the pentatonic scale. 

The pentatonic scale originated in Mesopotamia. Worldwide it can still be found today in many traditional folk music of various peoples in Africa, the American continent, Asia, but also in Europe. Today, the pentatonic is firmly anchored in Western music. In particular in jazz and blues it is often used, it is also very popular in classical music. Since the end of the 19th century, almost all great composers have written at least one piece in the pentatonic scale, and today, it can still be found in contemporary classical music, as well as in rock and pop. Also worth mentioning is the use of the pentatonic scale in music therapy. 

Why not use pentatonic in film music as well?

As an excellent and very successful example regarding pentatonic in film music, I took a piece written by Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1983 for the Japanese film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” by director Nagis Oshima. The movie is a cult film by itself with a great cast like David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto himself, the famous Takeshi Kitano, etc. The film’s theme song becomes a catchy tune as soon as you hear it. Listen to an excerpt of the melody here:

But why has a film about World War II in Japan become a cult – partly because of its film music? Why is this theme tune in its simplicity still so popular after such a long time? Here’s a little analysis: if we take a close look at the first four measures of this famous melody, we will notice that only the first three measures were played in the pentatonic scale and that there is a small breakout in the fourth measure – it changes from the pentatonic scale to the natural minor scale, which is common Western classical music. This “break” from the traditional pentatonic scale embodies exactly this kind of fusion of different worlds and different cultures, reflected in the film: ancient traditions of Japan colliding with Western culture. Or expressed by the film’s plot: a Japanese and an English soldier confess forbidden love for each other. Sakamoto himself mentions this in his interview in the book “Screencraft: Film Music” by M. Russel and J.Young: “I wanted to write music that sometimes sounded oriental to the listener from the West as well as from the East – something in the middle. I wanted to be in between.” For more than 35 years, Sakamoto’s music from the film has been popular and known worldwide – he himself still plays this song at almost all of his solo concerts.

I firmly believe, that every composer can learn from this simple, yet impressive example.