Pentatonic percussion

Group/individual composition and performance of pentatonic tunes on melodic percussion instruments.


9-10 lessons


Many cultures base their music on pentatonic scales. As part of a unit of instruments of the world, students research, compose, improvise and perform music based on pentatonic scales.


Group/individual composition and performance of pentatonic tunes on melodic percussion instruments. Instruments may include treble, alto or bass xylophones, glockenspiels or marimbas. This sequence can also be completed using keyboards.


Stage 4

A student:

  • 4.1 performs in a range of musical styles demonstrating an understanding of musical concepts
  • 4.2 performs music using different forms of notation and different types of technology across a broad range of musical styles
  • 4.3 performs music demonstrating solo and/or ensemble awareness
  • 4.4 demonstrates an understanding of musical concepts through exploring, experimenting, improvising, organising, arranging and composing
  • 4.5 notates compositions using traditional and/or non-traditional notation
  • 4.9 demonstrates musical literacy through the use of notation, terminology and the reading and interpreting of scores used in the music selected for study


Using available melodic percussion instruments (or keyboards if necessary), students will learn to compose, improvise and perform their own short tunes based on the C pentatonic scale. This task can utilise previously composed rhythmic ostinatos.

Further information on pentatonic scales can be found through the following links:

Cross-curriculum content and key competencies

  • Numeracy
  • Literacy
  • Difference and diversity (looking at different cultures that use these scales)


All activities require students to demonstrate their learning and are all assessment for learning activities.

Students will demonstrate

  • the ability to compose and notate their own pentatonic pieces,
  • ensemble awareness: the ability to maintain a steady tempo and improvise over a beat or rhythmic ostinato,
  • collaboration and communication with peers,
  • turn-taking
  • ability to interpret and follow a score.

Teaching and learning activities

Activity one

  • Use the Bobby McFerrin video (00:02:41) as an entry event. Students can engage in the viewing by singing along as McFerrin moves.
  • Draw a series of five large dots in the same pattern as the one below.
Five large dots grouped three space two
Image: Draw this pattern of dots
  • Point to the first dot of the series and sing a starting note. Have students repeat this note.
  • Students follow along and sing 'la' or the corresponding scale degree number (1, 2, 3, 5 or 6) as the teacher points to different dots (in much the same way as the audience followed and sang as Bobby McFerrin jumped to different 'notes').

Activity two

  • Divide the class into two teams. Have two large sets of five dots (the same pattern as above) marked on the ground.
  • One student from each team stands on the first dot on the left and a starting note is given (sung or played on an instrument).
  • As the teacher (slowly and steadily) plays or sings different notes of the pentatonic scale, students move to the corresponding dot. The first incorrect answer has that student replaced by the next person in their team.
  • The game is over when all students from one team have been used. The winning team is the one with the least number of incorrect moves.

Activity three

The following information can be explained to students.

In a 'normal' (diatonic) scale there are 7 notes (8, when the first note is repeated). Each note of a scale is in alphabetical order and is given a scale degree number from 1 to 8.

Normal examples

G Major scale

Treble clef with G Major scale written on the staff
Image: Example in G Major scale

D Major scale

Treble clef and D Major scale on the staff
Image: Example in D Major scale

In a pentatonic scale, only 5 notes are used. They are always scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, no matter what the first note is.

Pentatonic examples

In a G pentatonic scale, the 4th scale degree (C) and the 7th (F#) are removed. Only the remaining notes are used in a piece based on the G pentatonic.

Treble clef and pentatonic G scale shown on the staff
Image: Example of pentatonic G scale

In a D pentatonic scale, the 4th scale degree (G) and the 7th (C#) are removed.

Treble clef and pentatonic D scale on the staff
Image: Example of pentatonic D scale

Activity four

Students complete the Pentatonic worksheet (PDF 4.53MB) (or a similar teacher-devised worksheet).

Activity five

In pairs or small groups

  • discuss and write the meaning of pentatonic
  • research and document different cultures that use pentatonic scales

Activity six

  • Students write the notation for a C pentatonic scale of two octaves, on manuscript (staff), in pencil. Alternatively, the teacher can have these written on the board. This is the pentatonic scale to be used for the following composition, improvisation and performance tasks.
Treble clef and pentatonic C scale on the staff
Image: Example of pentatonic C scale
  • Students then draw the following treble clef, time signature and bar lines on staff in their book, in pencil.
Teble clef and 4x4 timing on an empty staff
Image: Example of treble clef and time signature
  • Above the staff, students can notate the two-bar ostinato they composed for the non-melodic percussion task. Alternatively, the teacher can write a two-bar rhythm on the board for the class to copy.
  • Students then copy their rhythm onto the staff, as notes of the C pentatonic scale.
    • Start and end on any C. Notes can be used in any order or repeated.
    • Try and move in steps (pitches close together) rather than leaps (pitches far apart), as this will sound nicer.
    • Ensure that the rhythm of the pitches on the staff matches the rhythm written above (including the addition of any rests).
    • The end result should look similar to below (with students? own rhythm and pitch).
Treble clef with 4x4 timing and showing rythm and pitch notation
Image: Rythm and pitch notation for pentatonic C scale
  • Students can then write the pitch name underneath each note.

Activity seven

Improvising means that the music is 'made up' on the spot. However, in order for it to sound good, guidelines are followed. In this case, students will improvise using the notes of the C pentatonic scale, in a time signature of 4/4.

  • Have students sit in pairs at glockenspiels or xylophones, in a circle on the floor. The teacher or any leftover students can sit in the middle with non-melodic percussion instruments. For example:
Groupings of students in pairs around the circle with left over students in the middle
Image: Seating example
  • Take the F and B bars off each melodic percussion instrument (this way students will always hit the 'right' notes).
  • As the teacher or students in the middle of the circle play a steady beat, those on the outside can take turns to improvise a two-bar melody. The aim being not to 'miss a beat' in between each turn.
  • This could be turned into a game and if a student misses their start, they are out.
  • One or more non-melodic percussion instruments then play a two-bar rhythm that melodic instruments can improvise over, in turn. The tempo must be steady and all instruments must play in time with each other. Highlight the importance of balance within an ensemble.

Activity eight

  • Create small ensembles around the room, consisting of one melodic and one or two non-melodic percussion instruments.
  • Students on non-melodic can play a regular, steady beat while the student on the melodic percussion can play their composition as an ostinato.
  • Students can then swap roles/instruments, each playing their own composition as an ostinato.
  • Combinations of this task could include
    • non-melodic percussion instruments playing the same rhythm as the pentatonic composition being played thus creating rhythmic unison
    • one playing the beat and the other non-melodic instrument playing the same rhythm as the melody being played
    • one beat, the rhythm of one composition and the melody of another, thus creating three different parts.

Activity nine

Literacy and numeracy

Students will:

  • understand note values and their groupings for composition
  • interpret and follow pitched notation on scores
  • follow a beat and given tempo (speed)
  • learn metalanguage:
    • pentatonic - 5 tones/pitches
    • scale - a sequence of notes in alphabetical order used as the basis for a piece of music
    • scale degree numbers - numbers assigned in numerical order to pitches in a scale
    • ostinato - a repeated pattern
    • improvise - 'made up' on the spot without prior preparation
    • ensemble - a small group of instruments
    • balance - instrument volume is matched or appropriate for its role (for example a solo instrument would be slightly louder than accompanying instruments)
    • dynamics - volume
    • rhythmic unison - all parts play exactly the same rhythm but different pitches.



Students could:

  • compose a melodic ostinato to accompany an improvised melody
  • compose extended compositions using a pentatonic scale in a different key
  • create complex ostinatos that include syncopation with rests and/or ties to accompany pentatonic compositions
  • create lyrics for the melodies of the pentatonic scores in the resources section and have someone in the group sing them.

Life skills

Life skills outcomes

A student:

  • LS 2 vocalise, sings or plays an instrument
  • LS 3 vocalises, sings or plays an instrument as part of a group
  • LS 5 experiments in organising musical sounds

Students could:

  • improvise using notes of the C pentatonic scale
  • play an individual part within a musical piece
  • reproduce a sound at determined intervals when playing in a group.


Formative feedback:

  • teacher observation of individual performance and group collaboration
  • monitoring of notation.

Summative feedback: activity eight or nine could be turned into a formal assessment task, where students also demonstrate performance and audience etiquette. Performances can be filmed for teacher, peer and self-evaluation.

Reference list and resources

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