Duncan’s Songbook #8

I discovered the pentatonic scale, a little ditty that makes things easier when you’re too stupid to learn a whole scale…like me! You only need 5 notes that work over any chord in the key. When I write, I don’t start with a progression or a beat. I’m a melody and lyrics man. Chords come from the notes in the melody.

A lot of songs use the pentatonic scale like “My Girl,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and that stupid New Year’s song that everybody hates but still sings just because everybody else is doing it and if they don’t they will have to take two shots of tequila because that’s the rule.

So, I put my capo on the first fret to turn into the key of F. Then I played the notes of the F pentatonic scale: F G thought about my boyfriend dumping my sorry ass and how each note made me feel. For some reason, the G note really captured the hollow, empty feeling inside. D was a little depressing, but not as much. The A note gave me hope that I would find true love again. What was wrong with me?

I took some lyrics and I spoke them while running my fingers over these notes. The lyrics “Jesse, I will do anything if you take me back,” sounded good with the notes G and D played in even eighth-notes, give or take a note or syncopation here or there. Then I repeated G, A, D when I said: “I know one day you’ll realize how much you miss me.”

In the middle of this process, Marlene walked into my bedroom to catch me songwriting. She made an overt effort to make sure that I saw her roll her eyes in a big, dramatic fashion. Then she asked me if I wanted to write a happier song so she didn’t have to barf.

Right then I had my big moment of realization. What if I took these same notes and wrote a song about how wonderful it was the day I first met Jesse and how he took over my heart on the first date? I guess the notes worked for that also. Pentatonic scales are the scales you need for all the good times and bad times in your life. They are your emotional grounding point. They are your Prozac. When I told that to Marlene, she didn’t roll her eyes; she shook her head.

“Just write something upbeat and happy that people actually want to listen too,” she said.

I saw you standing there
You were the one for me

“That’s too generic,” she said. “No pentatonic scale could fix those lame-ass lyrics.”

You hit my heart like a tornado
Better than winning the lotto

Marlene raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t a gesture of displeasure. She was still processing whether she liked it or not. I tried it again with some random notes in the pentatonic scale. While I repeated it, she took out my mini keyboard and experimented with some chords underneath. I knew she was digging it when her shoulders were moving with the melody.

“Put the capo on the second fret and play these chords with any rhythm.” This switched us to the key of F#.

I did and she started experimenting with the melody on the keyboard. In that key, the pentatonic scale is just all the black keys. She knew this because she actually studied music in college. I studied heartbreak. I didn’t say that thought out loud, but Marlene rolled her eyes at me again as I thought it. How does she always know?

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