TIP: Exploring Exotic Pentatonic Tunings – p5

Learn about how to use the second-most important note, the 5th

If the most important note on the kalimba is the root, or “one”, the second most important note on the kalimba is the “5”.  There is really no reason why a kalimba tuning has to have a “5”, but almost every tuning does have a “1” and a “5”.  This is because a “fifth” – the pitch interval between the “1” and the “5” – or also the actual sound made by playing the “1” and “5” together – is a fundamental interval. To get technical for a minute, when two notes are playing a perfect 5th apart from each other, the sound waves line up every 2 cycles of the lower note’s wave, or every 3 cycles of the upper note’s wave. It is just like the “2 against 3 rhythm”, only it is happening 100 times or more per second.  We do not perceive it as a rhythm, we perceive it as a strong harmony.

By investigating this tiny collection of three pentatonic kalimba tunings, I am going to demonstrate the importance of the “1” and “5” notes in music in general.
Compare the note numbers that are present in each of the three tunings. Only one tuning has a 2.  One has a major 3, the other two have a minor 3.  Only one tuning has the 4.  One tuning has a minor 6.  And two tunings have a minor 7.  No tunings have a minor 2, an augmented (raised) 4, a major 6, or a major 7. But every one of those tunings has a “1” and a “5”. In fact, “1” and “5” are the only two notes that are shared in all three of these tunings.

Of course, every tuning will have a root or “1” – that is, every tuning will have a note that you feel is “home”.  But a large part of what makes the “1” feel like “THE ONE” is actually the “5” note.   To emphasize: in this collection of tunings, every tuning has a “1” and a “5”, but there is not one other single note that is in all the tunings.

Primitive people all around the world invented their own scales.  Many used pentatonic (i.e., 5-note) scales, but different pentatonic scales.  And most of those scales had a “5” and a “1”, and their 5th interval was tuned essentially the same way that we tune the 5th interval.

How is the “5” note used?  A simple way to understand it is this: the “5” points to the “1” note.  If you have a kalimba and know the tuning, go and play “5” and “1” on it and memorize the way that sounds.

Another thing you can do is to print out the tuning charts, determine which tines are “5” and which are “1”, and then go and visit the videos for these kalimba tunings and try to see when “5” is used and when “1” is used.  There will be times when the “5” is immediately followed by the “1”, and pay attention to when that move is used.  It might end a phrase and it might begin a phrase; both of these are places of importance.

This is an oversimplification and I may be overreaching, but the motion of going from “5” to “1” is close to a universal rule of musical grammar.  Not all music moves that way, and most music does not understand itself as moving that way… but the “5” to “1” comes up in many many musics from around the world, and Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles and everyone in between used it.

The “1” and the “5” form the backbone for the music in multiple ways, and the other notes are different flavorings for the stew you make with that bone.  Again, this is a great simplification, but there is obvious truth in it.

Your assignment: while you are here looking at all the different “1” and “5” notes on your kalimba, do this exercise: you can play notes that are either a “1” or a “5”, but no others.  Be clever at coming up with different rhythms and patterns that only use “1” and “5”.  The “1” and “5” together will be very strong.  I want you to stand up to that harmonic strength and play with great confidence when you play the “1” and “5”.  See if you can feel the energies of the right and left thumbs standing up to, and bouncing off of, each other.

“Floaty Kalimba” on the F7 Bebey tuned pentatonic kalimba.

“Peaceful Mystery” on the G Ake Bono tuned pentatonic kalimba.

“Malian Blues” on the G minor pentatonic kalimba.

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