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Pentatonic Warm-Ups for Singers

Updated: Apr 9

You have singers in your studio who are singing jazz, R&B, pop, rock, indy, and contemporary music theater. Hopefully you’re encouraging them to explore making these songs their own, and giving them tools to do that. If you have these clients, you’ve probably noticed that many of them are really natural stylers. They know how to alter a melody, how to play with the rhythms, and how to embellish.

And then you have those clients who want to but can’t. They have an idea of how things are supposed to go, but can’t really pull it off.

There’s a lot you can teach this person.

In Neuro-Vocal teacher training and certification we spend time learning about stylistic vocabulary and how to use it. But even when you know how embellishments & alterations work with a melody, and you have style vocabulary to apply, much of knowing how to embellish or alter a melody has to do with intuiting appropriate melodic phrases. Although you can't teach intuition, you can internalize the tools that make that intuitive understanding possible.

In voice lessons and during work with vocal coaches, singers are typically given melodic patterns that ascend or descend in semitones. These patterns are (typically) devoid of harmonic context, and don't tend to encourage an understanding of how a melody "works" with a harmonic progression. Many singers never really learn how to listen in this way. (For more on that, see my post Why Singers Are Stupid.)

If you'd rather watch the video...


Many of your clients probably want (or, they have professional ambitions, will need) the ability to apply melodic embellishments and alterations. There are so many styles use these to a greater or lesser degree: pop, indie, R&B, gospel, Christian contemporary (CCM) disco, euro, and others.

Here's the fun part: Nearly all those artistic affectations - embellishments, riffs, and melodic variations - are based on a pentatonic scale.

A major pentatonic scale is do-re-mi-so-la-do.

  • If you play the black keys on the piano starting with F# you’ve played a pentatonic scale.

  • The guitar riff from My Girl (starting on the 3rd measure of the intro) is a pentatonic scale.

  • A minor pentatonic scale is made up of the the same pitches but starting a minor third lower.

There’s a ton of cool information about pentatonic scales online. In fact you may have seen Bobby McFerrin doing an audience demo of the pentatonic scale on youtube, and if you haven’t please look it up!

3 Things You May Want to Know

  • The pentatonic scale is the foundation for most music in all the popular genres.

  • Where it differs from the western 8 or 12 note scales is that it’s missing the 4th and 7th scale degrees. Those scale degrees introduce tension to chords. (E.g., you need a 7th to create a dominant chord or a 4th to make a suspended chord.) Without those scale degrees you lose the tension, suspense, and release that’s used in western chord progressions.

  • Because of this lack of tension, pentatonic scales can be really versatile. You can improvise, as well as introduce melodic changes or embellishments over any chord progression by using the pentatonic scale of that key.

You're clients may not get the hang of how this works overnight, but if you start replacing some of your diatonic warm-ups with pentatonic warm ups, you can both begin the process. Your clients will start to get this type of musicality in their ears and brain, and you can encourage some experimenting with improvising, melodic alterations, and embellishments.

Below are three (and a half) pentatonic warm-up patterns.

Remember that these become most powerful when the pattern is played over a moving chord progression.

These are played in the video above.

Please mess around with these ideas! They're not hard, and you're so dang creative! Try using different time feels (swing, or rock ballad). Try making up your own patterns. Use your client's song to identify parts that use the pentatonic scale, and turn those into a warm-up or exercise. Have fun!



I’m Meredith Colby, author of Money Notes: How to Sing High, Loud, Healthy, and Forever and creator of NeuroVocal Method, a way to approach singing for all the styles we sing into microphones that’s based on brain science.

If you’re interested in coaching privately with me, or joining one of the NeuroVocal teacher training and certification classes that are available, here's the link!


Exploring Styles in Different Genres

Want to learn more? This free guide breaks it down. If you've never felt confident helping your students develop style in their singing, this guide will walk you through it.

Tools, steps, and ideas for the process of developing style.

#meredithcolby blog post and video about how to use #pentatonicscales for #pentatonicwarmups. This post is directed at #voiceteachers and #vocalcoaches to help them help their #voicestudents develop a #uniquevoice and #artisticvoice even if the the teacher or coach doesn't feel confident about how to do that. Meredith is a #voicecoach, a #vocalcoach, and a #voiceteacher from #chicago. She helps #voiceteachers and #vocalcoaches teach for #popularstyles and #microphonestyles by teaching privately, supplying helpful content, and offering a #certificationclass in #neurovocalmethod , #neurovocal , or #neurovocalforpopularstyles.

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