The Major Pentatonic Scale

Today I thought I’d do something a little different, and share with you a simple design trick which has really helped me to improve the “juiciness” of my games and prototypes:

The Major Pentatonic Scale

Now, I’m no expert in music theory, but here are some things I do know about the major pentatonic scale:

  • It’s a five note scale, C, D, E, G, and A.
  • All five of the notes in the scale are in tune with each other.
  • By virtue of that last point, the notes can be played in any order, or even over the top of one another, and still sound good.

So why is this relevant to a game designer?
To put it simply, you can make a game feel more musical by playing a random note from the major pentatonic scale, rather than some other sound effect.  To illustrate this point, I present you with this simple flash prototype where you use the arrow keys to move a box around the playfield:

That’s pretty boring right?
Now compare it to this one, which uses the major pentatonic scale, rather than the simple clicking noise:

Most players who try this second version begin to move their square around rhythmically, creating simple melodies.

Incorporating the major pentatonic scale is an easy way to increase player interest and enjoyment.

My game Planet ZOOB uses the major pentatonic scale to turn a standard shooting game into an interesting musical experience.  The scale can also be used in the design of menus or other player interfaces, to keep players engaged and interested.  While I’m not saying this technique should be used in all types of games — I certainly couldn’t see it working in a horror or stealth game — I’d just like to offer it to you as an additional tool to keep in your game design toolbox.

To that end, I’m offering five different scales for free download under a Creative Commons Zero license.  What this means is that you can download these scales and use them any way you please.  You can use them in commercial and noncommercial products without the need to leave credit or ask permission.  They’re completely free!

  1. Gameboy Scale 1 – Download
  2. Gameboy Scale 2 – Download
  3. Saw Wave Scale – Download
  4. Sine Wave Scale – Download
  5. Square Wave Scale – Download

Each of the five scales consists of five .wav files in a .zip folder.  The first two were generated by an original Nintendo Gameboy running LSDJ, while the last three were generated using sfxr, and pitch shifted with Audacity.

I hope this technique will be as useful for you as it has been for me!
If you have any questions or other feedback, I’d love to hear it!

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