The Yonanuki Scale

Pentatonic scales are used in the melodies of many folk, rock and blues songs and can give such tunes their particular “feel”.  In western music, we have a palette of 12 tones (the black and white keys of the piano) that make up an octave.  There are many scales (subsets of those tones) from which one could choose when composing a piece of music, but only a few that are in popular use. There are seven 7-tone scales (also called modes) used in Western music.  We are very familiar with the 7-tone major scale (do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti); this “diatonic” (Greek for progressing through the tones) or “heptatonic” (7-tone) scale is, based on my count, used in the majority of modern Palauan songs.   However, a significant minority of Palauan songs – especially the older songs — use a “pentatonic” (5-tone) scale, a subset of the 7-tone major scale.

As a part of my research into modern Palauan music, I have gone through recordings of 615 songs made between 1983 and 2005 and, among other activities, characterized the “tonal inventory” (the notes used) for each melody.  I only considered the notes sung by the singer (not the instrumental breaks). The results are shown below:

Melodic Inventory Number
4 – Major Quadratonic (less 5, 6, 7) 1
5 – Major Pentatonic (less 2, 7) 1
5 – Major Pentatonic (less 4, 6) 1
5 – Major Pentatonic (less 4, 7) 87
5 – Major Pentatonic (less 5, 6) 1
5 – Major Pentatonic (less 5, 7) 1
5 – Major Pentatonic (less 6, 7) 4
5 – Minor Pentatonic (less 2, 6) 1
5 – Minor Pentatonic (less 4, 7) 10
5 – Minor Pentatonic (less 5, 6) 1
6 – Major Hexatonic (less 1) 1
6 – Major Hexatonic (less 2) 1
6 – Major Hexatonic (less 4) 33
6 – Major Hexatonic (less 6) 1
6 – Major Hexatonic (less 7) 42
6 – Minor Hexatonic (less 2) 1
6 – Minor Hexatonic (less 7) 13
7 – Diatonic 415

I have found that 67% of the Palauan song melodies use all 7 notes of the scale.  Another 15% of the melodies use only 6 of the 7 notes of the scale.  However, the remaining 18% only use 5 notes of the scale, and most of those omit/avoid using the 4th (fa) and 7th (ti) notes of the scale.  There are a number of pentatonic scale combinations, differing only by what notes are not used and each pentatonic scale gives a different feel to the melody.  The pentatonic major scale that omits the 4th and 7th notes is referred to in the western world as one of the “major pentatonic” scales (there are several other pentatonic possibilities) but in Japan it is referred to as the yonanuki major scale (there is also a yonanuki minor scale, which is similar, but with a flatted 3rd.  I’ll talk more about those songs in a later post).  The C yonanuki major scale looks and sounds like this, omitting the F and B notes:

\relative c' { \time 5/4 c d e g a c }

Yonanuki pentatonic major scale

As I played the scale, I just happened to lengthen the initial C to give the opening guitar riff of the Temptations 1965 hit “My Girl”, which happens to follow the Yonanuki pentatonic major scale perfectly.

Christine Yano, in her 2002 book “Tears of Longing”, an exploration of Japanese Enka music, notes that:

“Most enka songs use of [one of] two pentatonic scales, known as yonanuki major and yonanuki minor, … which were popularized through Meiji-era school songs.  Of the 28 song melodies I analyzed, 27 were written in yonanuki scale:  8 in yonanuki major and 19 in yonanuki minor.”

Enka music was the popular “modern” music of Japan, starting in the late 19th century.  It was likely widely heard in Palau in the 1930s and I remember it still being played on the radio in Palau in the early 1980s.  Birget Abels, in her 2008 book on traditional Palauan music while discussing popular derebechesiil (love songs), states:

“In case of melodic variations, intermediate tones and tonal variations of distinct scale degrees are added to the tonal inventory, which … is normally pentatonic.  These pitch additions may also macerate the generally anhemitonic scale structure.  The Japanese derivation of this tune is obvious.  The Japanese min’yo “folk song” was a source of inspiration for Palauan derebechesiil singing:  it provided an inventory of tunes from which Palauans borrowed for derebechesiil.”

The example she gives in this passage has a melody in the key of F, and a tonal inventory of the F yonanuki major pentatonic scale.  The yonanuki major scale is “anhemitonic” (defined as containing no semi-tones).  What gets a little confusing here is that there also is a “min’yo” scale whose pitches are the same as the “yo” scale, which is also pentatonic, but eliminating the 3rd and 7th notes of the scale instead of the 4th and 7th notes in the yonanuki scale.  I’m pretty sure Birgit is not talking about the yo scale; in any event, as shown in the summary table above, I didn’t find any Palauan song that uses the yo scale.

What is quite remarkable to me is how the absence of notes in a melody can be so important to defining the “feel” of a given tune.  That absence can influence feel is fairly profound, I think, with implications far beyond music. But I digress.

So, how about some examples of songs that use the yonanuki major scale?  OK, see the table below.  While all of these following examples use the yonanuki major pentatonic scale, not all melodies are of Japanese origin. Luis & Amos’ song “Afro” gets its melody from the American Folk Song “Midnight Special” (often attributed to Leadbelly in 1934, but certainly older than that.  The version that made its way to Palau was probably done by Creedence Clearwater Revival, since CCR music was popular in Palau in the 70s and 80s).  While mostly pentatonic, “Afro” does also use a flatted 3rd as a “blues” note in the melody. Sheldon’s song “Ak diobengkem” borrows the melody from Peter, Paul and Mary’s “500 miles” (1962) while the Peleliu Club Band’s “Alii, Alii” borrows its melody from Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” (1976).

Title Singer Year Composer
Omerrud a Reng
(Adidil e Betik era Renguk)
Skilang Rengchol 1989
Adidil Eng Kebesengei Brisia Tangelbad 1999 Kodep Kloulechad, 1956
Adidil er a Irechar Halley Eriich
Afro Luis & Amos 1990s
Aitaii Frederick Olsudong
Ak Diobengkem Sheldon Eichi
Alii Alii Peleliu Club Band
Amireng Jackie Kemesong 1997
Arashi Frederick Olsudong Shiro Bedul, 1985
Stongoros Rose Terry 1992