It is a sad and frequently overlooked truth that Hollywood is brutally guilty of portraying overtly racist behavior both on and off the silver screen. This includes the film music, as well as the films themselves. While musical stereotyping exists (and continues to exist) on several levels, today I will focus on two examples from one particular area: the use of the pentatonic scale to distinguish Asian characters.
The pentatonic scale is also known as the five-tone scale, because unlike the Western scale, which uses seven notes, the pentatonic scale only uses five (penta- means five, think pentagon, pentagram, etc.).
This is the major pentatonic scale starting on C and it reads: C D E G A
To create the minor pentatonic scale, take the A and move it to the first position, so: A C D E G
A classic example of using the pentatonic scale to denote an Asian character comes in the 1955 Disney film Lady and the Tramp. The scene in question is when Lady is introduced to Aunt Sarah’s Siamese cats (named Si and Am).
As Lady walks by the basket, before seeing the cats, the music plucks out a descending pentatonic scale, which hints at the cats’ origin even before their song begins.
A live-action example can be heard in the first James Bond film Dr. No (1963). The titular character is the first villain Bond encounters. Dr. No claims to be the child of “a German missionary and a Chinese girl of good family.” Because he is half-Chinese (and most of his workers are seen to be Asian), Dr. No’s theme is delivered with a pentatonic sound. Actually, a hint of the theme appears long before the character himself. At the very beginning of the film when Dr. No’s assassin’s are removing the body of Cmdr. Strangways’ secretary; one of the killers is seen rifling through a file drawer and pulling out two files: one reads Crab Key and the other says Dr. No. When the second file plops down on the cabinet, there is a harsh upward pentatonic scale, alluding to the character’s Asian origin.
The first Bond villain: Dr. Julius No
When Dr. No finally does appear (after Bond and Honey have been captured), the theme returns as the audience sees Dr. No’s feet walking in to take a look at Bond in person.
There is so much more to say on this topic, but I wanted to provide a short look for now.