The Whole tone scale

In Scales on October 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In music, a whole tone scale is a scale in which each note is separated from its neighbours by the interval of a whole step. There are only two complementary whole tone scales, both six-note or hexatonic scales:

  • {C, D, E, F♯, G♯, A♯, C}

{B, D♭, E♭, F, G, A, B}.

The whole tone scale has no leading tone and because all tones are the same distance apart, “no single tone stands out, [and] the scale creates a blurred, indistinct effect”.This effect is especially emphasized by the fact that triads built on such scale tones are augmented. Indeed, one can play all six tones of a whole tone scale simply with two augmented triads whose roots are a major second apart. Since they are symmetrical, whole tone scales do not give a strong impression of the tonic or tonality.

The composer Olivier Messiaen called the whole tone scale his first mode of limited transposition. The composer and music theorist George Perle calls the whole tone scale interval cycle 2, or C2. Since there are only two possible whole tone scale positions (that is, the whole tone scale can be transposed only once), it is either C20 or C21. For this reason, the whole tone scale is also maximally even and may be considered a generated collection.

Due to this symmetry the hexachord consisting of the whole-tone scale is not distinct under inversion or more than one transposition. Thus many composers have used one of the “almost whole-tone” hexachords whose, “individual structural differences can been seen to result only from a difference in the ‘location,’ or placement, of a semitone within the otherwise whole-tone series.” Alexander Scriabin’s Mystic chord is a primary example, being a whole tone scale with one note raised a semitone, with this alteration allowing for a greater variety of resources through transposition.

Jazz harmony

The scale is also used extensively in modern jazz writing and jazz harmony. Wayne Shorter‘s composition “JuJu” features heavy use of the whole tone scale, and John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up is built off two augmented chords arranged in the same simple structure as his earlier tune Impressions. However, these are only the most overt examples of the use of this scale in jazz. A vast number of jazz tunes, including many standards, use augmented chords and their corresponding scales as well, usually to create tension in turnarounds or as a substitute for a dominant seventh chord. Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk are two pianists who used the whole tone scale extensively and creatively.

Also Stevie Wonder use it in You Are The Sunshine Of My Life (third and fourth bar of introduction)
Listen to John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up: here


Harmonizing the whole tone scale

As you can see below, the 7th chord that this scale makes is a simple dominant 7#5 chord. A 7b5 chord is also possible, or a chord with both: 7#5(#11).9ths are not altered so you have to be weary of using this scale over an altered chord. The whole tone scale is the only scale that will yield a dominant 9th chord with and raised 5th as in C9#5. Chords created by this scale (C whole tone): C7#5C7b5C9C9#5C9b5C7#5(#11). Dominant 9th chords with raised 5ths are really weird but believe it or not, I have run across them in charts before.

Applications of the whole tone scale

The whole tone scale is most usually used over the “V” chord with a lowered or raised 5th (I use it all the time on the G7#5chord in “Stella By Starlight” for example). Try applying the C and D whole tone scales over both the C7#5 and D7#5 chords in the following progression:

Other Applications

This is a very strange application of the whole tone scale and is not for the weak of heart.You can play it on minor chords a half step down, so in the example below, a B whole tone scale over a Cmin7 chord. But be warned, you have to have faith and be brave to make this work. It is a method for playing outside but can also be legitimized if you feel the need. Why does this work? Let’s superimpose the scale over the Cmin7 chord and see. B would be the major 7th (as in melodic minor), C# would be a b9 (like phrygian), Eb would be the minor 3rd (just like any minor scale), F would be the 11th (like in most minor modes), G would be the 5th (like like any of the minor modes), A would be the 6th (like dorian). Now you might have noticed that there is no root. There isn’t. The superimposed scale creates many of the qualities of the other modes. It is a great way to go outside. I usually stick it between two dorian scales and it creates a nice feeling of tension and relief. It takes some getting used to but is an ingenious tool that almost nobody knows about. I tend to use it when I have a longer amount of time to play on the one minor chord and it definitely works better in more of an open type of jam with less instrumentation (like a trio):


Fingering:




the doc file here :  whole-tone-scale

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