Whilst many music students find it hard to get excited about scales and modes, there is one (in our opinion) which comes out on top not just as being easy to learn, but fun to hear too…
You guessed it: in this article we’re diving into the fascinating, floating sound of the whole tone scale…
The whole tone scale has a distinctly recognisable sound. Both ambiguous and dreamlike, it is perfect for adding tension in composition and is a vital part of many jazz musicians’ improvisational style.
Basically, if you want to stand out from the crowd of fellow jazz musicians, this scale is an important one to add to your musical skill set. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to learn.
What is a whole tone scale?
The wholetone scale is exactly what it sounds like: a scale made up exclusively of whole tones. Simply pick your starting note then continue moving upwards in whole tone steps.
Because of its make-up, it consists of only six notes per octave before reaching its starting note again:
C – D – E – F# – G# – A# – C
If you want to get fancy, you can describe it as a hexatonic scale, and describe it as one of the few symmetrical scales.
How many whole tone scales are there?
Need to learn all your whole tone scales?
You’re in luck!
Unlike many scales that centre around key signatures (of which there are 12 in Western music), there are actually only two whole tone scales.
This is because each note is separated by the interval of one whole step. Unlike your standard major and minor scales, it contains no semitone intervals.
C whole tone scale
C, D, E, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, A#/Bb
Db whole tone scale
C#/Db, D#/Eb, F, G, A, B)
Start writing out the next one (D) and you’ll notice it has exactly the same notes as the C one.
Where did the whole tone scale come from?
The first known instance of a whole tone scale in composition was by Johann Rudolfs Ahle in 1662.
Since that time, it’s been regularly used in classical music and, more recently, contemporary genres like jazz and pop music.
However, due to its highly distinctive sound, it’s used less frequently than other scales and modes such as the pentatonic scale, melodic minor scale and diminished scale for example.
In other words, it transcends hundreds of years of musical literature, but it’s not seen too often.
Though this scale exists in multiple musical genres, from Debussy in the classical world to King Crimson in the world of rock), it’s most commonly used in jazz.
Here are some great examples from Berklee online.
The fact that it transcends musical genres is truly a testament to its greatness.
Examples of The Whole Tone Scale
As we discussed, the whole tone scale has been in use for centuries. It was in the 1900s though that impressionist composers really started exploring the sound.
Debussy was one particular example, with his composition Voiles made up of large parts of the whole tone scale; take a listen:
Arguably the most famous example of the whole tone scale in pop music is You Are the Sunshine of My Life by Stevie Wonder.
Thankfully, he doesn’t make you wait long to hear it as it shows up in the first few seconds of the song’s introduction on the keyboard; check it out here:
A great example of the whole tone scale in jazz music is Thelonius Monk’s Four In One, although it passes by a lightning quick speed in many versions.
Using whole tones in jazz improvisation
For jazz musicians, the whole tone scale is a great tool for improvising, especially if you find yourself in a creative rut.
You can start the scale on any note from the C whole tone scale (C D E F# G# A#) and end up playing the same notes. The same goes for its Db counterpart. Start on any note from the Db whole tone scale (C♯/D♭, D♯/E♭, F, G, A, B) and you will end up playing the same notes.
As all the notes are an equal distance from each other harmonically, any triad built on the scale will be an augmented triad.
When it comes to improvisation, the whole tone scale can be applied nicely to the dominant 7th chord.
Since a standard twelve-bar blues progression is made up exclusively of dominant chords, a good improvisation exercise to practice is to play around with the scale over your favourite blues piece.
Rounding Up The Whole Tone Scale
Whether you’re a jazz musician looking to incorporate the unique sound of whole tones into your improvisation, a composer searching for a new colour, or simply a music student with a teacher breathing down your neck, the whole tone scale is a great one to master.
Have fun with it, and see where this sometimes aimless but always adventurous scale takes you!
Learn more about the wonderful world of scales by checking out our Complete Guide To Scales And Modes In Jazz Music.
For a broader look at the art of jazz and improvisation take a look at our article on How To Learn Jazz.