To become truly fluent in the beautiful language of jazz improvisation, you’ve got to learn the scales. One scale that is rare in music but belongs in every serious jazz musician’s toolbox is the whole tone scale.
The whole tone scale has a distinctly recognizable 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?
A wholetone scale is one of six hexatonic scales – i.e. a musical scale with six tones per octave.
The wholetone scale is exactly as it sounds – it’s a scale made up exclusively of whole tones. It consists of only six notes (as the seventh would be the doubled root in the higher octave).
It is a symmetrical scale with one interval – the whole step – between each note.
How many whole tone scales are there?
Unlike many scales that centre around key signatures, 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♯/G♭, G♯/A♭, A♯/B♭)
Db whole tone scale (C♯/D♭, D♯/E♭, F, G, A, B)
History of the whole tone scale
The first known instance of a whole tone scale in composition was Johann Rudolfs Ahle in 1662. Since that time, it has been regularly used in classical music and contemporary genres. However, it is used less frequently than other scales, like 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 very often.
Though this scale exists in multiple musical genres (see Debussy in the classical world and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp in the world of rock), it is most commonly used in jazz.
Nearly every solo Thelonious Monk played, for instance, contains multiple whole tone runs.
The fact that it transcends musical genres is truly a testament to its greatness.
Using whole tones in your improvisation
Recognizable but rare, 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.
A few famous examples
Arguably, the most famous example of the whole tone scale in jazz 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.
Other great examples of it being utilised in more straight-ahead jazz are:
- Thelonius Monk’s Don’t Blame Me
- In A Mist by Bix Beiderbeck
- Our Man Higgins by Lee Morgan
- Wayne Shorter’s Juju (from his classic post-bop album of the same name)
With practice and a little luck, you can learn to bring whole tones into your music and improvisational style. 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.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!