Making Friends with the Whole Tone Scale

Making Friends with the Whole Tone Scale
Whole tone scales

This is an interesting scale that can be both used and abused in jazz and can create an ethereal ‘dreamy/spacey’ quality in soundtrack compositions. Key properties:

  • Six note and Symmetrical (equal degrees between notes)
  • Only two them cover all of the keys. (WT0 and WT1)
  • Impossible to construct either a major or a minor triad with the scale.
  • Can be seen as containing two overlapping augmented triads. (See example)

The most common improvisational usage is over the dominant seventh chord because the whole tone contains both the sharp and flat fifths of the chord. Some find it so tempting to travel from a dominant flat fifth to the tonic via the whole tone scale that it is done to wanton excess and becomes an improvisational ‘rat run’ so be careful. On the piano, it is difficult to pull off multi-octave whole tone scale runs without sounding like a Monk hack but it is still fun and good practice to be able to finger the scales correctly. I generally use 121234 on WT0 starting on C and the same fingering on WT1 starting on F but there are probably other RH fingerings that work as well. A lot of interesting WT patterns can be created over 2-5-1s because of the above properties so enjoy experimenting.

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