Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Whole Tone Scale

Q: What can you tell me about the whole tone scale? I didn't find anything on your site regarding it.

A: The whole tone scale is used in very specific situations, so I didn't mention it too much in the lessons on But it is a valuable scale to know and has one very interesting application that took me about 20 years to figure out. First of all, it is a 6-note scale which is unusual in itself. It is a symmetrical scale, meaning it is based on a set of specific intervals that repeat. The half/whole diminished scale (an 8-note scale) is also a symmetrical scale based on a repeating half-step, whole-step pattern. The whole tone scale is a pattern of all whole steps. So for C: C-D-E-F#-G#-A#. If you harmonize it, you will get a C7#5 or C7b5 chord. When you add in the 9th (D, in this case) something strange happens, you get a C9 chord with a b5 or #5. How strange is that? I've actually run it to one or the other on a few charts but it is rare and sounds somewhat strange. You have to be weary of using the scale because a lot of guys will add in an altered 9th on a 7#5 chord, thinking altered rather than whole tone. I like to use it on chords that are specifically #5, like in "Stella by Starlight" when that G7#5 chord pops up. It is a real abstract sound, I've heard it described as Bambi disintegrating. I suppose the fact that all the intervals being the same distance apart give the scale a sort of nebulous vibe. You hear it sometimes in movies or TV when somebody goes into a dream or fantasy scene. Anyways, that's how I hear it.

I actually use it more in another application than the standard, over the 7#5 chord.
I like to use it a half step down on a minor chord. You have to be daring and have good improv sense to make this work because it is outside. It is a good way to play outside on minor chords and works well if you sandwich it between two inside minor scales, like dorian. It can be justified as well. Here is a B whole tone scale: B-Db-Eb-F-G-A, now let's look at the intervals comparing it to C minor: B is the major 7th (like melodic minor), Db is the b9th (as in phrygian), Eb is the minor 3rd (like all minor modes), F is the 11th (like all of the minor modes), G is the 5th (like all the minor modes except locrian) and A is the 6th (like dorian). No root!

This was a good subject so I put together a whole lesson on the subject: The Whole Tone Scale

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