Join Pete Callard as he unlocks the secrets of a highly recognisable and surprisingly versatle scale that’s found in jazz, pop, rock and classical music.
Pete Callard explores the symmetry and unique character of the mysterious Whole-Tone scale.
This month we’re going to be exploring some of the theory behind, and uses for, one of the more enigmatic of scales - the Whole Tone. The Whole Tone is known as hexatonic since it is made up of six notes (hexa meaning six), just as Pentatonic scales contain five notes (penta meaning five).
The Whole Tone scale is created by moving up in tones, so creating a symmetrical scale and leaving us with the formula 1,2, 3, #4, #5, b7 (Example 1 and Diagram 1). Because of this intervallic construction there is only one shape of the Whole Tone scale (although there are different fingering options - see Diagram 2). If we start from the second note of the scale, we are left with exactly the same scale as from the first note; and starting from the third note gives us the same notes as starting from the second note, etc. As well as only one shape, this also means that there are only two different Whole Tone scales - if we start on C, we can also have C#/Db Whole Tone scale, but then D Whole Tone scale is the same as C Whole Tone, and D#/Eb Whole Tone scale is the same as C#/Db Whole Tone, and so on.
To put it another way, as each interval in the scale is equidistant, any one of them can be considered the root; and as there are six notes in the scale, C and C#/Db Whole Tone scales between them contain all 12 notes of the Chromatic scale.
The first step in using any new scale is to find out what chords it will work over, and to do this we need to harmonise it (build a 7th chord by stacking the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th notes). Harmonising the Whole Tone scale, we get the intervals 1, 3 and #5 - there are only six notes in the scale, so the 7th note would be the octave - giving us an Augmented triad (Examples 2 and 3). As there is only one shape of the Whole Tone scale there are no other modes to harmonise, but if we build another augmented triad from the scale’s second note, between the two chords we get all the notes of the Whole Tone scale, meaning that it can be seen as being built from two augmented chords a full step (Whole Tone) apart.
Another interesting aspect of Augmented chords is that, as each interval is equidistant (a major 3rd apart), any one can be considered the root - so C Augmented can also be seen as E Augmented and G# Augmented, as they contain exactly the same notes, and each of those chords could equally be seen as C Augmented. Thus, any time we play an Augmented chord we can use any of the three notes as the root, and move it up or down in 3rds (Example 4).
Because of its symmetrical intervallic construction, with every note carrying the same harmonic weight and thus none standing out, the Whole Tone scale has a unique, unresolved sound, and is frequently employed for eerie, ethereal, dreamlike effects. It’s widely used in classical music, and is a feature of Debussy’s impressionistic sound world. In popular music, examples of
The Whole Tone scale is frequently employed for eerie, ethereal, dreamlike effects.
Augmented harmony include the intros to Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, Kraftwerk’s Spacelab, Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze and the middle section of Iron Maiden’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.
Getting familiar with a new scale can take time. A great way to help get the sound of the Whole Tone scale into your playing is with arpeggios. Examples 5, 6 and 7, and Diagram 3 demonstrate three Augmented arpeggio shapes. All the intervals are equidistant so Augmented arpeggios can also be moved up and down in major 3rds (think of Billy Swann’s ‘I Can Help’, with its harmonised Augmented arpeggios moving down the neck in tones). You could equally just learn one of the shapes and move it around, in which case you can think of these three shapes as options.
The remaining examples feature different patterns and ideas for the Whole Tone scale, and I trust you will enjoy them.
Thelonius Monk: the Whole Tone pervades his stunning music