Whole Tone Scale – The Complete Piano Guide
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The difference between the study of classical piano and jazz piano extends well beyond the repertoire. Instead, it actually comes down to what it is we consider ourselves to be studying. A classical piano student is a student of the piano by means of the canon of classical repertoire. In fact, it is rare for classical piano students to take lessons with a teacher who plays a different instrument. On the other hand, jazz piano students often take lessons from horn players, guitarists and bass players. That’s because jazz piano students are actually studying the jazz language itself, which is then applied on piano. Therefore, each sound of the jazz language is collected, dissected, digested and codified for later use. In today’s piano lesson, we will explore the unique musical sound of the whole tone scale for the sake of the sound itself. You’ll learn:
- Intro to the Whole Tone Scale
- Classical Music and The Whole Tone Scale
- Jazz Music and The Whole Tone Scale
- Popular Music and The Whole Tone Scale
- Television and The Whole Tone Scale
- 4 Amazing Piano Applications of the Whole Tone Scale
After today’s lesson, you will be able to immediately recognize the sound of the whole tone scale in any context. You’ll also learn 4 ways to apply the whole tone scale on the piano for whenever you desire its unique sound.
We’ll begin today’s lesson by looking at a definition of the whole tone scale.
A whole tone scale contains six notes and is made up entirely of whole-steps. For example: C–D–E–F♯–G♯–A♯. Since the interval between each note of the whole tone scale is exactly the same, it is considered a symmetrical scale.
If this is your very first encounter with the whole tone scale, you may be surprised to learn that there are only two unique whole tone scales—one that begins on C and another beginning on D♭. Because of its symmetrical construction, any other starting note will duplicate one of these two scales. This is illustrated in the following diagram.
Now, let’s learn how to play each whole tone scale on the piano with proper fingering.
C Whole Tone Scale Fingering
The proper piano fingering for the C whole tone scale divides the 6 notes of the scale into a group of two notes and a group of four notes.
If you are already familiar with your major scales, you’ll notice that the C whole tone scale feels most similar to the B major scale, with fingers 1, 2, 3 and 4 on E, F♯, G♯ and A♯ in the right hand.
Notice that because of the way the groups are aligned for the left hand, the most natural starting notes are either D or F♯…not C. Therefore, an ascending whole tone scale beginning on C will have an immediate cross over in the the left hand if you begin with your thumb. As an alternative, you may choose to start the scale with the 3rd finger instead to avoid the first cross over. Both options are indicated in the notation below.
D♭ Whole Tone Scale Fingering
The proper piano fingering for the D♭ whole tone scale divides the 6 scale tones into two equal groups containing three notes each.
Notice in the right hand that the groups begin on B and F. Therefore, when playing an ascending D♭ whole tone scale, you are beginning in the middle of the first group. However, the right hand groups become more obvious when playing the scale in two or more octaves. In fact, you’ll likely find that D♭ whole tone scale feels pretty similar to the D♭ major scale for both hands.
Now that you’ve learned the fingerings for the whole tone scale starting on C and D♭, you can also play a whole tone scale starting on any other note. For example, the A♭ whole tone scale uses the same notes and fingerings as the C whole tone scale.
Next, let’s examine some unique characteristics of the whole tone scale.
The most prevailing sonic characteristic of the whole tone scale is its tonal ambiguity. Since there are no ½ steps, there is nothing that resembles a leading tone resolving to tonic. In addition, the six notes of a whole tone scale cannot be arranged to produce major or minor triads. Rather, there are two augmented triads a whole step apart hidden within each whole tone scale.
The whole tone scale’s absence of an implicit tonal center provides a sonic impression often described as “floating” or “drifting.” In addition, television and cartoons have frequently employed the whole tone scale in the manner of a sound effect to signal a flashback or a dream.
The whole tone scale greatly restricts the possibility of scale-degree functions that characterize the diatonic major and minor scales. This feature has often been exploited to represent the sensation of floating or drifting.
—The New Harvard Dictionary of Music
By the way, if you need the notation examples in a different key, check out our Smart Sheet Music, which allows you to transpose this material with a single click. Also, be sure to download the lesson sheet for today’s lesson. The lesson sheet appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
The Whole Tone Altered Dominant Sound
In addition to producing two augmented triads, the C whole tone scale also produces its own altered dominant sound. The most basic form of this chord is a C augmented triad (C–E–G♯) with a minor 7th (B♭). This chord is called “C augmented seventh” or “C seven augmented.” When this chord is expanded to include extensions and alterations from the whole tone scale, in can include the 9th and the ♭5 (♯11 enharmonically). The most common chord symbols to express this sound is C7(♯5), however you may also see C7+, Caug7, C7(♭5), C9(♯5) , C9(♯11♭13) or similar combinations. The example below shows the C whole tone scale with each extension and alteration identified along with several voicing constructions.
If the following section, you’ll survey examples of the whole tone scale and whole tone harmony in various musical genres.
The exotic sound of the whole tone scale gained traction in Western art music in the writings of modernist composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries including Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Béla Bartók (1881–1945), Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Alban Berg (1885–1935). The modernist movement in art, literature and music challenged accepted rules and sought new raw materials and organizing principles. For example, Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system sought to govern relationships of notes without reliance on a tonal center. Modernist composers also took a particular interest in new scales including the pentatonic scale, the diminished scale and the whole tone scale. The modernists, however, were certainly not the first to discover the whole tone scale. In fact, in 1787 Mozart used the whole tone scale in “Ein musikalischer Spass” (roughly translated “A Musical Joke”), a parody on incompetent composers and performers.
In the first clip below, the violin cadenza from Mozart’s “A Musical Joke” features an ever ascending scalar passage that departs from the key center by means of a whole tone scale. This is followed by a comical pizzicato as if to break a string and then a cadential trill on the wrong note. Next, we fast forward over a hundred years to Alban Berg’s “Nacht” (“Night”) from his collection of Seven Early Songs (1908). The piece opens with whole tone scale figures in the accompaniment and soprano melody which provide text painting for the lyrics. An English translation renders, “Clouds loom over night and valley; Mists hover, waters softly murmur.” Finally, Debussy’s “Voiles” is composed almost entirely using whole tone harmony.
W. A. Mozart
“A Musical Joke” (1787)
“Préludes I – Voiles” (1909)
The whole tone scale is also popular in jazz music. One of the earliest examples is found in cornetist Bix Beiderbecke’s (1903–1931) piano composition entitled “In a Mist” (1927). Another classic example is the intro to Duke Ellington (1899–1974) and Billy Strayhorn’s (1915–1967) “Take the A Train” (1939). Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) was particularly fond of the whole tone sound and frequently used it in his improvisation and compositions, such as “Four In One” (1952). Wayne Shorter’s (b. 1933) “Juju” is an example of a post-bop tune that uses the whole tone scale. “Juju” was recorded in 1965 and features McCoy Tyner on piano.
“In A Mist” (1927)
“Four In One” (1952)
Perhaps the most widely known examples of the whole tone scale are found in popular music. One in particular is Stevie Wonder’s (b. 1950) “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (1973) which features a prominent ascending whole tone figure in its introduction. Another example of the whole scale in popular music occurs in David Gilmour’s (b. 1946) wailing electric guitar solo on “Dogs” (1977) by English rock bank Pink Floyd. Even more explicit in its whole tone usage is the intro to “Spacelab” (1978) by German electronic pop band Kraftwerk.
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (1973)
Thanks to television programming of the 80s and 90s, even non-musicians are well acquainted with the sound of the whole tone scale, although likely not by its proper name. That’s because the whole tone scale was used extensively in the 80s and 90s to signal a dream sequence or flashback. This was particularly common in cartoons, such as The Simpsons, Tom and Jerry, The Smurfs and countless others.
Tom and Jerry
Now that you are familiar with the sound of the whole tone scale and how to play it on piano, let’s have some fun with four amazing applications.
First, let’s learn to play some of those “dreamy” sound effects on the piano using the whole tone scale. To do this, we’ll play a broken chord accompaniment pattern in the left hand over a C augmented triad. In the right hand, we’ll play a melodic line that ascends and descends the C whole tone scale in parallel 3rds. Both hands will play in the upper register of the piano to capture that dreamy sound.
As an alternative, you can also create a dream effect with parallel augmented triads. To do this, place the bottom note in of each augmented triad in your left hand.
Great job! Let’s explore another application.
The whole tone scale is your “go to scale” whenever you need to improvise over an augmented triad. Just be sure to select the whole tone scale that contains the root of augmented chord symbol. For example, the C whole tone scale works over the following augmented triads: C+, D+, E+, F♯+, G♯+, A♯+.
Similarly, the D♭ whole tone scale works over the following augmented triads: D♭+, E♭+, F+, G+, A+ and B+.
Earlier, we examined the characteristics of the whole tone scale and found that it contains the root, 3rd and 7th of a dominant 7 chord along with some colorful extensions and alterations. We also learned that certain chord symbols such as C7#5 and C7♭5 specifically imply the whole tone sound. However, as an improvisor, you can also elect to draw on the whole tone scale for other dominant 7th chords that do not specifically suggest this sound. In fact, chord symbols such as C7 and C9 can also support the whole tone sound. For example, Thelonius Monk was fond of using the whole tone scale on a blues. Check out the first two choruses of Monk’s solo on “Straight, No Chaser” (1952), a blues in B♭, and see if you can hear when Monk is using the whole tone scale.
“Straight, No Chaser” (1952)
Consider the following example from today’s lesson sheet. Even though the chord symbol is C7(♯11♭13), the left hand simply plays a basic C7 chord shell. Therefore, all of the whole tone coloration is in the right hand. Practicing whole tone scales over dominant 7th chords like this prepares you to find additional applications to integrate this sound. (Note: the 5th should be omitted in dominant chords when improvising with the whole tone scale to avoid a clash with the ♭5 and ♯5 in the right hand.)
Similarly, the D♭ whole tone scale can be used to imply a D♭7(♯11♭13) sound over a D♭7 chord shell.
For a deep dive on additional scale options for improv on 7th chords, check out our full-length course on Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2 & 3). This course features 15 additional jazz scales and a breakdown of professional improv techniques.
Let’s check out one final whole tone scale application.
Our final application for today is how to add excitement to your playing with whole tone scale runs. If you’ve ever heard Oscar Peterson play a blistering fast run down the piano, chances are he’s using the whole tone scale.
This run uses the C whole tone scale over a C7 chord shell to approach an F major resolution. You can apply this run over any V7 to I chord progression where this sort of effect is desired.
For a more angular run, you can play descending arpeggios on each of the hidden augmented triads within the C whole tone scale.
Be sure to check out Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Levels 2 & 3) to learn 6 more amazing piano runs that you can add to the beginning and end of your favorite jazz standards.
Congratulations, you have complete today’s lesson on Whole Tone Scale—The Complete Piano Guide. You have gained a deep understanding on the exotic whole tone sound and how to apply it to your piano playing!
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love our other piano playing guides:
- Diatonic Chords—The Complete Guide
- Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide
- Jazz Piano Chords—The Complete Guide
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings—The Complete Guide
- Block Chords—The Complete Guide
- Piano Chord Substitution—The Complete Guide
- Tritone Substitution—The Complete Guide
- Jazz Scales—The Complete Guide
- Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide
- The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide
- The Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment Guide
- Jazz Piano Accompaniment—The Definitive Guide
- New Orleans Blues—The Complete Guide
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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