Whole Tone Scales

The perfectly even scale that never looks even on the page

Whole tone scales just about the simplest scales in music, but they don’t look simple. There are really only two, since each one uses exactly half of the possible notes in an octave. For much the same reason that Xaug and Xdim7 chords look very different in different keys, the same is true of whole tone scales, depending on which key they are written in.

It may be a stretch to call a whole tone scale and altered mode, but here is one way to get there, starting with Mixolydian:

  • 1 2 3 4 5 6 (b)7 8
  • 1 2 3 #4  b6 (b)7 8

Two notes get altered, and 5 disappears. Because of 3 and (b7) it is a kind of altered major scale.

Whole tone scales always look awkward. In each scale, somewhere, there will be one skipped letter, which I call “the hole”. That hole is a visual hole, a sudden jump that makes two notes look farther apart, when in fact they are not. You can actually write these scales any way you want, but since they are often used over dominants, especially in jazz, I prefer to be consistent about the spelling of 3 and (b)7.

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Whole Tone Scales

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