Wholetone Scale

Recall that we defined a scale as:
a group of notes within an octave (and any octaves of those notes) usually played one at a time.

We can describe (define) a scale in any of these ways:
- by letters (representing specific pitches)
- by numbers (representing specific intervals)
- by step pattern (describing intervals from note to note)

So for example the major scale (ionian mode) can be described/ defined as/by: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (in the key of C), 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, and W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2.

We define an augmented scale as a scale containing the notes (intervals) 1,3,#5. (In other words, using the notes in the scale we can construct an augmented chord off the root note)

From either Wholetone scale = W-W-W-W-W-W,
or C-Wholetone = C,D,E,F#,G#,Bb, we can find the intervals (from the root note) to be 1,2,3,#4/b5,#5/b6,#6/b7.

Looking at the numbers, we can deduce that the Wholetone scale is an augmented scale. that is, it contains the notes 1,3,#5.

So lets look at some patterns (moveable shapes) with which we can play the wholetone scale.


Wholetone scale "E-shape" (root note on the 6th string)

Wholetone scale "D-shape" (root note on the 4th string)

Wholetone scale "C-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

Wholetone scale "A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)

Wholetone scale "G-shape" (root note on the 6th string)



two adjacent strings:
Seperated by a P4

seperated by a M3

And finally, regardless of tuning we could play on a single string:


(this is useful for tapping, or playing any fretted instrument in any tuning)

We can increase our familiarity by singing every note as we practice our scales/soloing.

We recall, that we can derive chords by harmonizing scales. We've previously harmonized various scales in thirds to get triads, and seventh chords (see previous scale lessons)

Due to the symmetric nature of the scale if we harmonize it in thirds the only triad that pops up is the augmented triad, and stacking thirds literally will not give us a seventh chord, but if we throw in the 6th degree, then we can have a 7+5 chord.

We find for the the wholetone scale the following triads:
I+ - II+ - III+ - #IV+ - #V+ - bVII+
and 7th chords:
I7+5 - II7+5 - III7+5 - #IV7+5 - #V7+5 - bVII7+5

in 9th chords: I9+5 - II9+5 - etc.
in 11th chords: I9#11#5 - II9#11#5 - etc.

If we look at the available notes, we can come up with yet more chords (derived from a set standpoint, rather than tertian harmonization). Some possibilities are:
triads: I+, I(b5), I+sus#4, I+sus2, Isus2b5
7th chords: I7+5, I7b5, I7+5sus#4, I7+5sus2, I7b5sus2
9th chords: I9#5, I9b5
11th chords: I9#11#5
and because of the symmetric nature of the scale, these chords can be built off the other degrees as well.

We could try to create a wholetone progression. The reality is that every other chord harmonized (triad) is an inversion of the others, so I+-III+ is actually I+-I+, etc. Also the augmented chord isn't particularly stable, meaning that although the augmented chord leads well to other chords, it doesn't work well as a tonic chord.

The most common place we encounter augmented chords in a progression is leading to a major chord a perfect 4th above. This is due to a half-step movement between the 3rd of the I+ chord and the root of the IV chord, as well as a half-step movement from the augmented 5th to the 3rd of the IV chord, while the root of the I+ chord is the 5th of the IV chord.
I+ = 1,3,#5
IV = 4,6,8(1)

Where/when does one usually decide to use wholetone scale?
- some would use it over any augmented chord (play I+-wholetone over I+)
- over other chords listed above in the chords listed, play the corresponding wholetone scale. (ex. over I7+5 or I7b5, play I-wholetone)
- over any of the chords listed above you could a relative wholetone scale. Ex. over C7+5 youcould play C-wholetone, D-wholetone, E-wholetone, F#-wholetone, etc.

The wholetone scale is a perfectly symmetrical structure. If the invert it or modulate it the pattern created is the same step pattern as we started with.

What other symmetric structures exist?

Consider other perfectly symmetrical structures:

Octave    - 8ve                  = 1,8
Tritone   - T-T                  = 1,#4/b5,8
+ chord   - M3-M3-M3             = 1,3,#5,8
o7 chord  - m3-m3-m3-m3          = 1,b3,b5,bb7,8
Wholetone - W-W-W-W-W-W          = 1,2,3,#4,#5,b7,8
and the chromatic scale 
 = 1,b2,2,b3,3,4,b5,5,b6,6,b7,7

and semi-symmetrical structures (ones that don't repeat with every step but do repeat after a few steps)


Next lesson is on creating your own scale lesson.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart simianmoon.com/snglstringtheory/guitar/8theory3.html

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Last updated December 26, 2007
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