The Whole Tone Scale

Using only tones (also called whole steps) as in a whole tone scale, creates an open sound without the feeling of major or minor, since it uses no semitones (half steps) at all. 

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What is a Whole Tone Scale?

Whole tone scale from CA Whole Tone Scale From C

The wholetone scale is an interesting scale that uses only whole tones (or whole steps).

A wholetone (tone) is together with the semitone the two smallest intervals in western music tradition.

In other scales like major or minor, the "sound" is determined by the specific combination of both whole tones and semitones.

The smaller interval of a semitone works as a «leading» interval since it has a sound of tension or dissonance. When leading to another note it leads to a «resolution».

Being without any semitones, this is why a scale with only whole tones sounds so «open». It could lead to... anything!

How to Write a Scale with Whole Tones

Since you have to keep using only tones, you will need to use accidentals (sharps and flats) when writing wholetone scales.

Here is a scale with only whole tones starting from C.

Whole tone scale from CWhole tone scale from C

The notes used are C-D-E-F#-G#-A# and back to C.

This is 6 different pitches so a tone scale is also called a hexatonic scale.

And here is another scale with whole tones starting from C#:

Whole tone scale from C#Whole tone scale from C#

The notes used are C#-D#-F-G-A-B and back to C#.

How Many Wholetone Scales Are There?

Since a wholetone scale uses only tones, and in this way has all the pitches at an equal distance- it doesn’t matter where you begin from. You can start from any key.

So, in a way there is only one, but you can of course start and end on any of the 12 different pitches.

But, in music theory we say there are only two unique wholetone scales. They are also said to be "complementary".

Why? Well, to be unique they need to use different pitches.

So, if you start from C and make a wholetone scale, you’ll get the notes C-D-E-F#-G#-A# and back to C.

Now, if you start from any of those pitches; D, E, F#, G# or A# you need to use the exact same pitches again- so it’s not really different!

But, if we start from C# and make a wholetone scale, you’ll get the notes C#-D#-F-G-A-B and back to C#. Now these notes were not used before! (You could also start from D#, F, G, A or B  of course. Still the same pitches.)

Since now we have used up all 12 different pitches we have, there is nothing left to make another «unique» wholetone scale with.

So, we have two «complementary» wholetone scales, each using their own set of 6 different pitches, all a tone apart.

Whole Tone Music

Music using wholetone scales was popular in the beginning of the 20th century.

Composers like Claude Debussy used them in for example «Voiles», creating a soundscape of open harmonies, avoiding any sense of major or minor:

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