The whole tone scale consists of six notes separated by whole-step intervals. Since this scale has no half-step leading tones and is symmetrical, it doesn’t give a strong indication of tonality, and therefore doesn’t have a strong tendency towards resolution.
There are only two whole tone scales, since transposing them more than a halfstep results in a duplication of the notes. Composers from Mozart forward have used the whole tone scale in compositions to varying degrees. It was Claude Debussy who first made extensive use of the scale, and in doing so eventually influenced jazz pianists of the 20th century like Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. Legendary saxophonist John Coltrane also began to play it in his improvisations; as a result, his pianist, McCoy Tyner, used it for both comping and soloing.
The whole tone scale in jazz improvisation can lend an air of dissonance, tension, vagueness or ambiguity of tonality, and an intensity that no other scale can impart. It’s easy to dismiss this scale, because on the surface it seems so simple. But thanks to creative applications by so many innovative players, the boundaries of whole tone scale usage have expanded. Let’s take a look at the whole tone scale, and explore some ways to utilize it in your own playing.
Ex. 1. Augmented triads in C and D put together form a C whole tone scale, as in 1a. Db and Eb augmented triads put together, as in 1b, form a Db whole tone scale.
Ex. 2. To play the whole tone scale quickly, and for an impressionistic effect, distribute the notes between two hands, as in 2a. The left hand crosses over the right, then the right crosses under the left. The C whole tone scale (and its derivatives) fits the hands nicely when played as triplets, since it’s distributed with three notes on the white keys and three notes on the black keys. You can accomplish a similar effect in 2b when playing the whole tone scale as eighth notes.
Ex. 3. The distribution of white and black notes is a bit different in the Db whole tone scale, shown in 3a. This time, it’s two black notes and four white notes. The right hand crosses under the left, then the left crosses over the right. Play the Db whole tone in eighth notes in 3b.
Ex. 4. By taking two augmented triads a ninth apart, we can create a nice series of two-hand voicings that walk up and down the whole tone scale, as in 4a. Feel free to skip intervals as well. These are good comping voicings, especially over 7aug chords. The structures in 4b contain minor sevenths, tritones, and major thirds. The right hand plays the chords up a ninth from the left hand.