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Exotic Scales (whole tone)

Pentatonic scale / Whole-tone scale / Octatonic Scale

Whole tone scale (first mode of limited transposition)

The whole tone scale is very simple and is made up of only whole tones as follows:


  • The two scales shown are the only unique transpositions – the next one would be D, which is the same as the first, but starting on the second note
  • It is impossible to get ‘normal’ major and minor triads from the whole tone scale, so the harmony sounds very exotic
  • The tonic of the major scale is established by the pattern of tones and semitones. Without any pattern other than endless tones, the whole-tone scale does not establish any clear tonic or sense of key.

This extract is taken from Debussy’s prelude ‘Voiles’ (sails). If you listen to the example or play it, you will hear how the whole tone scale creates an ambiguous wash of sound quite unlike traditional harmony: