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Exotic Scales (whole tone)

Pentatonic scale / Whole-tone scale / Octatonic Scale

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.

The extracts below are the beginning and end Debussy’s prelude ‘Voiles’ (sails). If you listen to the example, you will hear how the whole tone scale creates an ambiguous wash of sound quite unlike traditional harmony, with no sense of tonal direction or closure:


Debussy Voiles END

In Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique, we can see examples of whole-tone scales being used in a fairly flexible way. Here at the beginning a chord based on a whole tone scale of F# (F#, G#. A#, C, D, E) is built up in the strings, with each note preceded by a chromatic run to spice things up a bit. This acts as a sort of altered F# dominant chord to the B major material that follows on the next page after this extract:

Opening of Scherzo Fantastique (strings only – so the initial trumpet few notes are omitted)

Stravinsky Scherzo Fantastique opening

Finally, in this example from Ravel’s Beauty at the Beast we can see Ravel changing from one whole-tone scale to another for dark and mysterious music that represents the best. There are also some dissonant non-whole tone additions in the woodwind that add to the forbidding atmostphere:

Ravel Beauty and Beast