Whole tone scale

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The two available whole tone scales.

The whole tone scale is a hexatonic scale in which each note is spaced equally by the interval of a whole step (or major second.) The scale exists in only two transpositions: (C, D, E, F♯, G♯, A♯, C) and (B, Db, Eb, F, G, A, B.) It may begin initially on any note.

The whole tone scale has no leading tone and, due to its symmetrical nature, gives little feeling of tonality or a tonal center. This is further increased by the fact that the only triads that are able to be built from the whole tone scale are augmented triads. The entire scale can be built from just two augmented triads a major second apart.

The scale was used by Oliver Messiaen as his first mode of limited transposition though he rarely ever actually used it in practice saying that after French composer Claude Debussy’s ventures with it, there was “nothing else to add”.


Claude Debussy was the first composer to make extensive use of the scale (though various usages of it can be traced as far back as Mozart’s A Musical Joke). In many of Debussy’s pieces, fragmented whole tone scales and harmonies based on them can be heard. This is most prominent in the second prelude of Debussy’s first book of preludes, “Voiles”, which is based almost entirely (with exception of one pentatonic and one chromatic passage) on the whole tone scale.

Alban Berg also used the a segment of the whole tone scale in the famous tone row of his Violin Concerto (G, Bb, D, F#, A, C, E, G#, B, C#, Eb, F) to destroy any sense of tonality that was implied by the triadic overtones previously heard in the row.

Notable pieces that utilize the whole tone scale

  • Bela, Bartok
-String Quartet No. 5
  • Claude Debussy
-Prelude Book 1, Number 2 "Voiles"
-L'Isle Joyeuse
  • Maurice Ravel
-Jeux d'Eau