Exploring the Whole Tone Scale | Music Theory | Composition | Berklee Online
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Exploring the Whole Tone Scale | Music Theory | Composition | Berklee Online

October 17, 2019


[PIANO MUSIC] Around 1900, composers
started to get very interested in trying to think of new
materials for their compositions. Claude Debussy and other composers
started trying to find new materials. Some went back to what’s old is new. They brought modes back into
their music, the old church modes, and treated them in different ways. And they also tried to come
up with some new ideas. One of the ideas was
this whole-tone scale. And it’s constructed
exactly how it sounds. It’s all whole steps. So if you make a scale that is only
whole steps, you start on C. Go C. [PLAYING NOTE] D. [PLAYING NOTE] E. [PLAYING NOTE] The next note is F sharp– [PLAYING SCALE] –then G sharp, A sharp. And then you’re back to C. [PLAYING NOTE] And if you put this scale together,
it equals a whole-tone scale. It’s all whole steps. [PLAYING SCALE] It’s very nebulous sounding. In fact, if you watch ’60s TV, whenever
there’s a dream sequence and something is happening, you’ll hear– [PLAYING PIANO] Like you’re going back in time. Or you’re getting very silly. It’s nebulous. Something is floating
because there’s no set point. Any one of these notes could be Do. It really doesn’t define
it like a major scale. There’s no Ti, Do. There’s no Fa, Mi. There’s no tritone resolution. In fact, the whole thing
is a bunch of tritones. [PLAYING CHORDS] So it’s very unstable in a way. Composers use this
for sections of music. Some tried to write whole pieces of
music using the whole-tone scale. You could imagine, after a while it
might get a little bit boring just to stay in there. Because it really has no direction. So they thought, well,
what if we transpose it? How could we transpose it? And just like in tonal music, if you’re
in the key of C and then you want some contrast, you might modulate
to G. And just from that, you know that a major scale has– you
can have 12 different versions of it, C– [PLAYING SCALE] C sharp, D, E flat, E, and so on. And every time you start
from a different pitch, you end up with a different
collection of notes. However, when they started trying
to transpose the whole-tone scale, they found out there’s
just two versions. And in a way, if you
think of the keyboard as– [PLAYING CHORD] –these notes that are here that
I’m pressing down and then the ones I’m not, which might be
thought of as its compliment– [PLAYING CHORD] –the other group is
another whole-tone scale. [PLAYING CHORDS] And if I start that
scale anywhere else, I’m going to end up with one of these two. Because you can only transpose it one
half step away to get something new. And so if you really wanted to just
kind of go from one to another, you might have a piece that went– [PLAYING PIANO] –and then modulate. [PLAYING PIANO] For contrast, go back. [PLAYING PIANO] And then maybe move to the other one. But you only have two options. So it’s a mode of limited transposition. And there are only two. So that’s the whole-tone scale.

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  1. Can't tell if that's the reflections of the keys or if this man has rare Coloboma. Great lesson, what an interesting scale thanks

  2. I knew that I had heard that scale. It is interesting see it as nebulous, confusing or silly , because it makes it more useful when composing if you try to transmit those ideas. Thank you! 🎼✏️

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