Whole-tone scale

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In music, a whole tone scale is a scale in which each note is separated from the next one by the interval of a whole tone. There is always one note in between each pair of notes of the whole-tone scale (counting all the notes: white and black). There are only two combinations possible for a whole tone scale:

  • C, D, E, F#, G#, A#
  • and
  • C#, D#, F, G, A, B

When one of these scales is played on a piano, starting from a low note and moving up to high notes, while at the same time pressing the sustaining pedal (the right pedal), it makes a "dreamy" sound. It does not sound in any particular key, but floats along. It also sounds very good on a harp.

Debussy uses the whole-tone scale a lot in his music, but he was not the first to do so. Russian composers such as Glinka in his opera Ruslan and Ludmila and Borodin in Prince Igor used the whole-tone scale.

Later composers to use it include Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto, and Béla Bartók in his String Quartet No. 5. It has also been used in jazz.