More Scales

Whole-Tone Scale

Just as the chromatic scale is built using only half steps, the whole-tone scale uses only whole steps. Because the distance between each successive pair of notes is the same, there are no aural cues that let the listener know which note is the tonic. This makes the whole-tone scale tonally ambiguous. The same is true of the chromatic scale.

There are only two possible collections of notes that can be used to create whole tone scales. Any further transpositions will only duplicate one of these collections. For our purposes, we will call these the C and C-sharp whole-tone scales.

Whole-Tone Scale

whole-tone scale on C

Whole-Tone Scale

whole-tone scale on C-sharp

The tonal ambiguity of the whole-tone scale makes it appealing to composers who wish to avoid traditional tonality or who want to communicate the idea of disorientation or vagueness.

Octatonic Scale

The octatonic scale alternates between whole and half steps, and is therefore a combination of the principles behind the chromatic scale and the whole-tone scale. In the examples below, the scale begins with a half step, but beginning with a whole step is also possible. Whichever interval comes first, there are only three collections of pitches that can be used to create octatonic scales. Like the whole-tone scale, any further transpositions will only duplicate an existing collection.

Octatonic Scale

the three transpositions of the octatonic scale

Pentatonic Scale

The word 'pentatonic' can refer to any scale or system of music that uses only five pitches, but is generally understood to indicate the scale pattern shown here, which is by far the most common five-note scale. The pattern is made up of whole steps (major seconds) and minor thirds (between E and G as well as A and C, in this case).

Pitches: C D E G A C
Intervals: M2 M2 m3 M2 m3

Pentatonic Scale

the (common) pentatonic scale

To the western ear this scale often seems exotic, but it functions more similarly to major and minor scales than the whole-tone or octatonic scales. In the video below Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the universality of the pentatonic scale.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale

For more fun with the pentatonic scale, check out ToneMatrix, a beautiful flash app that allows you to compose using the pentatonic scale.


"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

Copyright © Sienna M. Wood, 2015-2016