Monky Business

Some thoughts on whole-tone scales, altered scales and passing tones.

Ah, Thelonius Sphere Monk (certainly no square). A very influential composer and performer. He was once described by a hip journo as “the high beast of prebop” (clever Spoonerism or a boozy lunch, you be the judge).

Monk was actually an incredibly naturally gifted musician and a highly accomplished pianist – he could easily hold his own with the stride champions of the day. He was also an extremely sophisticated harmonic thinker, and a clear influence on Coltrane and Bill Evans, among others. He chose to develop one of the most unique and uncompromising voices in jazz history, both in his performance and compositions. A lot of people thought: what’s this clown doing? – he can’t even play properly. Oh, but he did have the chops. Anyway, call what he did what you like – rough-hewn, riffy, twisted bluesy, angular, gutsy, even modernistic primitivism. When you hear Monk, there’s no doubt who it is.

Of course an individualistic voice comes at a price – it becomes easy for imitators to latch on to the surface of what’s going on and a cliché is born. Just like those bloody TV interior designers who spray squares of bright colours on a bit of board to “do a Mondrian”…

Most jazz musicians go through a Monk phase. As well they should – he wrote some fantastic tunes and played in a fascinating way. But when I hear a pianist trotting out a stumbled descending whole-tone scale (the most obvious element of Monkery), I find myself in two minds, and one of them is rather short-tempered…

(This is the same part of me that gets grumpy when I hear people on auto-pilot cranking out blues or Phrygian licks, but then I admit I’m getting old and opinionated – you might have noticed…)


The whole-tone scale is an artificial symmetrical structure, associated most in the classical world with Debussy and the other Impressionists. Initially, it was often used more as an ambiguous effect than a specific harmonic gesture, but it does work nicely in a jazz context as a dominant chord, closely akin to 7alt. (It’s usually notated 7#5)

The basic dominant family tree can be seen a bit like this:


But here’s the point: passing tones are the backbone of bebop, and we know they are added in certain places in the standard scales to allow the line to fall more reliably on strong chord tones on strong beats. Depending on context, you tend to add a passing tone between root and dominant 7th, minor 3rd and 4th, and 5th and 6th.

The whole-tone scale is unique for many reasons, but here are two:

  • A passing tone exists between every scale tone.
  • Since every tone in a whole-tone scale is a strong chord tone, you can add passing tones anywhere in the scale and the line will work. The whole-tone scale reads: root, 9th, 3rd, #11, #5, b7. So you can’t end a line in this scale and sound wrong (or at least, uninteresting).

Of course, if you just want to use the sound as “the sound”, that’s fine. But working passing tones into things can really open up the way you play whole-tone scales and help you get past the glib “Monkery”…

Try it the next time someone calls Wayne Shorter’s JuJu.

Don’t forget that you can substitute a dominant pretty much anywhere, eg:

Dm7 G7 C
D7 G7 C
D7 G7 C7

(And once you’ve done it, you can alter them and use substitutions. Brecker once said that everything he did was a tritone sub.)


Actually, you can use whole-tone scales on any chord type, not just dominants, but you have to be prepared to embrace such alarming things as ambiguity, missing notes and even altered roots! Something for another day, really, but if you’re curious start by trying C# whole-tone over Cm…

Just to mess with your head further, you can “unpack” a whole-tone scale into a melodic minor scale by splitting any tone (raise it and lower it). In the given example:

C# WT:
C# D# F G A B
C mel min:
C D Eb F G A B
(which is also a scale you can use over B7alt, Aø and many others)

Can’t remember an altered scale? It’s just a whole-tone with the second note split in half:

C D E F# Ab Bb
C Db D# E F# Ab Bb

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes

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