Stevie Wonder and the Whole-Tone Scale

Stevie Wonder’s music has a sweet spot in jazz – it’s an infectious combination of singable, lyrical, catchy pop melodies combined with at times complex and advanced jazz harmonies that would prove challenging to any jazz soloist. For many music fans Stevie Wonder’s music represents a great intersection between jazz and pop. This makes his music a great choice for players who are seeking material to develop some jazz chops while developing repertoire that will be well-received by a larger audience. An often-overlooked aspect of the Stevie Wonder hit-song “You are the Sunshine of My Life” is his use of the whole-tone scale in the intro. This scale is often studied in jazz circles. Let’s check it out.

What is the Whole-Tone Scale?

The whole-tone scale is a hexatonic scale, which means unlike typical major and minor scales which contain seven notes, the whole-tone scale only contains six notes (“hexa” = six; “tonic” = tones, so “6-tone scale”). Also unlike major and minor scales (of which there are 12 unique scales, each with their own key signature), there are really only two whole-tone scales (more on that in a minute). The whole-tone scale is constructed by moving exclusively in – you guess it – WHOLE steps!

How To Create a Whole-Tone Scale

Let’s create an example. First choose any starting pitch. We’ll start on the note ‘C.’ Now move upwards, always by whole-steps, until you reach ‘C’ again. If done correctly the notes of the scale will be: C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, C. The reason we say that there are only 2 unique whole-tone scales is because if we start the above scale on any of the notes we just discovered, the same notes will result, just in a different order. For example, start the scale on F# and you’ll see that the same notes are used: F#, then G#, A#, C, D, E, and back to F#. Same exact notes because we are only moving in whole-steps. So the only other whole-tone scale will consist of all the notes we did not use, i.e., C#, D#, E, F, G, A, B, C#. 

That’s what the scale is, now let’s check out how Stevie uses it. The intro to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” starts out with 2 chords – B major and F# dominant 7. For those who like to think in Roman numerals this is a simple and common “I” to “V7” chord progression. Remember how I mentioned that Stevie uses jazz harmonies? Well, on that F#7 chord, he treats it as an F#7 with a sharp 5, a natural 9, and a sharp 11. Let’s aggregate those notes:

F# (root), A# (3rd), D (#5) E (7th), G# (9th), C (#11). Now let’s put those notes in order starting with F#: F#, G#, A#, C, D, E. 

Lo and behold, it’s an F# whole-tone scale. Still not convinced this is what Stevie was thinking when he played this chord? Well then check out the actual notes he played: 

Notice in measures 3 and 4 that Stevie Wonder plays major 3rds in the right hand, up the whole-tone scale, starting with the notes ‘D’ and ‘F#.’ Cool sound, right?

So what have we learned from this? First, that the whole-tone scale is made entirely of whole-steps. Second, that there are only 2 unique whole-tone scales. Third, that the whole-tone scale can be played over a dominant 7th chord and will contain the extensions natural 9, sharp 11, and sharp 5. And fourth, that the whole-tone scale can be used – as Stevie used it – to create major third pairs that can be played up and down the scale.

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Willie President
Willie Myette is a pianist, serial entrepreneur and author of over a dozen books on piano and music education. He received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and graduated in under 4 years. Willie is the creator and president of online piano instruction sites Jazzedge® Academy, Jazz Piano Lessons and HomeSchool Piano.

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