The whole tone scale is a scale of six notes where each tone is separated from the next by the distance of a whole step. Olivier Messiaen called the whole tone scale his first mode of limited transposition because there are only two possible transpositions of the scale. Because each note is equidistant from the next, there is no leading tone that would help establish a tonic note. Instead, the scale creates a more fuzzy, dreamlike environment, in part because it was used often by impressionistic composers like Claude Debussy.
While the term Locrian mode has been used by several early music theorists, it was first applied to chant in the 18th century. In modern terms, it is most easily described as the scale from B to B using only the white notes of the piano. In order to construct the scale starting on other notes, follow the pattern ascending from tonic: half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step.
A handout showing the mode starting from all twelve notes is available here.
The Locrian mode is considered a minor mode because of the minor third above the tonic. It differs from the natural minor scale by having lowered second and fifth degrees. The ancient Greek Locrian mode in the diatonic genus resembles the Mixolydian mode rather than the modern Locrian mode.
The presence of a diminished fifth in the tonic triad (B-F) has resulted in few composers actually using the mode for more than brief passages. Claude Debussy’s includes three extended passages in the Locrian mode in his composition Jeux.
Xaver Varnus is a Hungarian-born Canadian organist, improvisor, writer, and television personality. His first piano teacher was Emma Németh, one of the last pupils of Claude Debussy. At sixteen, he undertook his first concert tour of Europe. In 1981 Varnus left Hungary to study with Pierre Cochereau in France. Over the course of his short career, Xaver Varnus has played to more than six million people worldwide, recorded 51 albums, made sixty concert films, and written five books.
Improvisation on three given themes – Walcker Organ
Xaver Varnus – Improvisation on a theme by Jean Guillou – St. Eustache, Paris
Xaver Varnus – Improvisation on a theme of Stokowski – Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, Philadelphia
Xaver Varnus – Variations on Frère Jacques – Dominican Church, Budapest