I am working on a little theater play accompanying a poetic clown on piano on the stage. Most of time I improvise to emphasize his emotional moods, since there are no words at all.

When the character falls asleep I want to play something that expresses that which follows is (or may be) a dream, but being subtle and not so cliché-like as a several octaves whole tone scale ascension.

I like NReilingh's approach:

Chords don't give us feelings, we give chords feelings.

So I am not looking for a magical chord or scale to do this. I understand that it is my job to get into the character feelings and to find how to express them through my hands using dynamics, tempo... and even corporal expression. But it would be helpful to know other ways, suggestions, examples... to improve my improvisation background.

  • The ballet "Somewhere" from WSS is a dream sequence and most certainly not whole-tone. Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 11:40
  • @CarlWitthoft Impressive! I was already looking for the film before your comment to get ideas for another emotional mood. It seems to be a good reference ;)
    – Rober
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 11:50
  • I think this question is too subjective to keep. However in my head I am hearing a repeating rising pattern of 6 notes of equal length.
    – slim
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 12:20
  • 1
    Suspended chords, and Lydian tonalities (though admittedly similar to whole tone)
    – Grey
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 12:24
  • Quartal harmony (chords built in fourths) can do it too, but this one tends to sound a bit jazzy or avant garde
    – Grey
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 12:24

3 Answers 3


One of the main reasons that a whole-tone scale works so well to indicate dreaming and rootlessness is that it's a symmetrical structure that divides the octave into equal parts. Multiple notes can therefore work equally well as a "tonic" which kind of means that they're also equally bad at being tonic. A symmetrical structure makes it much easier to avoid accidentally rooting the improvisation too much around a single note.

So you might want to explore other symmetric pitch collections. Augmented triads, diminished 7ths, tritones, French augmented sixths, hexatonic scales, octatonic scales, etc.

  • Different symmetric scales and french (and german) augmented sixths satisfy my needs : )
    – Rober
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 21:15
  • 2
    @Rober Good! Just a note however, the German augmented sixth isn't symmetrical and is actually just an enharmonic respelling of a dominant seventh chord. This makes it extremely useful for modulating to distant keys, but it actually can have a strongly directional sound. Still, if it works for your purposes, then it's all for the good! Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 21:32

The style of the impressionist can be very dreamy. Listen to Le Plus Que Lent by Debussy, or perhaps Ondine. A number of his preludes create this dreamy ambiance too. As far as Ravel goes, La Valse does a good job of presenting a foggy, distorted version of the main theme. If I were to summarize these techniques briefly, parallelism and extended tertian harmony (7 9 11 13 etc chords).

As mentioned in the comments, WSS's ballet is a good one, so is Oklahoma's.


High pitched rolled chords played softly (usually with some pedal) are sometimes used for dream-like stuff. I've used things like grouping 5-note arpeggios in 16th notes (so the pattern migrates through time) with a simple bass melody to evoke dreams. Or perhaps I'm really evoking running water.

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