We investigate the implications of lateral variations in the topography of global seismic discontinuities, in the framework of high-resolution forward modelling and seismic imaging. We run 3-D wave-propagation simulations accurate at periods of 10 s and longer, with Earth models including core–mantle boundary topography anomalies of ∼1000 km spatial wavelength and up to 10 km height. We obtain very different waveform signatures for PcP (reflected) and Pdiff (diffracted) phases, supporting the theoretical expectation that the latter are sensitive primarily to large-scale structure, whereas the former only to small scale, where large and small are relative to the frequency. PcP at 10 s seems to be well suited to map such a small-scale perturbation, whereas Pdiff at the same frequency carries faint signatures that do not allow any tomographic reconstruction. Only at higher frequency, the signature becomes stronger. We present a new algorithm to compute sensitivity kernels relating seismic traveltimes (measured by cross-correlation of observed and theoretical seismograms) to the topography of seismic discontinuities at any depth in the Earth using full 3-D wave propagation. Calculation of accurate finite-frequency sensitivity kernels is notoriously expensive, but we reduce computational costs drastically by limiting ourselves to spherically symmetric reference models, and exploiting the axial symmetry of the resulting propagating wavefield that collapses to a 2-D numerical domain. We compute and analyse a suite of kernels for upper and lower mantle discontinuities that can be used for finite-frequency waveform inversion. The PcP and Pdiff sensitivity footprints are in good agreement with the result obtained cross-correlating perturbed and unperturbed seismogram, validating our approach against full 3-D modelling to invert for such structures.