If you have ever heard Rimsky Korsakov’s famous piece “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” or if you listen to Jazz, especially Bebop music, you are familiar with the chromatic scale.
There are some who say that the chromatic scale is not really a scale at all. However, because it contains all other notes, it must contain all other scales and chords within itself. In this way, the chromatic scale can be said to contain the building blocks of all music.
But what is the chromatic scale and how do musicians use it?
What is the Chromatic Scale?
The chromatic scale is the complete set of notes used in tonal music separated by consecutive semitone intervals. Starting with C, the ascending chromatic scale is:
C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C
When descending, it would read like this:
C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db, C
Because it contains every note, you cannot really say that it has a tonal center the way a traditional Major or Minor scale does. However, the semitone intervals do allow you to create a powerful sense of tension that can be resolved in a variety of ways. This makes the chromatic scale a great tool for jazz improvisation.
How to Play the Chromatic Scale
To play the chromatic scale, you begin on a tone and move up or down in pitch in consecutive semitones or half-step intervals until you finish the octave. The chromatic scale can be played either ascending or descending, in just one octave, or through multiple octaves.
It is likely that many of the exercises you were given when you started playing your instrument were based on the chromatic scale. Chromatic exercises are quite common on stringed instruments like the guitar and are also common on the piano. This is because the chromatic scale contains all other intervals, so exercises in which you ascend and descend using a particular interval are often based on the chromatic scale.
The chromatic scale can be played ascending or descending using minor and major 2nds, minor and major thirds, perfect 4ths, augmented 4ths/diminished 5ths, perfect 5ths, augmented 5ths, minor and major 6ths, and minor and major 7ths. One can also use the chromatic scale to explore arpeggios, scale sequences, and chords as well.
In short, the chromatic scale is a powerful tool that you can use to improve your musicianship.
How to Use the Chromatic Scale
While the chromatic scale contains all twelve tones used in music, one cannot say, like you would with the Major scale, that it has a tonal center or tonic. Because the chromatic scale contains all of the tones contained within an octave, it is always made up of the same 12 notes, just played in a different order.
The chromatic scale is used by musicians and composers to create a variety of musical effects, like heightened tension or a sense of sadness or melancholy. Musicians rarely use the entire chromatic scale. Usually, composers or improvisers will use small segments of the chromatic scale to create tension in the form of dissonance that they resolve later on in the melodic line.
However, some composers and musicians have created memorable music using the chromatic scale. The previously mentioned “Flight of the Bumble Bee” is a perfect example.
Atonal music, sometimes called “12-Tone” music, pioneered by 20th Century composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg, put the chromatic scale to use in a variety of interesting ways.
Because atonal music, by definition, lacks a tonal center, it requires some other unifying agent like melodic and rhythmic motifs, called motives, to give it a sense of coherence. This is also true of the use of the chromatic scale in jazz music.
The Chromatic Scale in Jazz Music
Jazz musicians use the chromatic scale to make improvisation more melodic and harmonically interesting. Bebop artists like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie used bits of the chromatic scale as passing tones, or tones that one uses to add tension to a line as you are passing through a diatonic idea.
In Bebop, the music is so fast and the chord changes so complex, one had to develop a high level of virtuosity to simply keep up. Musicians like Parker and Gillespie developed what came to be known as the Bebop scale basically out of necessity. Through many hours of improvising, these jazz pioneers found that certain chromatic passing tones sounded really good over certain chord changes, working them into their compositions on a regular basis.
Of course, we do not have the space to really explore the Bebop scale, or other synthetic scales that employ chromatic notes, like the whole tone or diminished scales, in this article. However, in both blues and jazz, it is common to add chromatic passing tones between the 5th and 6th degrees of a scale and between a flattened 7th and the root of the scale. These chromatic passing tones resolve really well into nearby chord tones.
Mechanics of the Chromatic Scale
The chromatic scale can be written using either sharps or flats. Usually, it is written using sharps when ascending, and flats when descending, like this:
C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db, C
When working the chromatic scale into a musical composition, the accidentals (sharps and flats) are determined by the key you are in. You should refer to the key signature to know whether or not to use sharps or flats.
For instance, if you use the chromatic scale in a piece that is in A Major, whose key signature is 3 sharps, your chromatic passing tones will be written as sharps, and when you play F, G, or C natural notes as a passing tone, you should use the natural accidental to designate that it is natural, otherwise they will be played as sharps. If the piece you are writing is in F major, whose key signature is one flat, you should use flats when you work chromatic notes into the composition.
All Chromatic Scales written out:
C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C
D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D
E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E
F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F
F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#
G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G
G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#
A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A
A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#
B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B
C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C
Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db
D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D
Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb
E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E
F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F
Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb
G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G
Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab
A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A
Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb
B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B