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Chromatic scale

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The chromatic scale is the scale that contains all twelve pitches of the Western tempered scale.

Chromatic scale full octave ascending and descending on C

All the other scales in traditional Western music are subsets of this scale. Each pitch is separated from its upper and lower neighbors by the interval of one half step, or semitone. In tonal and other music this scale finds little use outside of decorative runs up or down as it has no harmonic direction and is considered cliched. The term 'chromatic' is understood by musicians to refer to music which includes tones which are not members of the prevailing scale, and also as a word descriptive of those individually non-diatonic tones.



Theorists divide the notation of any chromatic scale into two types:

The harmonic chromatic scale The Harmonic Chromatic Scale Starting on C
The melodic chromatic scale A Melodic Chromatic Scale Starting on C

The harmonic chromatic scale has a set form that remains the same whether ascending or descending and regardless of key signature. It is created by including all the notes from both the major and minor (melodic and harmonic) scales and then adding the flattened 2nd and sharpened 4th degrees from the starting note. The harmonic chromatic scale therefore has every degree of the scale written twice, apart from the 5th and the key-note or starting note at the top or bottom.

The melodic chromatic scale has no set form that is agreed upon by all. However their form is dependent upon major or minor key signatures and whether the scale is ascending or descending. The image above therefore is only an example of the melodic chromatic scale, as it has no set form. That no scale degree should be used more than twice in succession (for instance G flat - G natural - G sharp) is however a principle upon which most are agreed.

Keyboard fingering

Here is the standard keyboard fingering for a chromatic scale; where 1 means the thumb; 2 the index finger; 3 the middle finger

Chromatic scale fingering

Terminology and history

The Greeks analyzed genera using various terms, including diatonic, enharmonic, and chromatic, the latter being the color between the two other types of modes which were seen as being black and white. The chromatic genus contained a minor third on top and two semitones at the bottom filling in the perfect fourth of the fixed outer strings. However, the closest term used by the Greeks to our modern usage of chromatic is pyknon or the density ("condensation") of chromatic or enharmonic genera.


David Cope (1997) describes three forms of chromaticism: modulation, borrowed chords from secondary keys, and chromatic chords such as augmented sixth chords.

List of chromatic chords:

Other types of chromaticity:

  • The minor mode in major keys (mode mixture)
    • (Shir-Cliff, etc., 1965)

As tonality began to expand during the last half of the nineteenth century, with new combinations of chords, keys and harmonies being tried, the chromatic scale and chromaticism became more widely used, especially in the works of Richard Wagner, such as the opera 'Tristan und Isolde'. Increased chromaticism is often cited as one of the main causes or signs of the "break down" of tonality, in the form of increased importance or use of:

As tonal harmony continued to widen and even break down, the chromatic scale became the basis of modern music written using the twelve tone technique, a tone row being a specific ordering or series of the chromatic scale, and later serialism. Though these styles/methods continue to (re)incorporate tonality or tonal elements, often the trends which led to these methods were abandoned, such as modulation.

Susan McClary (1991) argues that chromaticism in operatic and sonata form narratives can often be understood as the "Other", racial, sexual, class or otherwise, to diatonicism's "male" self. Whether through modulation, as to the secondary key area, or other means. For instance, Clement calls the chromaticism in Wagner's Isolde "feminine stink" (Opera, 55-58, from McClary p.185n).

The total chromatic is the collection of all twelve equal tempered pitch classes of the chromatic scale.


  • Shir-Cliff, etc. (1965). Chromatic Harmony. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0-02-928630-1.
  • McClary, Susan (1991). Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1898-4.
  • Cope, David (1997). Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, p.15. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-864737-8.

External links

This article was started using a Wikipedia scale article
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