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Chromatic scale: what it is and why you should learn it!

piano with both hands playing
The Chromatic scale in music theory is the only scale that uses all twelve pitches/tones available. A Chromatic scale does not follow an interval pattern like we have in major and minor scales. Major and Minor scales are referred to as diatonic scales and have seven different notes in total. In this post we will explore what the chromatic scale is and how we notate it properly on the stave.
What is a Chromatic Scale?
A chromatic scale is a scale that includes all 12 available pitches in sequential order. When playing a chromatic scale you can start on any of the 12 pitches, meaning that there are 12 different iterations of the scale! These can then be played in ascending or descending order.

Remember, the chromatic scale does not follow an interval pattern like the major and minor scales but rather the whole scale is made up entirely of semitones/half steps.

If we were to look at this scale on the piano, we would simply play every single white and black key!

When is a Chromatic Scale used?

The word Chromatic comes from the Greek word Chroma. The word Chroma literally means color. By adding chromaticism and chromatic notes to music we are simply adding color, embellishing the melody with notes that are not in the main key.

Western Music originally would always be in a specific major or minor key. Composers may use chromatic notes to add color to the music but the music would always have a sense of the key. However, as music moved on and we began to venture into new periods of music, chromatic scales began to be explored more and more chromatic notes were added to pieces, eventually in the 19th century, this gave rise to atonal music. Atonal music is simply, music without a tonal centre at all, it has no key!

Chromatic scales cannot be referred to as having a key like a major and minor scale can be. You cannot have a Chromatic scale in the key of C for example. You can have a chromatic scales starting on C.

Understanding the Chromatic Scale

Before looking at exactly how you write a chromatic scale it is important that you understand the musical alphabet. The musical alphabet consists of the following seven letters:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G

G is the last letter in the musical alphabet, no H's here please! Once you get to G you start again from the letter A.

Take a look at the piano below to see the musical alphabet.

However, as you can see, we only have seven pitches here and as we stated earlier in this post, we have twelve available pitches. In order to play the remaining five available pitches, we must make use of the sharps and flats! For a more detailed description of sharps and flats (accidentals) then make sure to check out our blog post on it here.

Looking at the piano you can see the black notes in between each white key. These are an easy way to visualize your sharps and flats. Below you can see all the notes labelled on the piano.

When writing out semitones or half steps. There are two groups of two notes that can be slightly confusing. As we have seen, on the piano keyboard we usually play a white key followed by a black key but there are groups of notes where this doesn't happen and we simply move from white key to white key. These groups of notes are the two notes e-f and b-c.

If we were to play the C chromatic scale on the piano we would use the following fingering pattern:

1, 3, 1, 3, 2, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 2, 1

Below you can see a C chromatic played on the piano:

Writing the Chromatic Scale
A chromatic scale is different to other scales in that there is no set way of writing it. Look at the two sets of notes below:
Both of these phrases would be played and sound exactly the same, but as you can see, they are spelled differently.

D flat and C sharp are what we call enharmonic equivalents, two notes that are spelled differently but sound the same. Both of these phrases move in semitones/half steps even if the notes are spelled differently.

Take a look at the two phrases on the piano below

When writing an ascending chromatic scale it is most usual to write your semitones (half steps) using sharps, this is because when you raise a note by a semitone you are sharpening it. Look at the below example - Let's write out an ascending chromatic scale with the first note C.
When writing a descending chromatic scale it is most usual to write your semitones (half steps) using flats, this is because when you lower a note by a semitone you are flattening it. Look at the example below - Let's write out a descending example chromatic scale with the first note C.
The easiest way to write out your chromatic scale is to first write in your first and last note, remember these will be the exact same.
And then simply fill in the missing notes between these two. Remember that on the way up we are using sharps and also watch out for our tricky notes, e-f and b-c!

Make sure as well that you have thirteen notes in total. The first and last note will be the same pitch!

Next, the chromatic scale going down will use flats. So again, write in your first and last note:
And then simply fill in the notes in between using flats!
Common Mistakes
Remember you should never have more than three of the same later. For example:
Although the above three notes technically form part of a chromatic scale, it would be more appropriate to write either:
When writing out your chromatic scales make sure to watch out for this. Not only is it slightly more confusing to read and play if you make use of too many enharmonic equivalents but if you were taking a theory exam, this would actually lose you marks!

Take a look at the below chromatic scale, I wonder if you can spot the mistake?

Common Questions you may be asked about Chromatic Scales
Sometimes, particularly within a theory exam, you may be asked to spot a chromatic scale within a piece of music. If you are, then it is worth following the below tips!

- Look out for notes that are next to each other moving in step. If the interval between the notes is any larger than a second then it is definitely not chromatic.

- Remember that it is impossible to write out more than four notes of a chromatic scale without using accidentals - so make sure to look out for these!
- Draw out a piano so you can check your findings.
FAQ's

What is the difference between a chromatic and a diatonic scale?

A chromatic scale will always have 12 different pitches, 13 if you count the first and last note being the same. The chromatic scales will simply follow a pattern of semitones and no other interval!

A diatonic scale on the other hand includes your major and minor scales. These use 7 pitches, 8 if you include the first and last note being the same! Both of these scales follow a very set pattern of semitones and tones. Read our blog on scales to find out more!

Why is it called a chromatic scale?

We call it the chromatic scale because the word chromatic comes from the Greek language meaning Colour! A chromatic scale allows you to add color to music without changing the tonal centre.

What genres of music use the chromatic scale?

The chromatic scale is not just limited to western music, you will find it in almost every genre of music you can think of!
Author: Jade Bultitude
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations.
She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.
Get Your Free Revision Guide for Grade 5 Music Theory!
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Lay your foundations for Grade 5 Music Theory with this summary of each topic.
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