Chromatic scale

Chromatic scale full octave ascending and descending on C

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


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.

Listen to the chromatic scale, starting on B, a half step lower than the chromatic scale on C.

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:

  • Dominant seventh chords of subsidiary keys, used to create modulations to those keys (V7-I cadences).
  • Augmented sixth chords
  • Neapolitan sixth chords as chromatic subdominants.
  • Diminished seventh chords as chromatic VII7.
  • Altered chords
  • Expanded chords
    • (Shir-Cliff, etc., 1965)

Other chromatic things:

  • 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:

  • mode mixture
  • leading tones
  • tonicization of each chromatic step and other secondary key areas.
  • modulatory space
  • hierarchical organizations of the chromatic set such as George Perle's.
  • the use of non-tonal chords as tonic "keys"/"scales"/"areas" such as the Tristan chord.

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.

Socialism of Chromatic Tonality

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). However, McClary also points out that the same techniques used in opera to represent madness in women were historically the avante-garde in instrumental music, "In the nineteenth-century symphony, Salome's chromatic daring is what distinguishes truly serious composition of the vanguard from mere cliché-ridden hack work." (p.101)

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


  • Cope, David. Techniques of the Contemporary Composer. New York, New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. ISBN 0028647378
  • McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. ISBN 0816618984
  • Shir-Cliff, et al. Chromatic Harmony. New York: The Free Press, 1965. ISBN 0029286301

External links

All links retrieved February 21, 2017.


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