The chromatic Scale consists of 12 notes – each note is separated from the next by the interval of a semitone (or half step). It can be described as either “ascending” or “descending” depending on the direction of movement.
Here is the chromatic scale (both ascending and descending) beginning on C:
The chromatic scale is very different to the major and minor keys scales in that it does not have a tonic. It doesn’t matter which note you begin on, the chromatic scale will always include the same 12 notes!
In this next example, you can see that the chromatic scale begins on F, but includes exactly the same notes as the previous example starting on C:
Notating the Chromatic Scale
Usually, the convention is that an ascending chromatic scale is written in sharps and a descending scale is written with flats (as shown above).
However, when it is used in a composition the notation of the accidentals will depend upon the context of the key in which it is written.
If you are notating it yourself you just need to remember that each note letter of the scale (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) should have at least one note written and no more than 2.
For example you could write G natural and G sharp or G flat and G natural, but not G flat, G natural and G sharp!!
The chromatic scale is often played when learning an instrument such as the piano or the guitar as it develops good technique and prepares students to be able to play pieces that require this. The fingering is particularly important as the scales are preparing players to be able to cope with potentially very fast passages.
On the piano, the basic fingering involves putting the thumb on the white notes and finger 3 on the black notes.
The only exceptions to this are the 2 pairs of white notes that are adjacent to each other – E/F and B/C. In these instances, the pianist will play the lower white note with the thumb and the next white note with finger 2:
Note: there are also alternative piano fingerings for the chromatic scale which can be used by more advanced players.
Composing Using The Chromatic Scale
The chromatic scale is a composition tool often used by composers to create a sense of sadness or tension in a piece of music.
Composers may use the scale in its entirety, use sections of it or even write long passages that use the scale extensively.
Have a look/ listen to these examples:
Chromatic Scale Examples
Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of music to be built around chromatic scales is the Flight of the Bumble Bee by Rimsky-Korsakov. This incredible piece of music captures the sound and movement of a bumblebee through the use of very fast scalic passages which are evocative of the fast movement of the bee and the beating of its wings.
Here is another example taken from the last movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D minor (Op. 31 No. 2). In this example, you can hear how Beethoven plays 2 different short descending scales beginning on a higher note each time to increase the drama of the music. He then launches into a longer descending scale beginning on an even higher note (F) that moves the piece towards the climax of the sonata a few bars (measures) later.
It is worth experimenting with your own compositions to see if you can use chromatic scales to heighten the sense of emotion. Try to incorporate either fast scalic passages like those in the Rimsky-Korsakov piece or the gradual development and extensions employed in the Beethoven piano sonata depending on the emotion or mood you are wanting to evoke.