• A Contrast Between The Diatonic And The Chromatic

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    Today’s lesson features a contrast between the diatonic and the chromatic.

    It is important for every musician (especially beginners) to properly understand the term diatonic and chromatic and that’s why we dedicated two lessons in the past to exploring their respective definitions and usage.

    In today’s lesson, we’re exploring the relationship between the term diatonic and chromatic, especially in terms of usage. But before we go into all that, let’s devote some minutes to the review of the concept of key.

    A Short Note On The Concept Of Key

    When musicians say key, what do they really mean? I’ll tell you.

    Although there are several notes on the piano:

    …they are basically categorized into twelve musical notes:

    …with each musical note having duplicates across the keyboard layout.

    The establishment of a given note (by a collection of other notes) as a principal note creates a key center – which is commonly known as a key. For example, the establishment of the note C:

    …as a key center requires a collection of other notes. These other notes are essential components of the key of C major:

    C is the tonic

    D is the supertonic

    E is the mediant

    F is the subdominant

    G is the dominant

    A is the submediant

    B is the subtonic

    C is the octave

    Altogether, these eight components (from the tonic to the octave) make up what musicians call key.

    There are two key types – the major key and the minor key. While qualities like light and happiness are attributed to the major key, the minor key [usually] depicts darkness, sadness, the ghostly, and so on.

    In a nutshell, the note C:

    …can either be established as a major key:

    …or as a minor key:

    Alright! Let’s go ahead and focus on the diatonic and the chromatic.

    A Quick Review On The Term Diatonic

    The origin of the term diatonic is Greek, and it means progressing through tones. From a literal standpoint, a progression through the white notes on the piano from C to C:

    …without any of the black notes:

    …can be considered to be diatonic.

    The outcome of progressing from any of the several white notes on the piano to its octave is also considered to be diatonic. For example, from D to D:

    …E to E:

    …F to F:

    …G to G:

    …A to A:

    …B to B:

    A Tonal Perspective To The Term Diatonic

    The term diatonic can be used to describe the notes that belong to a particular key – whether major or minor. For example, in the key of D major, these notes:

    …are considered to be diatonic.

    Although F# and C#:

    …are literally non-diatonic, due the fact that they belong to the prevalent key, they are considered to be diatonic.

    “In A Nutshell…”

    Any musical element (be it a note, scale, interval, chord, or chord progression) that is based on the notes of a particular key is diatonic. Before we proceed to the next segment, take note of the following:

    Diatonic notes: These are notes that belong to a given key.

    Diatonic scales: The traditional scales of the major and minor key.

    Diatonic intervals: Intervals that are formed from two notes that belong to a particular key.

    Diatonic chords: Chords that are made up of the notes of a given key.

    Diatonic chord progression: Chord movement from one diatonic chord to another.

    A Flashback On The Term Chromatic

    The term chromatic has to do with colors. On a very basic level, seven white notes on the piano:

    …are considered to be natural, while the black notes are considered to be accidental or chromatic, because they add color to the natural notes.


    …is a chromatic (or colorful) variant of the natural C note:

    Db and D#:

    …are chromatic (or colorful) variants of the natural D note:


    …is a chromatic (or colorful) variant of the natural E note:


    …is a chromatic (or colorful) variant of the natural F note:

    Gb and G#:

    …are chromatic (or colorful) variants of the natural G note:

    Ab and A#:

    …are chromatic (or colorful) variants of the natural A note:


    …is a chromatic (or colorful) variant of the natural B note:

    “Beyond The Black Notes…”

    Two or three notes that have the same letter names, are chromatically related. For example, Db, D and D#:

    …are chromatically related.

    In the key of Ab:

    ..where Db:

    …is the fourth tone of the scale, D:

    …would be considered as a chromatic variant of the fourth tone, irrespective of its white color because it is foreign to the key of Ab:

    In a nutshell, the term chromatic is basically used to describe a musical idea [be it a note, scale, chord, or chord-progression] that is foreign to a particular key environment.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.


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