• “So, You Want To Delve Into Chromatic Harmony? Here’s Where To Start”

    in Piano

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    This lesson provides introductory insights for musicians who are just getting started with chromatic harmony.

    We’re starting out by defining the term chromatic and then we’ll proceed to learning two useful chromatic harmonies that you can readily apply.

    Like I wrote earlier, this is just an introductory lesson; so, we’re going to keep it as basic as possible and in subsequent lessons, we’ll wade deeper into the chromatic waters.

    Alright! Give me your undivided attention for the next few minutes so I can show you a tip of the ice berg.

    “What Does The Term ‘Chromatic’ Mean?”

    The term chromatic literally means colorful and is used to refer to musical ideas (be it a note, scale, interval, chord, progression, song, etc) that are foreign to the prevalent key.

    In the key of C major:

    …any musical idea that consists of any of the following notes that are foreign to the prevalent key (which is the key of C major in this case) is said to be chromatic.

    For example, the following notes:






    …are chromatic and this is because they are foreign to the prevalent key.

    “Why Are Foreign Music Ideas Said To Be Chromatic?”

    Ideas that resonate with the key are said to be diatonic and they sound regular. From a theoretical standpoint, if you want to sound colorful, interesting, etc., you need to incorporate ideas that are foreign to the key.

    Notes, scales, chords, progressions, etc., that are foreign to the prevalent key and said to be chromatic or colorful and we’ll be learning chromatic harmony which literally means “colorful harmony”.

    “So, You Want To Get Started With Chromatic Harmony?”

    Chromatic harmony is not derived from the prevalent key and the first chromatic chord types we’ll explore are secondary dominant chords and leading note chords — and both chromatic chord types are broadly categorized as passing chords.

    Does that mean that passing chords are essentially chromatic harmony? Well, the passing chords played most of the time are chromatic and if you closely examine them, you’ll find one or more chord tones that are foreign to the key.

    So, the essential chromatic harmonies you should get started with while exploring the world of chromatic chords are passing chords and we’ve decided to explore them in this lesson so you can see what they are and how thy are applied.

    Secondary Dominant Chords

    We can’t completely understand what secondary dominant chords are without making proper reference to the term dominant.

    A Short Note On The Dominant

    The term dominant is associated with the number 5 or the fifth.

    Attention: Always keep the number 5 in mind every time you think of the term dominant.

    The fifth tone of the scale in any major key is technically known as the dominant and all the scale tone chords formed on the fifth tone are generally known as dominant chords.

    In the key of C major:


    …is the dominant and the following scale tone chords formed on G are dominant chords:

    G dominant triad:

    G dominant seventh chord:

    G dominant ninth chord:


    In harmony, the relationship between the 5-chord and the 1-chord is the strongest. In the key of C major:

    …we are talking about a movement from the G dominant seventh chord:

    …to the C major triad:

    The Secondary Dominant Chord — Explained

    This relationship between the dominant and the first tone of the scale (which is also called tonic) can be reproduced for every other tone of the scale. This means that every other scale tone in the key will have its corresponding dominant (keep the number “5” in mind).

    So, for the second tone of the C major scale (which is D):

    …a fifth above D is A:

    Therefore “A is the dominant of D” and A is considered a secondary dominant in the key of C major and this is because, although G is the main dominant in the key, A functions as the dominant of D — a secondary dominant.

    So, every other dominant in the key (apart from the fifth tone of the scale) is considered a secondary dominant.

    “Check Out These Examples…”

    Attention: Take note that all chord examples are given in the key of C major.

    Example #1

    A fifth above D:

    …is A:

    Therefore, the A dominant seventh chord (or any other A dominant chord type):

    …can be played as a chromatic harmony; resolving to the 2-chord in the key (the D minor triad):

    …or any other D minor chord type.

    Example #2

    A fifth above A:

    …is E:

    So, that means that the E dominant seventh chord (or any other E dominant chord type):

    …can be played as a passing chord to the 6-chord in the key (the A minor triad):

    …or any other A minor chord type.

    Example #3

    To determine the secondary dominant chord of F, all you need is to find the note that is a fifth above it. A fifth above F:

    …is C:

    The C dominant seventh chord (or any other C dominant chord type):

    …is the chromatic harmony that can be used as a passing chord to the 4-chord in the key (the F major triad):

    …or any other F major chord type.

    Following the same procedures, the secondary dominant chord for every tone of the scale can be derived.

    Final Words

    Using secondary dominant chords and leading note chords, you already have a handful of passing chords to get started with the concept of chromatic harmony.

    In a subsequent lesson, I look forward to sharing more with you on how these harmonies can be applied in real life using song examples.

    See you then!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    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 the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.



    { 4 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Carolyn

    Thanks and God bless you.


    2 Chuku Onyemachi

    You’re welcome, Carolyn.


    3 Carolyn

    Thanks so much. This is very helpful and I will definitely book mark this. It gives music s whole different outlook on playing passing chords. You are s great teacher and may God continue to bless you. Thanks for sharing and helping to open my understanding in Theory of the music world. I spots your effort In responding back so quickly. GOD bless you.


    4 Chuku Onyemachi

    God bless you too.

    Let’s keep learning and sharing.

    Thanks to Jermaine Griggs (our founder) for the privilege.


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