• Who Else Wants To Know What The Term Chromatic Means?

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    You want to know what the term chromatic means and we’ll be covering that extensively in this lesson.

    But before we start exploring the term chromatic, we need to lay the foundation of this study by learning about the concept of key and this is because what is considered to be chromatic in a given key may not be in another.

    Consequently, it takes the knowledge of the concept of key to understand what the term chromatic means.

    A Short Note On The Concept Of Key

    There are twelve notes:

    …(aka – “pitches“) on the piano. These twelve pitches can be organized into a key by grouping seven notes together, and making a particular tone the key center.

    Grouping all white notes on the piano from C to B:

    …forms a key center (which is commonly known as a key.) Due to the fact that C is the first tone of the scale (known to music scholars as the tonic), and other reasons we can’t delve into now, this key is known as the key of C major:

    Conversely, we can group white notes on the piano from A to G:

    …to form another key center known as the key of A minor, for certain reasons, and obviously because the first tone (aka – “the tonic”) in the key is A:

    In a nutshell, there are two key types (the major and the minor keys) and each key type has its own set of seven notes (aka – “traditional scale“.) The traditional scale of the major key is the major scale while that of the minor key is the natural minor scale.

    With the few things we’ve discussed about the chromatic scale, let’s proceed into our goal in this lesson, which is giving an explanation to the term chromatic.

    “What Does The Term Chromatic Mean?”

    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.

    Let’s round-up this lesson by taking a look at the chromatic scale.

    Quick Insights On The Chromatic Scale

    A scale is a regular succession of notes, in ascending or descending order, using a fixed intervallic formula. There are various kinds of scales like the natural major, the natural minor, the harmonic minor, and the melodic minor scales (which we covered as traditional scales.)

    Our focus in this segment is the chromatic scale, which is basically a scale that contains diatonic notes, and their chromatic variants. It is important to note that the distance (aka – “interval”) between all the scale tones of the chromatic scale is a half step.

    “Here’s The Chromatic Scale”

    Starting from C:

    …all other scale tones are a half step apart from each other. A half step from C is C#:

    …and another half step above C# is D:

    …and another half step above D is D#:

    …and another half step above D# is E:

    …and another half step above E is F:

    …and another half step above F is F#:

    …and another half step above F# is G:

    …and another half step above G is G#:

    …and another half step above G# is A:

    …and another half step above A is A#:

    …and another half step above A# is B:

    …and another half step above B is C:

    Altogether, here’s the chromatic scale:

    The Ascending And Descending Forms Of The Chromatic Scale

    Although the ascending and descending forms of the chromatic scale sound alike, they are spelled differently.

    “Here’s The Ascending Form Of The Chromatic Scale”

    From C:

    ..to C#:

    …to D:

    ..to D#:

    …to E:

    …to F:

    ..to F#:

    …to G:

    ..to G#:

    …to A:

    ..to A#:

    …to B:

    …to C:

    “Check Out The Descending Form Of The Chromatic Scale”

    From C:

    …to B:

    …to Bb:

    …to A:

    …to Ab:

    …to G:

    …to Gb:

    …to F:

    …to E:

    …to Eb:

    …to D:

    …to Db:

    …to C:

    The difference between the ascending form:

    …and the descending form:

    …is in their respective spellings.

    “The Difference Is Clear”

    The black notes in the ascending form of the chromatic scale are spelled with sharps, while those of them in the descending form are spelled with flats.

    You can tell that this chromatic scale:

    …is to be played in its descending form because the notes are spelled with flats.

    The Neutrality Of The Chromatic Scale

    The chromatic scale is neutral. Although classical musicians in the modern period have tried to use it in composition, and jazz musicians have incorporated it into improvisation in amazing ways, the chromatic scale is neutral.

    Unlike the natural major and minor, melodic and harmonic minor scales that conform either to the major or minor key, the chromatic scale is neutral because when played, no key [whether major or minor] is suggested.

    The chromatic scale is all-embracing, and the only scale that contains all the twelve notes (aka – “pitches“.) Consequently, there’s just one chromatic scale on the keyboard.

    If played from C to C:

    …it may be called the C chromatic scale.

    If played from D to D:

    …it may be called the D chromatic scale.

    If played from E to E:

    …it may be called the E chromatic scale.

    Final Words

    From what we’ve covered in this lesson, I trust you’ve learned a couple of basic things about the chromatic scale.

    “Here’s A Quick Recap…”

    In the key of D:

    …if F:

    …is played instead of F# (the third tone):

    …the F note is considered to be chromatic because it is foreign to the key of D:

    We’ll continue our discussion on chromatic ideas – chromatic scales, chords, chord-progressions, and songs in a subsequent lesson.

    Until then!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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