The word “chromatic” actually means “colourful” – the scales are very colourful since they use ALL 12 different notes available in one octave, instead of just 7 of them!
The scales you have studied up till now – major and minor – are in a group called “diatonic” scales. Diatonic scales all contain 7 notes and are firmly based on a key – and the keynote, or the first note of the scale, is the TONIC.
Chromatic scales are not in any particular key. We don’t talk about the “chromatic scale in the key of C“, for example. Instead, we identify chromatic scales by the note which they start on. We can talk about a chromatic scale “starting on C“, for example.
To play a chromatic scale, simply start on the note of your choice, and then play ALL the semitones until you reach the starting note again. If we start on D, we play these notes:
As you can see, the scale contains 12 different notes. We write 13 notes in total, but the first and last note (D) are the same note name.
The distance between each note in the scale is ONE SEMITONE.
Finding Part of a Chromatic Scale in a Musical Score
In the Trinity or ABRSM grade 4 exam you might be asked to pick out a part of a chromatic scale within a musical score.
If you are asked to find a few notes which are part of a chromatic scale, first you need to scan the piece quickly, looking for sections where a few notes are written together which
a) move in step (that is, not leaping around) and
b) have some accidentals attached to them.
Then you need to look closely at those notes, and decide whether they are all ONE semitone apart or not. If some of the notes are a tone (or more) apart, you haven’t found the right bit yet, so keep looking!
- When you think you’ve found the answer, write out the letter name of each note, including any accidental, so that you can check carefully.
- Don’t forget to take note of the key signature, if there is one, and any other accidentals which were placed earlier in the bar and might still be valid.
- If there are lots of double sharps/flats, it can be useful to write out the letter name with an enharmonic equivalent (e.g. write F## as G) to help you check.
- It can be helpful to sketch out a mini piano keyboard to help visualise the notes.
Here’s an excerpt from the final movement of Beethoven’s famous piano sonata, the “Pathétique”.
Your task is to find four different consecutive notes which form part of a chromatic scale. (Remember that “consecutive” means “next to each other”).
Don’t panic! Read the steps below.
It’s impossible to have four notes of a chromatic scale without using any accidentals, so begin by scanning each bar of the right hand piano part in turn, dismissing any bars which contain no accidentals. You will quickly see that only the third bar contains accidentals.
Write out the letter names carefully, and make a note of the distance between each pair of notes: is it a semitone (half step) or tone (whole step)? Write “S” and “T” between each note. There are three gaps between four notes, so you need to find three semitones in a row to find the answer.
Look at the pattern of “s” and “t”‘s. Actually there are five consecutive notes which are a semitone apart, marked with four “s”, but we need to find four which are different. The notes we have found are Eb, D, Eb, E, F. The E flat is repeated, so we should ignore the first one, which will give us four notes in total: D-Eb-E-F. These are four consecutive notes which are part of a chromatic scale.
ABRSM Exam Questions
In the ABRSM grade 4 exam you will probably also be asked to find a correctly written chromatic scale. The most common “errors” which make a scale incorrect are:
- Using three versions of the same letter name. For example, this scale uses three types of G: Gb, G and G#. While this scale will sound correct, the notation is incorrect. The maximum number of times a letter name can be used is two.
- Not cancelling an accidental. In this scale, the second note would sound as Bb, not B natural, because the flat on the first note continues to have its flattening power.
- Ending on a different enharmonic spelling. This scale starts on Eb but ends on D#. This is incorrect. The spelling of the first and last notes must be the same.
- Not having a semitone between each note. This scale looks convincing at first sight, but a careful check will reveal it has a tone step between F and Eb, and that Cb and B are enharmonic equivalents.
Chromatic Scales Exercises
Hover your mouse over the questions (tap on mobiles) to reveal the answers.
1. Write out one octave of the following chromatic scales in semibreves (whole notes).
NB: There are several possible answers to each question. Only one correct answer is shown.
a) Ascending, starting on Eb
b) Ascending, starting on F#
c) Descending, starting on A
d) Descending, starting on Bb
e) Ascending, starting on F
f) Ascending, starting on B
g) Descending, starting on C
h) Descending, starting on Db
2. Draw a circle around four notes next to each other that form part of a chromatic scale in the following pieces of music: