What is the Chromatic Scale in Music?

In music, there are lots of different types of scales.

There’s the pentatonic scale, which uses five notes, and the heptatonic scale, which has seven notes. You might have a music scale that sounds happy, or sad, or spooky.

When a music scale includes all 12 pitches in Western music, that’s called a chromatic scale.

In today’s post, we’re going to take a look at the chromatic scale and how it works. We’ll also talk about how to notate the chromatic scale in music.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the question, “What is the chromatic scale?”

The Chromatic Scale: A Definition

In one sentence, a chromatic scale is when all twelve notes are played in order of pitch. This scale is built entirely out of half steps (semitones), and each note is a half step above (or below) the last one.

On the piano, this means playing all of the black notes and white notes in order, either ascending (going up) or descending (going down).

Here’s what it looks like on sheet music:

chromatic scale ascending descending sheet music (image by Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s a video showing the chromatic scale played on a piano:

Chromatic scale starting on C

Of course, you can start a chromatic scale on any note. Just play all of the notes one semitone above each other. So if you start on D, you would play D, D#, E, F,F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, and D.

Notes of a Chromatic Scale

In case you’re wondering which notes are played in the chromatic scale, here is a handy table that you can use as a reference:

Starting NoteNotes in the Scale
CC – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B – C
DD – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B – C – C# – D
EE – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B – C – C# – D – D# – E
FF – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B – C – C# – D – D# – E – F
GG – G# – A- A# – B – C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G
AA – A# – B – C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A
BB – C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B

The Chromatic Solfege

Solfege is one of the tools we use to name the notes of the major scale. You might know the solfege if you’ve seen The Sound of Music, specifically the Do Re Mi song.

In a normal seven note major scale, the solfege goes:

Do – Re – Mi – Fa – Soh – La – Ti – Do

In the chromatic scale, we still use these same syllables, but we add a few extras into the mix, for all those semitone notes.

When the scale is ascending (going up), we use these syllables:

Do – Di – Re – Ri – Mi – Fa – Fi – Soh – Si – La – Li – Ti – Do.

And when the scale is descending (going down), we use these syllables:

Do – Ti – Te – La – Le – Soh – Se – Fa – Mi – Me – Re – Ra – Do

Listen to this video to hear the chromatic solfege in action. It’s a great vocal exercise for singers as well.

Chromatic solfege scale

Chromatic Definition

What does chromatic mean?

The word “chromatic” comes from the Greek word for color (chroma). This is because the chromatic notes add more color and texture to a musical piece.

During the 1600s, most music was written in the standard major and minor keys. So to add a little extra flair to their music, composers would use accidentals (keys that did not fit in the major or minor scale).

All of these notes can be found in the chromatic scale, so that’s why we call it chromatic, because in the old days, these notes added color and texture to the music.

After the 19th century, many composers focused on writing music that defied the old traditions of composing music. They began using a lot more of the chromatic notes, and less of the traditional major and minor keys.

How to Write The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is unique, because there’s actually more than one way to write it.

For example, you could write the chromatic scale with sharps, or flats, or a mix of flats and naturals.

chromatic scale on sheet music with music flats and natural notes

You could start on C, and go C, C#, and D, like this:

Or you could write it as C, Db, and D natural, like this:

Both of these are technically correct, however, there are a few rules that you should follow if you’re going to be writing a chromatic scale.

First, most composers use sharp signs when the scale is ascending. If the notes are going up, it’s just easier to use sharps instead of flats.

chromatic scale ascending on music staff with sharps (image from Wikimedia Commons)

And if the scale is descending, you use flats.

descending chromatic scale with flats on music staff

You also want to consider the key signature as well. If your key signature has a bunch of sharps, it would be easier to write the chromatic scale using sharps instead of flats.

These are the typical rules for someone who is just writing music as a hobby. However, there are a couple more rules that you should know if you decide to take a music theory exam.

Music Theory Exam Rules

When it comes to music theory exams, there are two more rules that you should follow when you’re writing a chromatic scale.

  • You need to have one note on every pitch
  • You can’t have more than two notes on the same pitch.

So what do these rules mean, exactly? Let’s take a look.

One Note on Every Pitch

With the chromatic scale, it’s easy to accidentally skip a note. But you cannot miss any pitches in the scale.

If you write the scale like this:

chromatic scale on sheet music with a missing note

This might look okay at first, but when you look a little closer, it’s missing a note for E. This would be incorrect on a music theory test.

The easiest way to avoid this is to double check your work, and make sure there’s a note on every line and space of the staff, from the starting note to the octave above it.

No More Than Two Notes Per Pitch

The second rule for notating scales is that you should never have more than two notes on one pitch.

It’s something to watch for when you’re writing scales, because this means that you can’t write Ab, A, and A# all in a row. Instead, you would write them out as G#, A, and A#, or Ab, A, and Bb. Both of these are acceptable.

Also, this rule means that you probably shouldn’t use double sharps or double flats in your chromatic scale. That just makes things too confusing, and then you’ll have three notes for one pitch (D, D#, and D##).

Again, if you get stuck on how to write the notes, you can refer back to our table of notes on the chromatic scale.

Examples of the Chromatic Scale in Music

Since the chromatic scale technically contains all twelve pitches in Western music, you could technically say that most music is written in a chromatic scale. But as far as chromaticism in music goes, these are some of the best examples out there.

The Flight of the Bumblebee

One of the most famous pieces of music that includes the chromatic scale is Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

This song uses a ton of chromaticism, as well as lots of runs and other musical ornamentations. Here is a cover of this song, arranged for the piano.

Flight of the Bumblebee

Etude Op 25 No.6

Another great example of the chromatic scale in music is Chopin’s “Etude Op 25 No. 6.”

Notice how this piece really uses the chromatic thirds to add an interesting sound to the music.

Etude Op 25 No. 6

Fantasia in D Minor

And last but not least, a third example of chromaticism in music can be found in the piece, “Fantasia in D Minor” by Mozart.

Starting at 3:20 in the video, you’ll hear a cadenza, then a chromatic chord ascending into the next section.

K. 397, Fantasia in D minor

Summarizing The Chromatic Scale

Hopefully this post helps you understand the basics of chromatic scales in music.

Since these scales are so important in music theory, especially in exams, you’ll definitely want to learn about them and how they work.

You can also read more about other types of music scales in this article HERE.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions about the chromatic scales, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to assist you.

Jessica Roberts
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