The chromatic scale

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The usefulness (or otherwise) of scales, from the familiar major scale to exotic eastern scales, in melodic improvisation is often debated. One very important scale that rarely gets a mention in such debates, however, is the chromatic scale. One reason for this is that, in the context of improvisation, it’s rarely treated as a scale in its own right. That's probably because, containing every possible note, it has no distinct flavour, unlike all other scales with their unique series of intervals.

The name chromatic, meaning 'coloured', alludes to the filling in (colouring) of the gaps between the notes of the diatonic major and minor scales, resulting in a ‘twelve-note per octave’ scale with no gaps between its notes larger than a semitone (or half step).

When it comes to improvising, it provides colourful (chromatic) notes to act as passing or added notes between and around chord tones, or to fill in the gaps between the notes of diatonic scales. In either case, its role is usually seen as secondary and simply an extension to the chord tones or diatonic scales.

In other applications, however, the chromatic scale comes into its own and is very important and useful, both in theory and in practice.

In practice,

The chromatic scale is of great technical value and is an excellent model for teaching good fretting-hand positions and consecutive fingering. The scale below is a three-octave version based on E.



















The E chromatic scale: - E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D# (over 3 octaves)

How to play - Fretting hand

Play through the scale using one finger per fret. Make sure to always place your finger just behind the fret to get the best note. The closer to the fret you place your finger, the less pressure is required to ensure a clean buzz free note. (Don't place your finger on top of the fret though, as that will just muffle the note).

At first you may have to lift each finger after you've played it in order to get to the next one but after you're used to playing the scale, you should aim to NOT lift your fingers until it's time to change to the next string.

The only way to achieve this is by adopting a good hand position in which each finger is hovering above its designated fret, ready to descend with minimum delay, whenever it's called upon. That's the purpose of this exercise - optimal hand placement and efficient finger movement; and the chromatic scale is ideal for this.

Practise slowly, and preferably in time to the beat of a metronome or click track. When you are satisfied that your hand position is good, and all notes are clean and 'buzz-free', gradually increase your speed.

Changing position

When you reach the note G# on string 1 fret 4, you must shift position from position 1 (your present position) to position 5. That means your first finger will play the note on fret 5, second finger plays fret 6 etc., again strictly observing one finger for each of the frets within that position. After playing fret 8 with your fourth finger, you must shift position again, up to position 9, and again play one finger per fret up to the final note of E at the twelfth fret, with your fourth finger.

You can then reverse direction and descend.

Another use - Learning the order of notes on the fretboard.

While you're at it - if your knowledge of the names of the notes isn't as good as it should be, you can improve your knowledge greatly by naming each note as you play it.

Do this only when you are very sure how to play the scale, and only when you are practising slowly.

For example as you play, call out "E, F, F# (or Gb) G", etc.

How to play - Picking hand

If you use a pick, you can use alternate up and down pick strokes (alternate picking).

If you use fingers, you can use your index (i) and middle (m) fingers in a standard alternating finger pattern, such as i, m, i, m, i, m, etc.

Don't worry about your picking hand until your fretting hand fingers know what they're doing.

In theory

The chromatic scale is very useful in helping us decide how to name chromatic notes correctly as either sharps or flats. The correct naming of notes is very important, as it often gives us an idea of the function of a note or chord within the music. There are in fact, two versions of the chromatic scale: the melodic chromatic scale and the harmonic chromatic scale. They both sound identical, of course, but some of their notes are named differently. In the melodic chromatic scale, notes that are chromatic to the key (major or minor scale) are written as sharps when ascending and flats when descending.

The harmonic chromatic scale, however, has a fixed form and the notes are written as sharps or flats strictly according to the major and minor scales that combined to produce that particular chromatic scale. The notes of the harmonic chromatic scale are derived from the major plus the parallel (natural) minor scales plus the minor second note (b2) and the augmented fourth (#4).

For example, in the key of C:

C major scale – C D E F G A B

C minor scale– C D Eb F G Ab Bb

plus the flatted second Db and the augmented fourth F#.

These combine to produce the complete harmonic chromatic scale of C:

C Db D Eb E F F# G Ab A Bb B

Notice the following very important rule when writing harmonic chromatic scales:

"Every letter is used twice except the 1st scale degree (called the TONIC) and the 5th* scale degree (called the DOMINANT)."

*The 5th scale degree means the fifth degree (letter) of the major or minor scale.

That makes it very simple to write any chromatic scale correctly.

For example, the chromatic scale of A:

A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G#.

It’s important because, in music, chords and notes need to be called by their correct names so that we can know, not just their pitch, but also their function.

For example, look at the G major scale:

G A B C D E F# G

The seventh note (F#) is called the leading note because we can plainly hear its function is that it wants to lead us up to the main key note (G). Whenever any player sees that note F# in the key of G, they can anticipate where they’re probably going to go next, which is to rise a semitone to the key note. The note F# in this example isn't a chromatic note as it belongs to the G major scale. However, if F# appeared in the key of C major, it would be a chromatic note. If we hear that it has the same tendency to rise a semitone, then it's called F#. If it has a tendency to fall, e.g., as part of descending chromatic run, then it would be called Gb.

Writing chromatic notes without regard to their function within the key would make reading music and chord sheets more difficult than it need be.

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