What Is A Chromatic Scale?

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 09/29/22 •  6 min read

There are many scales within music, all of which are pivotal to understanding how music works, and for creating new compositions and melodies.

What Is A Chromatic Scale?

One such example is a chromatic scale. But what exactly is a chromatic scale, and how are they used within music? 

What Is It? 

The chromatic scale is a series of 12 pitches, used frequently within music, consisting of notes separated by the interval of a semitone – or ‘half step’. 

Almost all instruments in the western world are designed to produce the chromatic scale, while other instruments such as trombones and violins are also capable of producing microtones – the term used to describe tones that register between those played on a piano. 

What Is The Chromatic Scale Used For?

As with any scale within musical theory, their primary purpose is to establish, in the mind of the musician, the proper order of musical notes (within a specific range) so as to achieve melody, flow, and harmony. 

This has many applications when it comes to composing music and writing songs, and is a framework upon which chord changes, patterns, and structures can be built.

By understanding which notes naturally work in succession of one another, a musician can then begin to experiment, dissect, structure, and reestablish new note formations to create new songs. 

Scales have also been traditionally used in musical theory as a means to establish a sense of fluidity and attachment to an instrument, and develop a sense of precision and muscle memory in the fingers of the musician, upon which they can learn more complex and unconventional musical compositions. 

What Notes Make Up The Chromatic Scale? 

As mentioned above, the chromatic scale consists of 12 musical notes, which follow this distinct pattern of whole notes, flats (b) and sharps (#): 

A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, and G#/Ab

When played on a piano, these notes ascend in pitch, beginning at one end of the piano, and working right. 

Chromatic scales can also be played from any one of the 12 tones, which in turn means that there are 12 separate inversions (or combinations) of the chromatic scale, depending on which tone the sequence of 12 is started from. 

Learning Processes Involved

Classically trained musicians will practice and become proficient in these scales with both hands, granting them a certain dominion and fluidity over the instrument, and allowing them to then experiment with different combinations and inversions. 

Practicing

When practicing with both hands, many musicians begin one octave from one another on the piano, taking note of when their fingers are playing in unison with one another, and when there is contrary motion. 

Contrary Motion

Contrary motion is when both hands each play the chromatic scale – with the left hand ascending up the piano, and the right hand descending.

This means that the left hand follows the scale going from deeper to higher notes, and the right hand follows the scale in the opposing order, ranging from higher notes to deeper. 

This is a great exercise for building dexterity, fluidity, and an understanding of the points where the tones match up, and where they are most contrasting. 

Contrary & Parallel Motion

This exercise can also be varied by alternating between contrary and parallel motion.

This is a process where you do the above-mentioned contrary motion (with both hands moving in opposing directions up and down the scale), and then ascending both hands together in tandem when you have reached the end. 

This too is great for improving dexterity, and helps to create a sense of oneness with the instrument, as well as a greater ease of movement up and down the piano. 

Sequence Patterns

Sequence patterns are an important addition to any training regimen, and are a great way of improving not only dexterity, but also speed.

The chromatic scale is particularly suitable for application with these patterns, and can be great for those wanting to become more natural with the piano. 

A sequence is essentially a repeating pattern of notes that can be adjusted and moved up and down the scale. The pattern can also remain static, but can be reversed and switched as and when you see fit. 

The Chromatic Scale & Improvisation

Despite being uniform (as scales tend to be), there is plenty of room for improvisation within the chromatic scale. 

The fact that the scale only has 12 tones means that there aren’t any changes in scale degree as there are in the major and minor scales.

This means that improvisation is simpler, and makes the chromatic scale much more suited to experimentation. 

Why Are Scales Important? 

Ultimately, all scales are important to understanding music, and are a good way of effectively ‘organizing’ music in a way that we can properly understand the patterns, tones, and nuances that go into it. 

Scales make up the basis of our understanding, creating a framework (as mentioned above) upon which we can understand how sounds work, and create new and exciting combinations as a result. 

Without these basic understandings, we would find it far more difficult to write and notate music, and the learning process would become much more complex.

In many ways, the scales create the very skeleton of music, laying out a solid foundation upon which to build more intricate constructions and functioning components. 

How I use a chromatic Scale

In my music I would use the chromatic scale to create tension. They are great when used in thriller and horror music as the notes that are “out of the key” give the feeling of not belonging and of tension.

I use them in the same way that I use risers, to give an easy sense of growth whilst also supplying build and tension.

Perfect for horror trailers!

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about the chromatic scale, and the ways that it is utilized within musical theory. 

The chromatic scale has many uses, both in the way we practice and familiarize ourselves with the piano (and other instruments), and also when it comes to creating original compositions and writing new songs. 

So if you are looking to learn the basics of piano, and don’t know where to start, the chromatic scale might just be for you!

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).

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