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4. Chromatic Scales

Grade 4 Music Theory Lesson 4: Chromatic Scales

Chromatic scales are new at grade four. The word "chromatic" actually means "colourful" - the scales are very colourful since they use ALL 12 different notes available 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 can'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:

d-chromatic

As you can see, the scale contains 12 different notes. We wrote 13 notes in total, but the first and last note (D) are the same note name.

 

How to Write Out Chromatic Scales

There are two standard methods for writing chromatic scales. You can choose whichever method you prefer in the exam.

 

1) The Tonic / Dominant Method (or "harmonic" method)

Write in the start and end notes. They must be the same note, an octave apart.

Make sure that if there is an accidental on the start note, you add the same accidental at the other end of the scale. For example, a scale which starts on Bb must also end on Bb: not on B natural, or A# (even though it's the same note on the piano!)

Write the end note right at the end of the given blank stave. You will need plenty of space to add the other eleven notes between these two!

b flat chromatic

Next, write in the note which is a perfect 5th higher than the start note. You can work this out as the 5th degree of the scale (or dominant note) counting from the start note. Or you can count five letter names to find the correct letter name, then seven semitones (half steps) to work out if it needs an accidental.

In this case, the start note is Bb. The note a perfect 5th higher is F natural. This is the 5th note (dominant note) of the Bb scale (you can use the major or minor scale - the result is the same). Or, count five letter names: B-C-D-E-F to find the letter name F. Then count the semitones between Bb and F (there are seven, so you don't need to add any sharps or flats).

(As another example, count the semitones between B natural and F: there are six. This means you'd need to add a sharp to the F, making F#, if the start note of the scale was B natural).

When you have worked out the 5th above the start note, write it on the stave, more or less in the middle. (Don't forget to add any necessary accidentals!)

chromatic with 5th

 These two notes (Bb and F, here) are the most important ones in harmony. They are used for working out what key the music is in. For this reason, we keep these two notes "clean", meaning that we don't use those letter names anywhere else in the chromatic scale. In this case, it means that we can't use the letter name B or F anywhere else in the scale.

When we come to write the second note of this scale then, we find we can't use B natural, even though it's the next semitone up from Bb. This is because we need to keep the letter name "B" for only the start and end notes. We will have to use an enharmonic equivalent (see lesson 2) instead. The note C flat is an enharmonic equivalent of B natural, so we can use that instead.

chromatic c flat

The next note up is C natural. Remember though, that any accidentals already used will still affect notes later in the bar. If you write this:

 two c flats

you will actually have written two C flats! You must add a natural sign to the second C.

c flat c natural

The note one semitone higher is Db. You should never use the same letter name three times in a chromatic scale, so we can't write C flat, C natural then C sharp!

c c d

In fact, the easiest way to write out a chromatic scale using this method is to write in two of each note between the start, end and middle notes you've already worked out. So, using the Bb chromatic scale again, we will begin by writing in pairs of notes on each line and space between Bb, F and Bb:

inbetween notes

We added two notes on the lines/spaces for C, D, E, G and A.

Then, simply add the necessary accidentals so that each note is a semitone higher than the next.

b flat chromatic finished

Using this method, the descending chromatic scale will use the same notes as its ascending scale. Start with a high Bb, put F in the middle, then finish on a low Bb. Fill in the pairs of notes between these cornerstones with the appropriate accidentals.

 

2) The Sharps Up / Flats Down Method (or "melodic" method)

In this method, we use sharps on the way up in ascending scales, and flats on the way down in descending scales, for all accidentals excepting the start/end notes.

In an ascending scale, we use only SHARPS and no flats. 

sharps-up

 

In a descending scale, we use only FLATS and no sharps. 

flats-down

As before, make sure that the start and end notes have exactly the same name, with an accidental added if necessary. And again, you cannot use three notes with the same letter name. Can you spot the error in this scale? How would you correct it? 

 three sharps

You could write the first C (natural) as B# instead, or the last C## as D natural.

This method is useful because it results in a cleaner page, with fewer accidentals. The brain of the player has fewer symbols to deal with, which makes his/her job easier. This method is often used when a chromatic scale occurs in a piece of music.

  

 

Finding Part of a Chromatic Scale in a Musical Score

You might also be asked to pick out a part of a chromatic scale within a musical score. In that case, it could be written out using either of the methods described above. 

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 got 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!

Tips

  • 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.

beethoven pathetique

 

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.

tones and semitones

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.

 

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