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Musical scales are an essential building block of music theory.

They situate your music in a key and determine the character of the notes and chords used in your song.

But aside from the major and minor keys, the modes of the major scale and all the other weird scales out there, there’s another essential scale that’s important to know—the chromatic scale.

Chromatic scales might seem like an obvious scale type, but they’re worth paying attention to as you build your musical vocabulary.

In this article I’ll explain everything you need to know about chromatic scales.

What is the chromatic scale?

The chromatic scale is all twelve notes of the musical alphabet arranged one after the other in a stepwise scale.

Each degree of the scale is separated by a half-step interval so that the chromatic scale covers both the white and black keys of the keyboard.

How is the chromatic scale built?

The chromatic scale is the simplest scale to build because it’s made up of all twelve musical tones.

The chromatic scale is all twelve notes of the musical alphabet arranged one after the other in a stepwise scale.

Since each step in the scale has the same interval value of a single semitone, you can start on any note and follow the pattern to fill in the scale.

That means there’s only a single possible chromatic scale no matter how it’s transposed.

Even so, chromatic scales are often shown beginning on middle C to make things easier.

Here’s the chromatic scale the way it’s normally written starting on C:

Chromatic vs. Diatonic

Chromatic scales are often seen as the opposite of diatonic scales. Diatonic refers to scales built following the pattern of tones and semitones in a major or minor key signature.

Each major and minor scale has a set of chords built from each scale degree called the diatonic chords.

Since the chromatic scale contains all twelve tones, it has no specific chords associated with it.

Since the chromatic scale contains all twelve tones, it has no specific chords associated with it.

Common scales with chromatic notes

The notes from the chromatic scale often show up in other scales.

It’s most obvious in scales with connecting chromatic sections like the blues scales or the bebop scale.

In these situations chromatic notes bridge the gap between chord tones and pentatonic scale steps with stylish chromatic flourishes.

If you think chromatically you can use the concept to learn your way around them faster.

Where can you use the chromatic scale?

The chromatic scale isn’t often used on its own, but it can compliment other scales in plenty of situations.

Here’s a few places the chromatic scale works well.

Passing tones and passing chords

You don’t need to always play in the song’s main key when you write songs or melody lines.

In fact, one of the easiest ways to break out of a single key is to think chromatically.

In many cases adjacent notes or chords can be connected by smooth chromatic motion.

Even though the chromatic note or chord doesn’t belong to the main key, the contour of the line’s motion makes the connection for your ears.

Use chromatic passing tones and chords to add interest to boring linear melodies and progressions.

Use chromatic passing tones and chords to add interest to boring linear melodies and progressions.

As its own sound

The chromatic scale contains every possible musical note. That means it has no similarity to any other scale in your arsenal.

When you think of it that way, the chromatic scale can take on its own sound.

Genres like free jazz typically take advantage of the discordant, disorienting sound of the chromatic scale to manipulate listeners expectations.

Consider the chromatic sound if you ever need a chaotic, unfamiliar feel in your music.

Chromatic magic

The chromatic scale is a music theory concept you should be aware of as you develop your skills.

While it may seem like a trivial set of notes, thinking chromatically is an easy way to unlock fresh sounds.

If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great start for working with the chromatic scale in your music.