Chromatic and Enharmonic – What Do these Mean?

Two new terms for you today – chromatic and enharmonic. What are those, you ask? Well, keep reading and you will find out!



Chromatics refer to a series of notes moving up or down by a series of half steps. A chromatic scale goes from any given note through all twelve half-steps up one full octave. If you start with a C and play a chromatic one-octave scale you will play these notes:


When we go higher with a chromatic scale, we use sharps. As we go lower, we use flat signs, like this:


Here is what this looks like on a keyboard:

Chromatic Scale from C to C
Chromatic Scale from C to C

Need a review of half-steps and major scales? Check these out:  Half-Steps and Whole-Steps  and  Major Scales


Way back in the 1700’s great minds decided that the scale should be divided into 12 equal steps per octave. Frequency of a pitch doubles from one octave to the next. So, they were looking for a way to have the exact same frequency interval between each half step within an octave. Using physics and math, including logarithms, they took the twelfth root of 2 to get an interval frequency of 1.0595. If you look at the standard frequency for any pitch (like A = 440), multiply that by 1.0595 and do that 12 times, you will end up with double the frequency, or the pitch of the note an octave higher than your starting note. Fascinating, I know.

So Why Should You Care?

Well, you probably don’t need to care much about all the math involved, unless that really interests you. But playing chromatics is important! You should practice playing multi-octave chromatic scales starting on every note. Pianists, you should learn to play chromatic scales with both hands in several ways; both hands moving together, both hands moving in opposite directions, and starting each hand on different notes! You might be able to really annoy people if you start with one hand on C and the other hand on D! Or C#!

Besides annoying people, you will frequently find chromatic passages in more advanced music. If you have practiced playing chromatic scales, it will be easy for you to play those passages in your music. Also, if you look at a passage, see that it is totally chromatic, then you only need to read the first note, the last note, and the rhythm. Your fingers (and your brain) will automatically know what to play in between.



Have you ever looked up a word in a dictionary and seen an alternate spelling given for that word? Like “shop” and “shoppe.” Or “theater” and “theatre.” Enharmonics are like alternate spellings for notes. Look at a keyboard at the notes F and G. You see that there is a black key between the two notes. If we go up a half-step from F, we hit that black key and call it F#. Going down a half-step from G we hit that same note and call it G♭. That is what we are talking about when we talk about enharmonics. A different name for the same note. By using sharps and flats, and double sharps and flats, one note can have two or three different names. Here is an example of what I mean:

Enharmonics - Different names for the same note
Enharmonics – Different names for the same note

Reasons for Enharmonics

Why do we need to have different names for the same notes? Why do we have to complicate things? If you remember when we talked about major scales, we said that you can only use the same letter name once in each octave of a scale (exception – first and last note). And we have to use the letters in alphabetical order, not skipping any. So, we can’t write a scale using D-E-G♭-G-A-B-D♭-D. We must write it like this: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D. If we played those two examples on a keyboard, they would sound the same, but we can’t write them like that.

Another reason for using enharmonics is that usually, when notes are going higher, we write accidentals with sharps signs, and when they are going lower, we usually use flat signs. This helps our brains better visualize what the sound is doing.

Understanding chromatic and enharmonic notes will help you be a better musician!

Chromatic and Enharmonic - Do You Know What These Mean?
Chromatic and Enharmonic – Do You Know What These Mean?


More Music Theory Review

More music theory review? Yep! We need to do a bit more review before we move on to more theory concepts. Let’s review things related to scales and keys and key signatures.

Whole Steps and Half Steps

First of all, you need to remember what we learned about whole steps and half steps. Half steps move, either up or down, from one note to the very next closest note. That is usually from a black key on a keyboard to a white key, but not always. Sometimes moving from a white key to another white key makes a half step.  Whole steps are made up of two half steps. In the example below half steps are marked in purple and whole steps are marked in green.

Illustrations of whole steps and half steps.
Blue arrows show half steps. Purple arrows show whole steps.

Sharp, Flat, and Natural Signs

Sharp signs, flat signs, and natural signs move notes either a half step higher or lower than they are written. Flats signs lower a note by a half step. Sharp signs cause a note to be raised a half step.  Natural signs eliminate what a sharp or flat sign previously did.

Sharp, Flat, Natural Signs
Sharp, Flat, Natural Signs

Major Scale Patterns

Then we talked about the pattern of a major scale. Remember, a major scale can start on any note, and goes in alphabetical order to the next note with the same name as the starting note (from an A to an A, or from a D to the next D). A major scale must always follow the same pattern of whole steps and half steps. We use sharp and flat signs to adjust the notes to fit the pattern of whole and half steps. And every note of a major scale must have a different letter name (until you get to the top note of the scale, which is the same as the first note of the scale).  The pattern is always:



Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale
Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale

Examples of Major Scales with Half Steps Marked
Examples of Major Scales with Half Steps Marked

Key Signatures

The sharps and flats used to adjust the scale to the proper whole steps and half steps are used to create the key signature for that scale. Key signatures allow us to write music without including the sharp or flat signs for all the notes that need one. We write them once at the beginning, (in a specific pattern and order), and repeat them at the start of each new line of music. The sharps or flats in the key signature apply to all the notes of that name in the piece until something is written to change that.

Key Signatures
Key Signatures

Finding the Name of a Key from the Key Signature

We also looked at the order of the sharps and flats and how they are written into a key signature. We can look find the name of the scale used to write the music just by looking at the key signature. Then we say that we know the key the piece is written in. I showed you how we do that. Remember, we always read key signatures in order from left to right. Here is a link to the information we looked over earlier:  Read Here