Chromatic Scales

Have you been following our discussions about scales? We’ve looked at major scales, minor scales, the different kinds of minor scales, and the relationships between major and minor scales. I have one more kind of scale for you to learn – the chromatic scale.

First, A Quick Review

Major Scales

A basic major scale begins and ends on the same note.

A major scale always follows a certain pattern of whole steps and half steps. Or some may refer to these as tones and semitones.


The pattern of the major scale determines its key signature – the sharps or flats required to make the notes fit the pattern.

Read here for more information about Major Scales.

Minor Scales

There are three forms of minor scales: Natural Minor, Melodic Minor, and Harmonic Minor

Natural minor scales always fit a certain pattern of whole steps and half steps.

                        Ascending:  W-H-W-W-H-W-W

                        Descending:  W-W-H-W-W-H-W (the reverse of the pattern going up)

Melodic minor scales start with that same pattern but raise the 6th and 7th steps of the scale. So the pattern of a melodic minor scale going up would be W-H-W-W-W-W-H.

Descending (or going down) a melodic minor scale lowers the 6th and 7th steps back down and follows the same pattern as the natural minor: W-W-H-W-W-H-W.

Harmonic Minor scales start with the same form as the natural minor but raise the 7th step of the scale. They keep that 7th step raised on the way down the scale as well. This makes for an odd interval, or step between the 7th and 8th steps of the scale. It comes out to be a whole step plus a half step. (officially called an augmented 2nd) I noted it as W+H and underlined it. The pattern for a Harmonic minor scale looks like this:

                        Ascending:  W-H-W-W-H-W+H-H

                        Descending: H-W+H-H-W-W-H-W

Read here for more information about the three forms of Minor Scales.

Major and Minor Scales are Related

Major and Minor scales are related in two possible ways. You can have parallel major and minor scales, and you can have relative major and minor scales.

Parallel major and minor scales have the same starting note. C Major and C Minor are parallel scales. The note names throughout the scale are the same, but the accidentals will be different.

Relative major and minor scales are related by key signature. The two scales will have different starting notes, but they will have the same key signatures. G Major and E Minor are relative scales. They both have an F♯ in their key signatures.

Read here for more information about the relationships between major and minor scales.

Chromatic Scales

What is a Chromatic Scale?

Now we get to chromatic scales. “Chromatic” comes from the Greek word chroma, which means “color.” A chromatic scale uses all the notes, or “colors” possible. Within one octave there are 12 half steps. In major or minor scales, we use 8 of those steps. A chromatic scale uses all 12 of the steps in an octave. Here is an example:

C-C♯-D-D♯-E-F-F♯-G-G♯-A-A♯-B-C C-B-B♭-A-A♭-G-G♭-F-E-E♭-D-D♭-C

Written Chromatic Scale from C to C
Example of a Chromatic Scale written from C to C ascending and descending

If you play this on a keyboard you will see that we used every note possible from C to the next C – all the white and black keys.

Also, notice that no letter name has been used more than twice. If you look at the example given above, instead of writing C-C♯-D-D♯-E-F, we could use C-D♭-D-D♯-E-F. The same pitches would be represented on a keyboard, but it is written incorrectly. We used “D” three times, but the rules say we can only use it twice. So we replace the D♭ with C♯ and we have written the scale correctly.

Writing Chromatic Scales

When we write a chromatic scale on its own, the general rule is to use sharps as we go up the scale and flats as we go down the scale. This is the basic, simple approach. When a chromatic passage is used within a piece of music, composers still tend to follow the basics of this approach, but they also try to work with the key signature of the music.

A chromatic scale can start on any note. It is not “named” like major and minor scales are. We might tell someone to play the scale of C Major, and that person should know exactly what to play. When referring to chromatic scales, however, we would tell someone to play a chromatic scale up and down three octaves, starting on a C, or F, or whatever note we want.

Why Learn and Practice Chromatic Scales?

Make Learning Your Music Easier

We have said in the past that all music is based on scales, in one way or another. So learning scales helps us to learn music. The same is true for chromatic scales. Often music has passages (or sections) that are chromatic. Knowing how to play the chromatic scale, starting on any note, will help you play your music better.

Being able to recognize and play chromatic passages will help you learn new music faster. Let’s say you are playing through a piece of music and you get to a section that is a series of notes with lots of sharps and flats. Instead of panicking about it, analyze the passage. Is it using only half steps? If so, then you don’t need to “read” every note as you go through the passage. Read the first note, the last note, and then mark that the passage is chromatic between those two notes, and your fingers and brain should know automatically what to do.

Practice all those Odd Fingerings

Let’s face it, how often do you have to play a G♭, or an A♯? Probably not very often. But you can’t forget how to play them. So, practice your chromatic scales. They will give you practice with every sharp and flat fingering there is. Then, the next time some odd accidental shows up in your music you don’t have to look up the fingering – you already know it!

Best Ways to Practice Chromatic Scales?

Pick a Note, Any Note

Play up and down one octave, using every half step within the octave. Then see if you can do two octaves. Be sure you use the correct fingerings for every note. When that becomes easy for you, start on a different note. And then a different note. Practice until you can start on any note and play one or two octaves of chromatics. Be sure you listen and pay attention while you play – always keep your brain engaged in what you are doing!

Keyboard Players

Check with your teacher about how to properly finger chromatic scales. The fingering can be a bit tricky, so learn it correctly. The basic rule is to always use the third finger on black keys. Only use the second finger when two white keys are right next to each other and use the first finger on all the other white keys. Here are a couple links to fingering chromatic scales on a keyboard.

See Here

And Also Here

String Players

You will definitely have to consult with your teacher for fingering advice. There are several methods and thoughts about fingering the chromatic scales on string instruments. Please learn to do it correctly so you don’t have to unlearn and relearn!

Now, Let’s Summarize:

Chromatic Scales –

  • Use all 12 half steps in any octave
  • Cannot use any letter name more than twice in one octave. (Except for first and last note)
  • Generally written with sharps ascending (going up) and flats descending (going down)
  • May use unique fingering patterns (especially keyboard and string players)
  • Can start and end on any note

Questions? Let me know in the comments.

Chromatic Scales - What are they and why do they matter?