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:
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:
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!