What Is a Chromatic Scale?

Playing chromatic scales on different instruments

A scale is a series of musical notes organized in ascending or descending order by pitch. There are many different scales, built around many different sets of relationships. Most classical western music is based on scales built around an octave, or eight notes (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do).

Some of the notes in a do-re-mi scale are a full step apart (do-re-mi), and some are only a half-step apart (mi-fa, ti-do).

This same relationship of half and whole tones is the same no matter which note you start on. An octave can begin on any note, and the scale is given the name of the note it starts on.

For example, a C scale starts on a C, a D on D, and so forth. When singing the scale, the first note is always "do."

What Is a Chromatic Scale?

A chromatic scale consists of all the 8 tones in the do-re-mi scale plus all the additional half-tones that are left out when you sing do-re-mi. 

In other words, the 12 tones in a chromatic scale are a half-step or semi-tone apart.

The word "chromatic" comes from the Greek word chroma meaning "color." The chromatic scale consists of 12 notes each a half step apart. It is from the chromatic scale that every other scale or chord in most Western music is derived. We will take the C chromatic scale as an example:

C Chromatic Scale as you go up: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
C Chromatic Scale as you go down: C B Bb A Ab G Gb F E Eb D Db C

How Are Chromatic Scales Used?

Most classical western music (the music of Bach and Beethoven, for example) is built around the octave (do-re-mi). Chromatic scales, however, are often used in composing modern, atonal music. They are also commonly used in jazz compositions. Some Indian and Chinese music is also built around a 12-note scale.

It's important to note that contemporary symphonic instruments are almost always tuned to a scale of 12 equal tones. In the past, however, even western instruments were tuned in different ways, with unequal gaps between tones.

Chromatic Scales for Different Instruments:

Bass: On a bass, the chromatic scale includes an entire octave played in order. There's no root note. It would be unusual to play all of them in one song, but when learning to play, the chromatic scale is a great way to get familiar with the bass and fret board.

Piano: It's easier to understand what a chromatic scale sounds like if you think of a piano keyboard.

When you play do-re-mi, you play three white keys. There are two black keys between the white keys, which you have skipped. Play all those keys in sequence, and you are playing five notes instead of three. Play all 12 of the black and white keys of an octave in an ascending or descending order and you are playing a chromatic scale.

Guitar: Similar to the bass, on the guitar, the chromatic scale is a good way to learn the instrument.