Chromatic Music: Definition, Scale & Harmony

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

This lesson will examine the history and theory behind chromatic music, which was once a symbol of insanity in the musical arts. Test your knowledge at the end with a short quiz.

What is Chromatic Music?

I like to joke that chromatic music once symbolized insanity in music. The reason for this is that chromatic music lacks a tonal center, and that the chromatic scale includes every single note. The sensation of listening to a downward chromatic scale feels like falling in out-of-control spiral, while an upward chromatic scale sounds like a runaway train.

In Western music, a chromatic note is a note that does not exist in the given key. A key is a collection of pitches that relate to a specific home tone. For example, in the key of C major, the notes are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Any note that has been modified by an accidental, either sharp or flat, is considered a chromatic note.

Chromatic Scale

Chromatic scale
Chromatic Scale

Put simply, the chromatic scale is a musical scale that uses all the musical pitches. For example, if you were to start the chromatic scale on a C, the scale would read as: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C… and so on. In case you were wondering, the # after a letter means the pitch is sharp, raised a half step. Descending, this would look like: C, B, Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, E, Eb, D, Db, C… and so on; the b after a letter means the note is flat, lowered a half step. It is common practice to use sharps going up and flats going down, but there is no hard and fast rule about this.

Chromatic Harmony

Chromatic harmony can get tricky. The simple definition is of a chromatic harmony is chords that build on or include notes that aren't part of the key. Let's start with the secondary dominant chords, as those are the easiest to understand.

Secondary dominant chords are chords built on the dominant of the dominant key. I think everyone's eyes just glazed over. The dominant is the 5th note in the scale. We're going to stick with our C major example, as it is the easiest to work with. The dominant of C is G. The dominant of G is D. So the secondary dominant of C is D. Next we build a 7th chord on this note. A 7th chord is a major chord with a lowered 7th above the bottom note. The 7th chord on D is D, F#, A, C. That makes this a chromatic chord because the F# is not present in the original key of C major.

The next set of chromatic chords is the diminished 7th chord. A diminished chord is made up of all minor thirds, and the added 7th is a non-scale tone. In the key of C major the commonly occurring diminished 7th is B, D, F, Ab, where the Ab is the non-scale tone; B, D, and F are naturally occurring.

Neapolitan and Augmented 6th Chords

The next two types of chords are where it can get a bit tricky. First, the Neapolitan 6th chord is a chord in first inversion built on the lowered second scale degree. What does that mean? First, let's build the chord. Starting in the key of C again, the second scale degree is D. Now we need to lower it, so we have Db. Next we build a major chord, so Db, F, Ab. Finally, an inversion means to rearrange the notes, placing the note on the bottom on top (first inversion), or the top note on bottom (second inversion). That would make our Neapolitan 6 chord F, Ab, Db, with the Ab and Db being the chromatic notes of the chord.

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