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How to Play the Chromatic Scale

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 2 min read

Western music is built on melodies and chords, which in turn come from scales. In addition to major and minor scales, there are many other scales in the world of music. One scale—the chromatic scale—includes all the notes of Western music.



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What Is a Scale?

In Western music, a scale is a sequence of notes chosen from the 12 available pitches. The pitches are spaced in intervals known as semitones. One semitone is called a half step, and two semitones combine to form a whole step. Most scales alternate between half step and whole step intervals between the notes. Meanwhile, certain Eastern musical traditions, particularly those of South Asia, include microtonalities that expand the number of available pitches. In this style of music, the semitone is not the smallest interval between two notes.

There is no rule in music theory that states how many notes a scale must include. The most common scales in Western music contain seven pitches and are thus called heptatonic. Other scales have fewer notes—five-note pentatonic scales are quite common in popular music. The scale that uses all 12 pitches is the chromatic scale.

What Is the Chromatic Scale?

The chromatic scale is a scale that contains all 12 pitches found in Western music. One octave of chromatic notes would consist of the following pitches:

  • C
  • C♯/D♭
  • D
  • D♯/E♭
  • E
  • F
  • F♯/G♭
  • G
  • G♯/A♭
  • A
  • A♯/B♭
  • B
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How Many Notes Are in the Chromatic Scale?

There are 12 notes in the chromatic scale. To fully convey the sound of chromaticism, you must play several of these notes in a row. For instance, playing three chromatic notes in a row would not be out of place in most genres; blues, rock, and jazz music all commonly use such phrasing. But if you play four to five chromatic notes in a row, you begin to establish an edgier tonality that's more commonly associated with progressive jazz and twentieth-century classical music.

How to Play the Chromatic Scale on a Piano

To play chromatic scales on a piano keyboard, you must play all the white keys and all the black keys in order, one after another. From the first note to the last note, you simply move up the scale in semitones, as every single note is one half-step away from the note before it.

Starting with middle C, play the notes in order by employing the following fingering: 1-3-1-3-1-2-3-1-3-1-3-1-2

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