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Chromatic fourth: lament bass bassline in Dm (D-C#-C()-B-B-A)
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The diatonic scale notes (above) and the non-scale chromatic notes (below) Chromatic notes diagram.png
The diatonic scale notes (above) and the non-scale chromatic notes (below)

Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing the primary diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale. Chromaticism is in contrast or addition to tonality or diatonicism and modality (the major and minor, or "white key", scales). Chromatic elements are considered, "elaborations of or substitutions for diatonic scale members". [2]

In music theory, a diatonic scale is a heptatonic scale that includes five whole steps and two half steps (semitones) in each octave, in which the two half steps are separated from each other by either two or three whole steps, depending on their position in the scale. This pattern ensures that, in a diatonic scale spanning more than one octave, all the half steps are maximally separated from each other.

Pitch (music) Perceptual property in music ordering sounds from low to high

Pitch is a perceptual property of sounds that allows their ordering on a frequency-related scale, or more commonly, pitch is the quality that makes it possible to judge sounds as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies. Pitch can be determined only in sounds that have a frequency that is clear and stable enough to distinguish from noise. Pitch is a major auditory attribute of musical tones, along with duration, loudness, and timbre.

Chord (music) harmonic set of three or more notes

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches consisting of multiple notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously. For many practical and theoretical purposes, arpeggios and broken chords, or sequences of chord tones, may also be considered as chords.


Not only at the beginning of a composition but also in the midst of it, each scale-step [ degree ] manifests an irresistible urge to attain the value of the tonic for itself as that of the strongest scale-step. If the composer yields to this urge of the scale-step within the diatonic system of which this scale-step forms part, I call this process tonicalization and the phenomenon itself chromatic.

Musical composition aesthetic ordering and disposing of musical information

Musical composition, music composition, or simply composition, can refer to an original piece or work of music, either vocal or instrumental, the structure of a musical piece, or to the process of creating or writing a new piece of music. People who create new compositions are called composers. Composers of primarily songs are usually called songwriters; with songs, the person who writes lyrics for a song is the lyricist. In many cultures, including Western classical music, the act of composing typically includes the creation of music notation, such as a sheet music "score," which is then performed by the composer or by other instrumental musicians or singers. In popular music and traditional music, songwriting may involve the creation of a basic outline of the song, called the lead sheet, which sets out the melody, lyrics and chord progression. In classical music, orchestration is typically done by the composer, but in musical theatre and in pop music, songwriters may hire an arranger to do the orchestration. In some cases, a pop or traditional songwriter may not use written notation at all, and instead compose the song in their mind and then play, sing and/or record it from memory. In jazz and popular music, notable sound recordings by influential performers are given the weight that written or printed scores play in classical music.

In Schenkerian theory, a scale-step is a triad that is perceived as an organizing force for a passage of music. In Harmony, Schenker gives the following example and asserts that

our ear will connect the first tone, G, with the B on the first quarter of measure 1 as the third of G.


Likewise, it will connect that G with the D on the first quarter of measure 2 as its fifth. Our ear will establish this connection instinctively, but nonetheless in accordance with the demands of Nature. In an analogous way, it will link that first G with the C and E of the second half of measure 1 and thus form the concept of another triad. For our ear will miss no opportunity to hear such triads, no matter how far in the background of our consciousness this conception may lie hidden and no matter whether in the plan of the composition it is overshadowed by far more obvious and important relationships.

In music theory, the term scale degree refers to the position of a particular note on a scale relative to the tonic, the first and main note of the scale from which each octave is assumed to begin. Degrees are useful for indicating the size of intervals and chords and whether they are major or minor.

Heinrich Schenker (1906) [3]

Chromaticism is almost by definition an alteration of, an interpolation in or deviation from this basic diatonic organization.

Leonard B. Meyer (1956) [4]

Chromaticism is the name given to the use of tones outside the major or minor scales. Chromatic tones began to appear in music long before the common-practice period, and by the beginning of that period were an important part of its melodic and harmonic resources. Chromatic tones arise in music partly from inflection [alteration] of scale degrees in the major and minor modes, party from secondary dominant harmony, from a special vocabulary of altered chords, and from certain nonharmonic tones.... Notes outside the scale do not necessarily affect the tonality....tonality is established by the progression of roots and the tonal functions of the chords, even though the details of the music may contain all the tones of the chromatic scale.

Walter Piston (1987) [5]

Sometimes...a melody based on a regular diatonic scale (major or minor) is laced with many accidentals, and although all 12 tones of the chromatic scale may appear, the tonal characteristics of the diatonic scale are maintained. [6] ... Chromaticism [is t]he introduction of some pitches of the chromatic scale into music that is basically diatonic in orientation, or music that is based on the chromatic scale instead of the diatonic scales. [7]

Benward & Saker (2003)

Development of chromaticism

Contemporary jazz and rock bass guitarist Joseph Patrick Moore demonstrating chromaticism

The following timeline is abbreviated from its presentation by Benward & Saker: [8]

Baroque Period (1600—1750) "The system of major and minor scales developed during the early part of the baroque period. This coincided with the emergence of key consciousness in music." [8]
Classical Period (1750—1825) "The major and minor keys where the basis of music in the classical period. Chromaticism was decorative for the most part and shifts from one key to another...were used to create formal divisions." [8]
Romantic Period (1825—1900) "Chromaticism increased to the point that the major—minor key system began to be threatened. By the end of the period, keys often shifted so rapidly in the course of a composition that tonality itself began to break down." [8]
Post-Romantic and Impressionistic Period (1875—1920) "With the breakdown of the major—minor key system, impressionist composers began to experiment with other scales....particularly...pentatonic, modal, and whole-tone scales." [8]
Contemporary Period (1920—present) "The chromatic scale has predominated in much of the music of our period." [8]
Jazz and Popular Music (1900—present) "Popular music has remained the last bastion of the major-minor key system....The blues scale ["a chromatic variant of the major scale"] is often found in jazz and popular music with blues influence." [8]
Mode mixture, using minor triads in the major key Mixture of mode chromatic substitution.png
Mode mixture, using minor triads in the major key

As tonality began to expand during the last half of the nineteenth century, with new combinations of chords, keys and harmonies being tried, the chromatic scale and chromaticism became more widely used, especially in the works of Richard Wagner, such as the opera "Tristan und Isolde". Increased chromaticism is often cited as one of the main causes or signs of the "break down" of tonality, in the form of increased importance or use of:

As tonal harmony continued to widen and even break down, the chromatic scale became the basis of modern music written using the twelve-tone technique, a tone row being a specific ordering or series of the chromatic scale, and later serialism. Though these styles/methods continue to (re)incorporate tonality or tonal elements, often the trends that led to these methods were abandoned, such as modulation.

Types of chromaticism

David Cope [10] describes three forms of chromaticism: modulation, borrowed chords from secondary keys, and chromatic chords such as augmented sixth chords.

The chromatic expansion of tonality which characterizes much of nineteenth century music is illustrated in miniature by the substitution of a chromatic harmony for an expected diatonic harmony. This technique resembles the deceptive cadence, which involves the substitution of another diatonic chord for the expected diatonic goal harmony. [11] ...
In the major mode a substitute chromatic consonance often proves to be a triad which has been taken from the parallel minor mode. This process ["assimilation"] called mixture of mode or simply mixture....Four consonant triads from the minor mode may replace their counterparts in the major mode. These we call chromatic triads by mixture. [9]

Allen Forte (1979)

The total chromatic is the collection of all twelve equally tempered pitch classes of the chromatic scale.

List of chromatic chords:

Other types of chromaticity:

Chromatic note

One of seven examples of linear chromaticism from Dizzy Gillespie's solo from "Hot House"
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Notes which do not belong to the key [those, "that lie within the major 2nds," of the diatonic scale] are called chromatic notes.

Allen Forte (1979) [1]

A chromatic note is one which does not belong to the scale of the key prevailing at the time. Similarly, a chromatic chord is one which includes one or more such notes. A chromatic and a diatonic note, or two chromatic notes, create chromatic intervals.

When one note of an interval is chromatic or when both notes are chromatic, the entire interval is called chromatic. Chromatic intervals arise by raising or lowering one or both notes of a diatonic interval, so that the interval is made larger or smaller by the interval of half step ["altered diatonic intervals"].

Allen Forte (1979) [14]

A chromatic scale is one which proceeds entirely by semitones, so dividing the octave into twelve equal steps of one semitone each.

Linear chromaticism, is used in jazz: "All improvised lines ... will include non-harmonic, chromatic notes." Similar to in the bebop scale this may be the result of metric issues, or simply the desire to use a portion of the chromatic scale [13]

Chromatic chord

By chromatic linear chord is meant simply a chord entirely of linear origin which contains one or more chromatic notes. A great many of these chords are to be found in the literature.

Allen Forte (1979) [15]

A chromatic chord is a musical chord that includes at least one note not belonging in the diatonic scale associated with the prevailing key. In other words, at least one note of the chord is chromatically altered. Any chord that is not chromatic is a diatonic chord .

For example, in the key of C major, the following chords (all diatonic) are naturally built on each degree of the scale:

However, a number of other chords may also be built on the degrees of the scale, and some of these are chromatic. Examples:

Chromatic line

In music theory, passus duriusculus is a Latin term which refers to chromatic line, often a bassline, whether descending or ascending.

From the late 16th century onward, chromaticism has come to symbolize intense emotional expression in music. Pierre Boulez (1986, p. 254) speaks of a long established "dualism" in Western European harmonic language: "the diatonic on the one hand and the chromatic on the other as in the time of Monteverdi and Gesualdo whose madrigals provide many examples and employ virtually the same symbolism. The chromatic symbolizing darkness doubt and grief and the diatonic light, affirmation and joy—this imagery has hardly changed for three centuries." [16] When an interviewer asked Igor Stravinsky (1959, p.243) if he really believed in an innate connection between "pathos" and chromaticism, the composer replied "Of course not; the association is entirely due to convention." [17] Nevertheless the convention is a powerful one and the emotional associations evoked by chromaticism have endured and indeed strengthened over the years. To quote Cooke (1959, p.54) "Ever since about 1850—since doubts have been cast, in intellectual circles, on the possibility, or even the desirability, of basing one's life on the concept of personal happiness—chromaticism has brought more and more painful tensions into our art-music, and finally eroded the major system and with it the whole system of tonality." [18]

Examples of descending chromatic melodic lines that would seem to convey highly charged feeling can be found in:

  1. The death-wish of a spurned lover expressed in the madrigal "Moro lasso al mio duolo", by Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613):
    Gesualdo moro lasso.
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  2. The ground bass that underpins Dido's grief-laden Lament from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas (1689):
    Dido's lament.
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  3. The seductive melody of the aria "L'amour est un Oiseau Rebelle" from Bizet's opera Carmen (1875).:
    Carmen Aria 'L'amour est un oiseau rebelle.'
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    Carmen Aria 'L'amour est un oiseau rebelle.' Loudspeaker.svg Play   or Listen on YouTube (This phrase is quoted by Dizzy Gillespie in the jazz example given above.)
  4. The rich harmonization of a descending chromatic scale in the 'Sleep Motif' from Wagner's opera Die Walküre, Act 3 (1870). Donington (1963, p. 172) speaks of this music's "slow chromatic drift and its modulations as elusive as the soft drift into sleep itself, when the sharp edges of consciousness begin to blur and fade." [19]
    Sleep music from Act 3 of Wagner's opera Die Walkure.
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Chromaticism is often associated with dissonance.

In the 16th century the repeated melodic semitone became associated with weeping, see: passus duriusculus, lament bass, and pianto.

Susan McClary (1991)[ full citation needed ] argues that chromaticism in operatic and sonata form narratives can often be understood as the "Other", racial, sexual, class or otherwise, to diatonicism's "male" self, whether through modulation, as to the secondary key area, or other means. For instance, Catherine Clément calls the chromaticism in Wagner's Isolde "feminine stink". [20] However, McClary also points out that the same techniques used in opera to represent madness in women were historically highly prized in avant-garde instrumental music, "In the nineteenth-century symphony, Salome's chromatic daring is what distinguishes truly serious composition of the vanguard from mere cliché-ridden hack work." (p. 101)

See also

Related Research Articles

In music theory, the term minor scale refers to three scale patterns – the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale – rather than just one as with the major scale.

In music, the tonic is the first scale degree of the diatonic scale and the tonal center or final resolution tone that is commonly used in the final cadence in tonal classical music, popular music, and traditional music. In the movable do solfège system, the tonic note is sung as do. More generally, the tonic is the note upon which all other notes of a piece are hierarchically referenced. Scales are named after their tonics: for instance, the tonic of the C major scale is the note C.

In music theory, a leading-note is a note or pitch which resolves or "leads" to a note one semitone higher or lower, being a lower and upper leading-tone, respectively. Typically, the leading tone refers to the seventh scale degree of a major scale, a major seventh above the tonic. In the movable do solfège system, the leading-tone is sung as ti.

In music, the subdominant is the fourth tonal degree of the diatonic scale. It is so called because it is the same distance below the tonic as the dominant is above the tonic – in other words, the tonic is the dominant of the subdominant. It also happens to be the note one step below the dominant. In the movable do solfège system, the subdominant note is sung as fa.

Modulation (music) in music

In music, modulation is the change from one tonality to another. This may or may not be accompanied by a change in key signature. Modulations articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest. Treatment of a chord as the tonic for less than a phrase is considered tonicization.

Modulation is the essential part of the art. Without it there is little music, for a piece derives its true beauty not from the large number of fixed modes which it embraces but rather from the subtle fabric of its modulation.

A secondary chord is an analytical label for a specific harmonic device that is prevalent in the tonal idiom of Western music beginning in the common practice period: the use of diatonic functions for tonicization.

Tonality Arrangements of pitches or chords to induce a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, and attractions

Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality. In this hierarchy, the single pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. The root of the tonic chord forms the name given to the key; so in the key of C major, the note C is both the tonic of the scale and the root of the tonic chord. Simple folk music songs often start and end with the tonic note. The most common use of the term "is to designate the arrangement of musical phenomena around a referential tonic in European music from about 1600 to about 1910". Contemporary classical music from 1910 to the 2000s may practice or avoid any sort of tonality—but harmony in almost all Western popular music remains tonal. Harmony in jazz includes many but not all tonal characteristics of the European common practice period, sometimes known as "classical music".

In music, a diminished triad is a triad consisting of two minor thirds above the root. It is a minor triad with a lowered (flattened) fifth. When using popular-music symbols, it is indicated by the symbols "dim", "o", "m5", or "MI(5)". For example, the diminished triad built on C, written as Co, has pitches C–E–G:

In music, the mediant is the third scale degree of a diatonic scale, being the note halfway between the tonic and the dominant. In the movable do solfège system, the mediant note is sung as mi. While the fifth scale degree is almost always a perfect fifth, the mediant can be a major or minor third.

In music, the submediant is the sixth degree of the diatonic scale, the lower mediant—halfway between the tonic and the subdominant. In the movable do solfège system, the submediant note is sung as la in major, as fa in minor. It is occasionally called superdominant, as the degree above the dominant. This is its normal name (sus-dominante) in French.

In music, the subtonic is the flattened seventh scale degree of the diatonic scale, that is, the lowered or minor seventh degree of the scale, a whole step below the tonic. In the movable do solfège system, the subtonic note is sung as te. It appears in the natural minor and descending melodic minor scales but not in the major scale. In major keys, the subtonic sometimes appears in borrowed chords.

Eleventh chord chord that contains the tertian extension of the eleventh, typically found in jazz

In music theory, an eleventh chord is a chord that contains the tertian extension of the eleventh. Typically found in jazz, an eleventh chord also usually includes the seventh and ninth, and elements of the basic triad structure. Variants include the dominant eleventh, minor eleventh, and the major eleventh chord. Symbols include: Caug11, C9aug11, C9+11, C9alt11, Cm9(11), C−9(11). The eleventh in an eleventh chord is, "almost always sharpened, especially in jazz," at least in reference to the third, with CM11 (major eleventh): C–E–G–B–D–F, Cm11 (minor eleventh): C-E-G-B-D-F, and C11 (dominant eleventh): C–E–G–B–D–F.

In music theory, a dominant seventh chord, or major minor seventh chord, is a seventh chord composed of a root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. Thus it is a major triad together with a minor seventh, denoted by the letter name of the chord root and a superscript "7". An example is the dominant seventh chord built on G, written as G7, having pitches G–B–D–F:

Primary triad

In music, a primary triad is one of the three triads, or three-note chords built from major or minor thirds, most important in tonal and diatonic music, as opposed to an auxiliary triad or secondary triad.

In music theory, the half-diminished seventh chord is a seventh chord composed of a root note, together with a minor third, a diminished fifth, and a minor seventh. For example, the half-diminished seventh chord built on C, commonly written as Cø7, has pitches C–E–G–B:

Diatonic and chromatic

Diatonic and chromatic are terms in music theory that are most often used to characterize scales, and are also applied to musical instruments, intervals, chords, notes, musical styles, and kinds of harmony. They are very often used as a pair, especially when applied to contrasting features of the common practice music of the period 1600–1900.

Chromatic mediant

In music, chromatic mediants are "altered mediant and submediant chords." A chromatic mediant relationship defined conservatively is a relationship between two sections and/or chords whose roots are related by a major third or minor third, and contain one common tone. For example, in the key of C major the diatonic mediant and submediant are E minor and A minor respectively. Their parallel majors are E major and A major. The mediants of the parallel minor of C major are E major and A major. Thus, by this conservative definition, C major has four chromatic mediants: E major, A major, E major, and A major.

Roman numeral analysis Use of Roman numeral symbols in the musical analysis of chords

In music, Roman numeral analysis uses Roman numerals to represent chords. The Roman numerals denote scale degrees ; used to represent a chord, they denote the root note on which the chord is built. For instance, III denotes the third degree of a scale or the chord built on it. Generally, uppercase Roman numerals represent major chords while lowercase Roman numerals represent minor chords ; elsewhere, upper-case Roman numerals are used for all chords. In Western classical music in the 2000s, Roman numeral analysis is used by music students and music theorists to analyze the harmony of a song or piece and chord charts or lead sheets with Roman numeral or macro analysis are often the basis or guide for ensemble and solo improvisation.

In music, the dominant is the fifth scale degree of the diatonic scale. It is called the dominant because it is next in importance to the first scale degree, the tonic. In the movable do solfège system, the dominant note is sung as so(l).


  1. 1 2 Forte, Allen, Tonal Harmony, third edition (S.l.: Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson, 1979): p.4. ISBN   0-03-020756-8. Original in B uses only natural signs and sharps since it is depicted rising.
  2. Matthew Brown; Schenker, "The Diatonic and the Chromatic in Schenker's "Theory of Harmonic Relations", Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring 1986), pp. 1–33, citation on p. 1.
  3. Schenker, Heinrich (1954). Harmony, p.256. Oswald Jonas, ed. and annot. Elisabeth Mann Borgese, trans. MIT Press. ISBN   0-262-69044-6.
  4. Meyer, Leonard B. (1956). Emotion and Meaning in Music, p.217. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN   9780226521374. Quoted in Brown (1986), p.1.
  5. Piston, Walter (1987/1941). Harmony, p.66. 5th edition revised by Devoto, Mark. W. W. Norton, New York/London. ISBN   0-393-95480-3.
  6. Benward & Saker (2003), p.38.
  7. Benward, Bruce & Saker, Marilyn (2003). "Glossary", Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.359. Seventh Edition. ISBN   978-0-07-294262-0.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Benward & Saker (2003), p.42-3.
  9. 1 2 Forte (1979), p.498.
  10. Cope, David (1997). Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, p. 15. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN   0-02-864737-8.
  11. Forte (1979), p.497.
  12. 1 2 Justin Shir-Cliff, Stephen Jay, and Donald J. Rauscher (1965). Chromatic Harmony. New York: The Free Press.[ page needed ] ISBN   0-02-928630-1.
  13. 1 2 Coker, Jerry (1997). Elements of the Jazz Language for the Developing Improvisor, p.81. ISBN   1-57623-875-X.
  14. Forte (1979), p.19-20.
  15. Forte (1979), p.352.
  16. Boulez, P. (1986) Orientations, London. Faber.[ page needed ]
  17. Stravinsky, I. and Craft, R. (1959) Memories and Commentaries. London, Faber and Faber, p. 243.
  18. Cooke, D. The Language of Music, London and New York:Oxford University Press, p. 54.
  19. Donington, R.(1963) Wagner's Ring and its Symbols. London, Faber.
  20. "Opera", 55–58, from McClary (1991) p.185n