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Chromatic fourth: lament bass bassline in Dm (D-C#-C()-B-B-A)
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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 (the major and minor scales). Chromatic elements are considered "elaborations of or substitutions for diatonic scale members". [1]

In western 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

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 three or more notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously.


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

Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 217, quoted in Brown (1986) [1]

Development of chromaticism

Contemporary jazz and rock bass guitarist Joseph Patrick Moore demonstrating chromaticism

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:

Richard Wagner German composer

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

<i>Tristan und Isolde</i> opera by Richard Wagner

Tristan und Isolde is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner to a German libretto by the composer, based largely on the 12th-century romance Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg. It was composed between 1857 and 1859 and premiered at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting. Wagner referred to the work not as an opera, but called it "eine Handlung", which was the equivalent of the term used by the Spanish playwright Calderón for his dramas.


In music, tonicization is the treatment of a pitch other than the overall tonic as a temporary tonic in a composition. In Western music that is tonal, the song or piece is heard by the listener as being in a certain key. A tonic chord has a dominant chord; in the key of C major, the tonic chord is C major and the dominant chord is G major or G dominant seventh. The dominant chord, especially if it is a dominant seventh, is heard by Western composers and listeners familiar with music as resolving to the tonic, due to the use of the leading note in the dominant chord. A tonicized chord is a chord other than the tonic chord to which a dominant or dominant seventh chord progresses. When a dominant chord or dominant seventh chord is used before a chord other than the tonic, this dominant or dominant seventh chord is called a secondary dominant. When a chord is tonicized, this makes this non-tonic chord sound temporarily like a tonic chord.

The spaces described in this article are pitch class spaces which model the relationships between pitch classes in some musical system. These models are often graphs, groups or lattices. Closely related to pitch class space is pitch space, which represents pitches rather than pitch classes, and chordal space, which models relationships between chords.

George Perle American composer

George Perle was a composer and music theorist.

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.

Twelve-tone technique method of musical composition devised by Arnold Schönberg to ensure that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are equally often, so that the music avoids being in a key

The twelve-tone technique—also known as dodecaphony, twelve-tone serialism, and twelve-note composition—is a method of musical composition devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and associated with the "Second Viennese School" composers, who were the primary users of the technique in the first decades of its existence. The technique is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note through the use of tone rows, orderings of the 12 pitch classes. All 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key. Over time, the technique increased greatly in popularity and eventually became widely influential on 20th-century composers. Many important composers who had originally not subscribed to or even actively opposed the technique, such as Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, eventually adopted it in their music.

In music, a tone row or note row, also series or set, is a non-repetitive ordering of a set of pitch-classes, typically of the twelve notes in musical set theory of the chromatic scale, though both larger and smaller sets are sometimes found.

In music, serialism is a method of composition using series of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres or other musical elements. Serialism began primarily with Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, though some of his contemporaries were also working to establish serialism as a form of post-tonal thinking. Twelve-tone technique orders the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, forming a row or series and providing a unifying basis for a composition's melody, harmony, structural progressions, and variations. Other types of serialism also work with sets, collections of objects, but not necessarily with fixed-order series, and extend the technique to other musical dimensions, such as duration, dynamics, and timbre.

Types of chromaticism

David Cope [2] describes three forms of chromaticism: modulation, borrowed chords from secondary keys, and chromatic chords such as augmented sixth chords.

David Cope is an American author, composer, scientist, and former professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His primary area of research involves artificial intelligence and music; he writes programs and algorithms that can analyse existing music and create new compositions in the style of the original input music. He taught a summer Workshop in Algorithmic Computer Music that was open to the public as well as a general education course entitled Artificial Intelligence and Music for enrolled UCSC students. Cope is also cofounder and CTO Emeritus of Recombinant Inc, a music technology company.

In music theory, an augmented sixth chord contains the interval of an augmented sixth, usually above its bass tone. This chord has its origins in the Renaissance, was further developed in the Baroque, and became a distinctive part of the musical style of the Classical and Romantic periods.

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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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 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 [4]

Chromatic chord

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." [5] 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." [6] 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." [7]

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. Listen. Gesualdo moro lasso.png
    Gesualdo moro lasso. Listen.
  2. The ground bass that underpins Dido's grief-laden Lament from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas (1689):
    Dido's lament. Listen. Dido's lament.png
    Dido's lament. Listen.
  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.' Listen (This phrase is quoted by Dizzy Gillespie in the jazz example given above.) Carmen Aria 'L'amour est un oiseau rebelle'.png
    Carmen Aria 'L'amour est un oiseau rebelle.' Listen (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." [8]
    Sleep music from Act 3 of Wagner's opera Die Walkure. Listen. Wagner Sleep music from Walkure.png
    Sleep music from Act 3 of Wagner's opera Die Walkure. Listen.


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". [9] 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 theory, an interval is the difference in pitch between two sounds. An interval may be described as horizontal, linear, or melodic if it refers to successively sounding tones, such as two adjacent pitches in a melody, and vertical or harmonic if it pertains to simultaneously sounding tones, such as in a chord.

In music theory, the tritone is defined as a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones. For instance, the interval from F up to the B above it is a tritone as it can be decomposed into the three adjacent whole tones F–G, G–A, and A–B. According to this definition, within a diatonic scale there is only one tritone for each octave. For instance, the above-mentioned interval F–B is the only tritone formed from the notes of the C major scale. A tritone is also commonly defined as an interval spanning six semitones. According to this definition, a diatonic scale contains two tritones for each octave. For instance, the above-mentioned C major scale contains the tritones F–B and B–F. In twelve-equal temperament, the tritone divides the octave exactly in half.

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.

An altered chord is a chord in which one or more notes from the diatonic scale is replaced with a neighboring pitch from the chromatic scale. According to the broadest definition any chord with a nondiatonic chord tone is an altered chord, while the simplest use of altered chords is the use of borrowed chords, chords borrowed from the parallel key, and the most common is the use of secondary dominants. As Alfred Blatter explains,"An altered chord occurs when one of the standard, functional chords is given another quality by the modification of one or more components of the chord."

Perfect fifth musical interval

In music theory, a perfect fifth is the musical interval corresponding to a pair of pitches with a frequency ratio of 3:2, or very nearly so.

A jazz scale is any musical scale used in jazz. Many "jazz scales" are common scales drawn from Western European classical music, including the diatonic, whole-tone, octatonic, and the modes of the ascending melodic minor. All of these scales were commonly used by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, often in ways that directly anticipate jazz practice. Some jazz scales, such as the bebop scales, add additional chromatic passing tones to the familiar diatonic scales.

Modulation (music) in music

In music, modulation is the change from one key 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.

Circle of fifths relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys;geometrical representation of relationships among the 12 pitch classes of the chromatic scale in pitch class space

In music theory, the circle of fifths is the relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys. More specifically, it is a geometrical representation of relationships among the 12 pitch classes of the chromatic scale in pitch class space.

Secondary chord Wikipedia disambiguation page

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.

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:

An augmented triad is a chord, made up of two major thirds. The term augmented triad arises from an augmented triad being considered a major chord whose top note (fifth) is raised. When using popular-music symbols, it is indicated by the symbol "+" or "aug". For example, the augmented triad built on C, written as C+, has pitches C–E–G:

In music, the submediant is the sixth degree of the diatonic scale, the lower mediant—halfway between the tonic and the subdominant. It is also the third factor of the subdominant (IV) triad. It is occasionally called superdominant, as the degree above the dominant. It is sung la in solfege. In music theory, the submediant triad is symbolized by the Roman numeral VI if it is major or vi if it is minor.

In music, a triad is a set of three notes that can be stacked vertically in thirds. The term "harmonic triad" was coined by Johannes Lippius in his Synopsis musicae novae (1612).

Closely related key

In music, a closely related key is one sharing many common tones with an original key, as opposed to a distantly related key. In music harmony, there are five of them: they share all, or all except one, pitches with a key with which it is being compared, and is adjacent to it on the circle of fifths and its relative major or minor,.

Harmonic major scale

In music theory, the harmonic major scale is a musical scale found in some music from the common practice era and now used occasionally, most often in jazz. It was named by Rimsky-Korsakov. In George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept it is the fifth mode (V) of the Lydian Diminished scale.

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.


  1. 1 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.
  2. Cope, David (1997). Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, p. 15. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN   0-02-864737-8.
  3. 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.
  4. 1 2 Coker, Jerry (1997). Elements of the Jazz Language for the Developing Improvisor, p.81. ISBN   1-57623-875-X.
  5. Boulez, P. (1986) Orientations, London. Faber.[ page needed ]
  6. Stravinsky, I. and Craft, R. (1959) Memories and Commentaries. London, Faber and Faber, p. 243.
  7. Cooke, D. The Language of Music, London and New York:Oxford University Press, p. 54.
  8. Donington, R.(1963) Wagner's Ring and its Symbols. London, Faber.
  9. "Opera", 55-58, from McClary (1991) p.185n