Music’s DNA: The Chromatic scale

The Chromatic scale may have a fancy name, but in the end it’s just a sequence of letters and symbols that will empower you to build a solid musical mind frame. It’s super important!
I truly believe this is such an important concept for guitarists to understand. The Chromatic scale is all you need to know to “see” the notes on the guitar. It’s a really great foundation for building other concepts later such as intervals, chords and scales.

I personally use the Chromatic scale in some way every single day. It’s like Music’s DNA! If you want to be a smart guitarist who can find any note on the neck quickly and set yourself up for a smooth musical journey, I’d suggest you make your self a cuppa, put your phone on airplane mode and tell everyone your not home… read on.

Ok, let’s dig in. The first thing you need to know is that music is made up of notes, and notes have names. We assign the first 7 letters of the alphabet to name these notes. Like this:

These 7 letters are a repeating pattern. After the note G comes the note A, not H.

Now, for this next bit I’m going to use a piano keyboard to help explain how the Chromatic scale works.

Yes yes, I know you’re probably a guitarist, and in the next post we’ll learn this on guitar. It’s just that the piano keyboard is a really good visual tool. Here is a picture of the piano keyboard.

Notice that there are white keys and black keys? The white keys represent the 7 letters.

Let’s take this chunk of the keyboard, starting from the C note and ending on the next C note.

Ok, here we have a snap shot of the piano keyboard. This snap shot is showing us one “octave” of the piano keyboard. By one octave I mean one complete group of notes of the repeating pattern. In this case, C all the way through to the next C.

Those Black Keys…

Alrighty…hopefully, as you have been reading this a question has been bubbling away in the back of your mind…”What is the deal with those black keys???” Great question!

The black keys represent the “in-between” notes. And not every note has an “in-between” note.

Notice that between E and F as well as B and C there is no black key? This is very important!

The black key between the white C and D notes has two names. It could be called C Sharp because it’s slightly higher than C in pitch. However, this same black key could also be called D Flat because it’s slightly lower in pitch than the note D. Here are the symbols for Sharp and Flat.

So, this one single back key has two names, but it’s essentially the same sound.

Naming The Black Keys.

This is the sticking point when learning the chromatic scale, stay with me here and fight that desire to glaze over or stop reading…you’re nearly there…
Every black key on the piano keyboard can be named two different ways.

Here’s the first way: The letter of the white key before it and then add the Sharp symbol. For example, after the white G key comes the black G Sharp key.

Here’s the second way: The letter of the white key after it and then add the Flat symbol. For example, before the white A key comes the black A Flat key.

So then, here is one octave of the keyboard with all the white and black keys labelled.

Now that we’ve done this, we can now write out a C Chromatic scale, and the reason it’s a C Chromatic scale is because is starts and ends with the note C.

Now this looks a little scientific and strange, and that’s because those sneaky in-between notes have two names. Normally, we would write out the C chromatic scale using either Sharps or Flats, not both. Like this:

Ok, we are on the home stretch…

Like the letter names, the Chromatic scale is a repeating pattern.

If we wanted to build a G Chromatic scale, all we’d need to do is start on the note G and write out the sequence until we arrive back at G, and this is the case for every note in the Chromatic scale.
What would the sequence be if we started with E Flat?

Here’s the G Chromatic scale using Sharps, and the E Flat Chromatic scale using Flats.

Semitones And Tones

Moving on. Let’s look back at the Chromatic scale on the piano keyboard.

When we travel from one note in the Chromatic scale to the very next note we’ve travelled the distance of one semitone. This is the smallest step we can take in the chromatic scale. 

A semitone is sometimes called a “half step”.

Notice that between the notes E and F there is no black key? This means that there is a naturally occurring semitone between these two notes. This is also true between the notes B and C.

Ok, last thing. When we travel the distance of two notes in the Chromatic scale, we would say the notes are a tone apart. For example, the distance between the note C and D is a tone. (sometimes referred to as a “whole step”).

Phew! That’s it.

You’ve now become acquainted with the Chromatic scale – and at the same time you now know the 12 notes of music. From A all the way through to G Sharp. This is no small feat, so well done! The next step is to put this theory to use on the guitar. And that is what the next post will be all about.

I really hope you found this post helpful. If you want to go the extra mile and lock this into your memory, try writing out the Chromatic scale on a piece of paper from various starting notes. Be careful of the naturally occurring semitones between E and F and B and C.

Now that you know what the chromatic scale is and how it works, I’d like to recommend the next post Unlock the Guitar Fretboard, where you can put this very useful theory to work.


How would a better understanding of the Chromatic scale benefit you? Please comment.

About the author

I'm really excited to be teaching guitar. Not many people receive the joy that I feel when seeing the progress of each of my students. It's truly a privilege, and I'd love you to join me.  

As I'm sure you know, learning guitar is a long journey, so you must be committed to it. But, if you're willing to put in some hard work for some big rewards, come and join me! 

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