I very much feel safe and pleasant in the world of tonality but I would like to learn more about chromatic playing. I do admire a blue note here and there, and I do admire very limited chromatic playing (where tones outside the base scale are played shortly only as decoration and have no other purpose but to create tension which gets resolved in most cases rather quickly), and I also find myself enjoying some wicked crazy jazz solos that are completely all over the place, hopping in and out of tonality like it's nothing.

My question boils down to this, what is chromatic playing good for in terms of emotions it can paint? How do magnificent jazz players manage to make chromatic playing and notes outside the scale sound like they fit perfectly in?

  • 2
    Once you get beyond the most simple of folk songs, it's more a matter of finding music that ISN'T chromatic! It's very restricting to stay in-scale.
    – Laurence
    Dec 19, 2016 at 0:27
  • I've just cleaned up the comments on this question as the question has been reopened and most of the comments are now obsolete. In the future, please take site policies issues to the meta where they can be discussed and not the comments to the question.
    – Dom
    Dec 20, 2016 at 18:51

3 Answers 3


Chromatic doesn't necessarily mean non-tonal. There has been chromatic music since before Gregorian Chant (A Bb was used to avoid tritones.) Most of the following is related to "classical" (or Common Practice) music theory; it has only an accidental relation to pop or jazz theory. Among the most famous chromatic pieces from the Renaissance would be that of Gesualdo. Later, Bach wrote rather chromatic Baroque music (compared to Handel whose music was much less although also Baroque.) Mozart (in his day) was considered to be daringly chromatic. Beethoven didn't write too much chromatically, but when he did, it was important.

Within CPP (Common Practice Period or roughly 1600-2000) music, there are two main ways that composers use harmony. These are not separate; they are a matter of degree, not kind. One is to use diatonic (mostly using notes of the current key) composition practices mostly with some chromaticism for "color" rather than structural purposes. Examples would be using some secondary dominants or augmented sixths or the like at important points in the music. Sometimes this is called non-essential chromaticism. The other method is called essential chromaticism; early Wagner or Richard Strauss would be a couple of examples. I'm less familiar with such usage but it would generally involve structural usage of chromatic tones. Gesualdo's stuff is an example.

  • For it to be structural, does that mean it's coupled with a modulation or a series of modulations? Dec 19, 2016 at 2:11
  • (From Kirnberger) non-essential chromaticism primarily applies to passages using chromatic notes as non-chord tones. Essential chromaticism uses them as chord tones. It's a matter of degree though. In the song "Besame Mucho," there's a D major (the piece is in D minor) chord on one phrase. I'd call this non-essential as it's still a tonic chord (beginning a phrase). There is also an augmented sixth which doesn't seem to be replaceable by some other subdominant chord. "San Antonio Rose" has a II chord which could be replaced by a ii for a jazz rather then a country sound. Essential?
    – ttw
    Dec 19, 2016 at 5:02
  • Thanks. I think I understand. If I do, I think I'd use the word functional rather than structural which makes me think of the larger form of the piece. Dec 19, 2016 at 5:06

Disclaimer : 'tonality' is a word with a number of meanings - I'm focusing on the 'use of the diatonic scale' aspect of tonality here, as I believe that's what your question highlights, rather than 'having a tonal centre'.

I also find myself enjoying some wicked crazy jazz solos that are completely all over the place, hopping in and out of tonality like it's nothing.

Good! Because it is nothing. By which I mean, there is no important qualitative distinction between how the diatonic scale works, and how the chromatic scale works. (Well, perhaps there's one, which I'll mention later).

If we take the major scale as a prime example of our (tonal) diatonic scale, we have:

  • a primary note (the root)
  • a second group of notes that have a direct, strong harmonic relationship with the primary note. Arguably, these are
    • the major third (5:4 ratio in just intonation, corresponds to the 5th harmonic of the root)
    • the perfect fourth (4:3; root corresponds to third harmonic of the fourth)
    • the perfect fifth (3:2, third harmonic of the root)
    • arguably, major sixth (5:3 ratio)
  • a third group of notes that do not have a strong relationship with the root, but do have strong relationships with the second group of notes. We could say that these are:
    • the major second (has a strong relationship with the fourth and fifth, being their )
    • the major seventh (has a strong relationship with the fifth, being its major third, and the major third, being its fifth)

Now, there are other relationships that you could mention, and that line between the second and third group is somewhat arbitrary. Nonetheless, at least in the case of the major seventh, it's pretty clear that its claim to be in the major scale is its relationship with other notes in the scale; it has a weak relationship with the root.

You could consider that the major seventh is, "in spirit", a 'chromatic' note lurking in the major scale itself, because of this 'once-removed' quality.

It's also a note that allows a number of interesting options:

  • The establishment of the fifth as an alternative tonal centre
  • use as a leading note that, partly because of its dissonance with the root, makes some listeners feel it should resolve up to the root
  • complex harmonies like the major seventh chord. You might think this would sound dissonant because the root and major seventh are a semitone apart, but the strong relationship between the major seventh and the other two notes in the chord pulls it together, albeit with an interesting, complex quality.

Other notes in the chromatic scale are basically there by the same logic as the major seventh : they don't have a strong relationship with the root, they do have strong relationships with each other. So if you've already accepted the major seventh in your major scale, there's no logic by which you shouldn't use the other chromatic notes too.

Well, as I said earlier, there is perhaps one reason - the fact that on fixed pitch instruments, all these possibilities can only be opened up to their fullest extent with the use of equal temperament. But if your ear isn't offended by equal temperament, there's no problem.

So I'm (politely!) saying that I think that the premise of your question (that there's an important difference between diatonic and chromatic playing) is wrong.

My question boils down to this, what is chromatic playing good for in terms of emotions it can paint?

You can't directly paint emotions with notes; what emotions get created by any given musical structure depends on the listener and the context. But what the chromatic scale gives you (compared to the diatonic) is more options in terms of moving the tonal centre around, creating melodic possibilities, and expanding the palette of harmonic colours.


Simply put chromatic notes are the way we add colour to music, Chroma means colour. That language usage is very apt.

If I can compare it to a house, harmony is the foundation. All good houses need a proper foundation or they fall apart. Music also needs its proper foundation or otherwise it just becomes a collection of notes.

If you ever saw a house being build and only its foundation being complete, you would not call that house yet.

In much the same way the mere appearance of a proper harmony does not give you music on its own. You can often see that when you do your four-part harmony exercises.

These exercises are not really how music is made. To be honest, when you try to play these exercises on the piano it really is unlike any 'real' music you will ever play.

That is not to say that those exercises are a waste of time. They teach you the basics of proper harmony and voice leading which is very important, it is just because of their lack of non-harmony notes they are not quite a piece of music yet.

So chromaticism of all the various kind is in essence, the same thing architects use to make their houses amazing. You may want a house with wood floors or a marble staircase, something like granite kitchen tops.

The first thing the architect has to do is build the foundation and then when that is done he can be free do make the grandest of houses ever known.

So to bring it back to music, the foundation of music is harmony, but harmony on its own no matter how good does not make music.

When we bring the concepts of harmony and non-chordal notes together then we are getting closer to real music

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.