The Chromatic Scale

Sticking to practical matters for the time being.

In the western system that we use, we refer to a specific pitch (highness or lowness of sound) by a name designated with a letter (A,B,C,etc.) and perhaps an accidental (#,b,etc.).

The distance between two pitches is called an interval.

Let's define an octave as 2 notes with the same name, that are not the exact same pitch. The smallest interval of this type is one octave.

The smallest interval we use is the half-step (also called a minor second). the distance between a note on a string on one fret, and a note on the same string on the next fret up or down is a half-step's distance. The 1/2-step's distance is approximately 1/12th that of the octave.

We have 12 named notes (and their octaves) in the system that we use. The chromatic scale is the set of all of those notes.

We use 7 letters to name notes: A,B,C,D,E,F,and G.
But there are 12 notes that are named.
We use accidentals to help name notes (b,#,bb,x).

A flat (b) lowers the pitch of a note by a 1/2 step. (Ab is a half-step lower in pitch than A).

A double-flat (bb) lowers the pitch of a note by a whole step. (Abb is a whole step lower in pitch than A).

A sharp (#) raises the pitch of a note by a 1/2 step. (A# is a half-step higher in pitch than A).

A double-sharp (x) raises the pitch of a note by a whole step. (Ax is a half-step higher in pitch than A).

The twelve notes (tones) named are:

note: the names with a slash are two different names for the same note (C#/Db). They are said to be enharmonic (which means that sharping the C produces the same note as flatting the D) in the system that we use.

note: there is a half-step's distance between the E and F, and between B and C. (There are two half-steps between the other adjacent letter pairs without accidentals).

So the chromatic scale contains the notes:
A,A#/Bb,B,C,C#/Db,D,D#/Eb,E,F,F#/Gb,G,G#/Ab (and their octaves).

Given the tuning for the guitar (Standard tuning = EADGBE) and the chromatic scale we could find the names of every note on the fretboard.

for example on the A string would be:

0   1   2 3  4    5   6   7 8   9  10  11   12

where A is the open string, the first fret is A#/Bb, etc.

and the D string would be :

0   1   2 3  4    5   6   7   8  9 10  11   12

I leave it to anyone who hasn't learned this to work out the names of the notes on the fretboard in standard tuning. (This will be worked out in a future lesson on the frteboard).

If we draw a fretboard and place circles on every note of the scale we obtain:


Since the chromatic scale contains all the notes, it is not necessary to learn more than one. ( the C-chromatic scale is not different from the D-chromatic scale, or the C#-chromatic scale, and we would say the chromatic scale starting at C rather than the C-chromatic scale). And any note can be considered the root note.

We often consider the chromatic scale (along with the major scale) as a context for analyzing chords, scales, arpeggios, etc.

We define simple intervals as being 2 notes of the chromatic scale within one octave compared to the major scale. With the major scale being a collection of the intervals: root, major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th. In comparison to these named intervals, the notes in the chromatic scale starting from any point to its octave would be:
root, minor 2nd, major 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th,augmented 4th/diminished 5th, perfect 5th,minor 6th, major 6th, minor 7th, and major 7th. ( or 1,b2,2,b3,4,#4/b5,5,b6,6,b7,7)

Plotting these on the fretboard allows us to see distances and locations of specific intervals in the tuning we use (which explains why any chord or scale appears where it does)


And more often we don't view the entire fretboard but only a piece such as:


So to recap, the chromatic scale:
- is made up of all the notes that we use in the western system we are using.
- can be seen to contain all the chords and scales in that system.
- gives us a practical way to view the fretboard and the relationships between the notes on the frets (and can be used to learn the names of the notes on the frets).

The chromatic scale has other properties and virtues that will be discussed at a later time.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Last updated December 24, 2002
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