A compositional technique interspersing the primary diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale

"Chromaticism" is a pivotal concept in music theory and composition that significantly influences the character and depth of musical compositions. At its core, chromaticism involves the inclusion of notes or pitches that deviate from the traditional diatonic scale associated with a particular key. In other words, it introduces tones that don't naturally belong to the standard scale of a given key, which can infuse music with tension, emotion, and expressive potential.

This concept is particularly essential for understanding the richness and complexity of Western classical, jazz, and contemporary music. Chromaticism allows composers and musicians to paint with a broader tonal palette, creating subtle shades of color and emotional nuance within their compositions.

Chromatic notes, often indicated by accidentals such as sharps (♯) or flats (♭), enrich musical phrases by introducing notes that are a half step (one semitone) away from their neighboring diatonic tones. These chromatic notes can be skillfully employed in various ways:

  • Tonal Color and Expression: Chromaticism adds depth to music by creating moments of tension, dissonance, or unexpected harmonic progressions. It allows composers and performers to evoke specific emotions or moods. For example, a chromatic passing tone may convey a sense of yearning or longing in a melody.
  • Chromatic Scales: Chromatic scales consist of consecutive chromatic notes, including all twelve tones within an octave. These scales are often used for melodic or harmonic embellishments, lending a sense of unpredictability and sophistication to compositions.
  • Chromatic Chords: The introduction of chromatic notes can lead to the formation of chromatic chords, which extend beyond the conventional diatonic triads or seventh chords. Examples include augmented chords and diminished seventh chords, which introduce distinctive tonal colors and dissonance.
  • Passing Tones and Non-Harmonic Tones: Chromatic notes frequently serve as passing tones, elegantly connecting two diatonic notes within a musical phrase. They can also function as non-harmonic or non-chord tones, adding ornamentation, tension, or surprise.
  • Harmonic Modulation: Chromaticism plays a vital role in harmonic modulation, allowing composers to shift seamlessly between keys within a composition. The introduction of chromatic chords or notes from different keys facilitates these transitions.
  • Diverse Musical Styles: Chromaticism is not confined to a single musical style. It is evident in classical compositions from the Romantic era, where it was employed to convey intense emotions. In jazz and blues, chromaticism is a cornerstone of improvisation, enabling musicians to explore harmonic variations.

In musical notation, chromatic notes are indicated by the use of accidentals, such as sharps or flats, to signal that a note should be played a half step higher or lower than its standard diatonic pitch. This notation system allows composers and performers to precisely communicate their musical intentions.

Example of Chromaticism

How to Compose Music - Lesson 6 - Harmonic Progressions and Chromaticism