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Chromatic fourth: lament bass bassline in Dm (D–C–C()–B–B–A) About this soundPlay 

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]

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 chromaticismEdit

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:

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.

Types of chromaticismEdit

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

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 noteEdit

One of seven examples of linear chromaticism from Dizzy Gillespie's solo from "Hot House"[4]  Play .

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 chordEdit

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:

  • I = C major triad [contains pitch classes C E G]
  • ii = D minor triad [contains D F A]
  • iii = E minor triad [contains E G B]
  • IV = F major triad [contains F A C]
  • V = G major triad [contains G B D]
  • vi = A minor triad [contains A C E]
  • viio = B diminished triad [contains B D F]

However, a number of other chords may also be built on the degrees of the scale, and some of these are chromatic. Examples:

Chromatic lineEdit

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.
  2. The ground bass that underpins Dido's grief-laden Lament from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas (1689):
    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.)
  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.


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 alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b 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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b 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

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