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Incorporating Chromaticism into Improvising

Updated on July 14, 2015

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Mark Fitchett @ Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach

About Chromaticism

The following are some of my personal observations regarding chromaticism

In this article I am not so much dealing with exotic scales and chords but rather how to spice up rather plain harmony such as what can you do on a Cmaj7 chord?

Good Reasons to go Chromatic

Adds more motion to the scale as passing notes, basically filling in the whole steps. Adding chromatic notes to traditional scales often help make the scale rhythmically “come out right”

A way to add excitement and build tension in a solo is by the incorporation of notes outside the scale.

Adds some outside color while still retaining the basic sound of the scale.

While technically some of these notes do not harmonize with the key and can sound really bad on their own there are ways of manipulating them in such a way that they will sound like they do indeed belong.

Spice up your rock and blues playing with chromaticism add a “jazz” flavor. There are no wrong notes! but then why do some sound so bad while others don’t. It’s not that they are wrong, but that they need special handling so they sound right.

“Controlled Dissonance” is the study of the application of chromatic notes to a diatonic situation ex. in modal situations.

(In a lot of jazz compositions there are several key changes therefore by virtue of following each key center you will get a chromatic effect.)

The Chromatic Scale

We can look at the twelve-note chromatic scale as consisting of the primary notes, i.e. the diatonic notes of the key, and the secondary notes; the chromatic tones. In a normal diatonic situation for example the C major scale, there would be 7 diatonic tones C D E F G A B and 5 chromatic tones C#/Db D#/Eb F#/Gb G#/Ab A#/Bb

In the progression Cmaj7 - A+7#9 - Dmi7 - G7b9 although this progression centers around C major (known as a I-VI-ii-V progression) the types of chords used allow some different scales which will in turn introduce tones chromatic to the key of C.

Cmaj7-uses C major scale-C D E F G A B C, A+7b9 could use the A altered dominant scale: A Bb C Db Eb F G A, Dmi7 uses the D Dorian scale (which is just the C major scale starting on D: D E F G A B C D) and G7b9 could the 8-note dominant scale G Ab Bb B C# D E F G.

So you can see that sometimes in a jazz progression the chromaticism is brought into play because of the different chords involved. What I propose to do is study chromaticism on a single chord.

In other words these techniques won’t teach you to “play through changes” per se, you’ll still have to learn how to negotiate sudden modulations if you want to play jazz. What they will give you however, is an insight on how players, especially in jazz embellish their lines with notes chromatic to the scale or key center of the moment.

Or what what do you do when you’ve come out of a particularily harrowing set of chord changes (quite successively of course) and now your on the straight a way with several measures on one chord or key center (happens a lot).

Chromatic embellishment in this case can help retain the chromatic flavor of the the previous changes. And whether your playing through many changes or just vamping on a couple of chords, adding chromatic passing notes to traditional scales adds more motion and makes it easier to make the scale rhythmically “come out right” You can apply these techniques to any scale you care to. Let your ear be the judge.

As an example, let’s say I hear an ascending five note 16th note run in C, that goes from G to C. The only problem is, is that there are only four notes between G and C (including G and C—G A B C)

Solution? Glad you asked. Either G G# A B C or G A A# B C.

General Rules

  • No exposed chromatic tones
  • Fill in the whole steps in most scales
  • In pentatonic scales fill in the minor 3rds
  • Do not leap from chromatic. usually resolve by 1/2 step, rarely C C# E
  • OK to leap to Chromatic and resolve up by 1/2 step—C D# E
  • Do not go to Chromatic then descend
  • Rarely two exposed chromatic tones without 1/2 step C C# D# E
  • OK to descend to Chromatic then resolve back up G F# G
  • There are no rules, in other words if it sounds good to you then break them.

Chromatic=Tension. Diatonic=Resolution

Even in the diatonic scale there are notes that are tension and notes that are resolution. The chord tones 1, 3 & 5 are the resolution notes (1 being the strongest) and 2, 4, 6 and 7 are the tension notes that want to resolve to the basic chord tones. 2-1. 2-3, 4-3, 4-5, 6-5, 6-7-8, 7-6-5, 7-8 and of course depending where you are in a chord progression will determine the relative tension/resolution of a given note.

The amount of time I hang on to the chromatic pitch determines the amount or degree of dissonance you heard. Rhythm and syncopation play a significant role in the overall effect as well. Once you are in control of the effect it becomes a matter of how long your ears can stand the dissonances that occur. You will find that you can purposely delay the resolution to enhance the chromaticism, or speed it up so that it’s not even noticeable. Now try this same concept on any scale of your choice, just remember where the half and whole steps occur.

In future additions I will add some video, charts and licks to demonstrate and teach.

Mark Fitchett


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