Harman Patil (Editor)


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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".


Chromaticism is almost by definition an alteration of, an interpolation in or deviation from this basic diatonic organization.

Development of 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:

  • mode mixture
  • leading tones
  • tonicization of each chromatic step and other secondary key areas
  • modulatory space
  • hierarchical organizations of the chromatic set such as George Perle's
  • the use of non-tonal chords as tonic "keys"/"scales"/"areas" such as the Tristan chord.
  • 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 chromaticism

    David Cope 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:

  • Dominant seventh chords of subsidiary keys, used to create modulations to those keys (V7-I cadences)
  • Augmented sixth chords
  • Neapolitan sixth chords as chromatic subdominants
  • Diminished seventh chords as chromatic VII7
  • Altered chords
  • Expanded chords
  • Shir-Cliff, Jay, and Rauscher (1965)
  • Other types of chromaticity:

  • Pitch axis theory
  • Parallel scales
  • Nonchord tone
  • The minor mode in major keys (mode mixture)
  • Shir-Cliff, Jay, and Rauscher (1965)
  • Chromatic note

    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

    Chromatic chord

    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 notes 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:

  • II in first inversion is called the Neapolitan sixth chord. For example in C Major: F–A–D. The Neapolitan Sixth chord resolves to the V.
  • The IV diminished chord is the Sharpened subdominant with diminished seventh chord. For example: F–A–C–E. The IV diminished chord resolves to the V. The IV can also be understood as the tonicization of V where it functions as viio7 of the V chord, written viio7/V.
  • VI: The Augmented sixth chord resolves to the V.
  • Chromatic line

    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." 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." 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."

    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):
    2. The ground bass that underpins Dido's grief-laden Lament from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas (1689):
    3. The seductive melody of the aria "L'amour est un Oiseau Rebelle" from Bizet's opera Carmen (1875).:
    4. The rich harmonization of a descending chromatic scale in the 'Sleep Motif' from Wagner's opera Die Walkure, 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."


    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) 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". 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)


    Chromaticism Wikipedia