Rethinking the Chromatic Scale

How well do we teach the chromatic scale?

Young band students often struggle to master it. The intervals are closer together; not to mention all of the chromatic fingerings! Do students honestly understand the pattern? There may be a better approach for students who struggle. As our classes adjust to a new normal, why not explore creative ways to teach scales; starting with chromatic!

Dividing the chromatic scale into groups of (4) notes at a time looks simpler and less intimidating. This may be a more succinct approach to mastery through building the chromatic scale from the bottom up as opposed to the entire scale all at once. Think of each chromatic part as a benchmark to check for understanding with just (4) notes at a time. For example, performing just (3) chromatic parts is one octave of the chromatic scale descending. This is quite attainable even for beginners!  

Chromatic and the Enharmonic

Approach makes a difference. Keep in mind that we want to use the sharps ascending and flats descending. What a great opportunity to teach the enharmonic as well! Think of the enharmonic as stating your name in two different languages. Yes, the chromatic scale can be characterized a bilingual scale! Notice the ascending and descending parts side by side. Which two notes sound the same but are written in two different languages?

Chromatic and the Octave

As students build range, they will encounter the octave. Notice the illustration below. Each of the (4) notes share the same name. Simply one is higher than the other. Here is a great opportunity to discuss how octaves share the same name but not always the same fingering.

As a teacher, my ultimate goal is for every student to be able to play the chromatic scale in the entire range of the instrument. To accomplish this, first I had to create stepping stones that allowed students to grow sequentially. In the process I discovered that there were other concepts that I could teach simultaneously with the chromatic scale. Breaking it down helped me organize my lessons, pass-offs, chair tests, while preparing my students for future auditions. 

Chromatic Parts is a unit activity created by The Band Director’s Warehouse. It is written for all instruments, is designed with flexibility in mind to meet the needs of your students. Students will gain mastery of the chromatic scale as they build on prior knowledge, beginning with just (4) notes! A teacher guide is included for helpful tips and strategies. Click here for more information!

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