Scales – Laborious to Glorious, part 2

2011Symposium_1_2Last Friday, I wrote about teaching scales using a technique that includes teaching sound before touch or sight. I mentioned that the functional tendencies of individual pitches in a scale should be taught first and with singing before having the student practice playing the scale. Doing so would result in the scales being more meaningful, relevant, and enjoyable for the student to practice. Today I am going to discuss the chromatic scale, which presents some problems not found in diatonic scales.

The chromatic scale is a sequence of all possible tones that can be contained within one octave in the Western European tonal system, which divides the octave into twelve. Because all adjacent tones in the chromatic scale form a minor second, there are no functional tendencies, and no tonal center. The scale can be started and ended on any pitch, because no pitch is perceived as a tonic. The tones are arranged from lowest to highest frequency to form the ascending scale. When chromatic scales are used in pieces, they frequently precede dominant chords at the beginning of a cadential sequence. Just as the chromatic scale has no tonality, chromaticism in pieces tends to weaken a listener’s perception of tonality. Chromatic notes are placed between diatonic ones, and often are treated as dissonances known by names like neighbor tone, passing tone, or appoggiatura. Until composers made a concerted effort to write atonal music, chromatic tones were handled in such a way that they threatened but did not destroy tonal relationships between diatonic tones and chords.Chromatic Scale

With this in mind, chromatic scales can be handled within a tonal context to emphasize their expressive potential. Students will grow in overall musicianship by learning to hear chromatic scales as melodic elaborations. Using solfegge, students can learn eight-tone segmentations of a chromatic scale, with each subsequent grouping starting on the next diatonic tone. The first and last tones in each group of eight form the root and fifth of the diatonic chord on the scale degree the group starts on; therefore, even though the student is singing eight-tone chromatic scale segmentations, s/he is really playing elaborated diatonic chords.

For chromatic solfegge, syllables ending in “i” are sharped notes, syllables ending in “e” are flatted notes. For example, ri is a sharped re, and me is a flatted mi. If re is flatted, because it already ends in “e” it becomes ra. Here are the eight-tone patterns starting on each of the notes of a major scale. To finish, the student holds out “do” for four beats.

do di re ri mi fa fi so

re ri mi fa fi so si la

mi fa fi so si la li ti

fa fi so si la li ti do

so si la li ti do di re

la li ti do di re ri mi

ti do di re ri mi fa fi

do di re ri mi fa fi so


Descending groupings would proceed in a similar fashion:

do ti te la le so se fa

ti te la le so se fa mi

la le so se fa mi me re…

The order of the eight-note segmentations can be changed to create chord progressions. For example, the following would outline a I – IV – I progression:


do di re ri mi fa fi so

fa fi so si la li ti do

do di re ri mi fa fi so


so se fa mi me re ra do

do ti te la le so se fa

so se fa mi me re ra do

If fixed do is used, the chromatic syllables can be employed, or both the diatonic and adjacent chromatic tones share the same syllable. In C major, the first eight-tone segmentation would look like this:

do do re re mi fa fa so

The first do is C, the second do is C#, and so forth.

Starting on different notes develops evenness across an extended chromatic scale, and across the range of an instrument. A metric accent is perceived on each starting note. As the starting note is altered, the metric accents tend to cancel each other out until all tones are played evenly. After singing segmentations, the student then plays the same patterns s/he just sang. It will at some point be necessary to transpose octaves for the singing, but not on the instrument. The student will finish by playing a chromatic scale evenly across the range of the instrument. As with other technically challenging passages of constant note durations, different articulations can be used on the instrument to further improve evenness and accuracy. Good results can also be achieved by using six-tone segmentations. In this case, the interval between the first and last note of each grouping is a perfect fourth, suggesting the starting note is the fifth of the chord, and the ending note is the root. All of the strategies for arranging the elaborated chords described for eight-tone segmentations can be just as satisfactorily employed for six-tone segmentations.


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