Music Theory for Harmonica Players Part 2 – The Chromatic Scale

Okay then. First things first. Music, as you already know I’m sure, is made up of playing a series of notes. Notes organised together in a specific way are called a scale. Think Do-Re-Mi-Fi-So-La-Te-Do, that refers to a scale. In fact that’s a very important one that I’ll talk about in the next post.

The specific scale I want to talk about first the the mother of them all. It’s called the Chromatic scale. This scale contains all of the notes available.

Here’s how it looks on a piano keyboard.

Okay, so what are you looking at?

  • Firstly, you can see that the notes are named after letters of the alphabet. We use the letters A-G. These are the white keys. In this case we’re starting on the note C. There are actually two complete C scales in the picture.
  • As the scale goes up the notes sound higher. So the far left note sounds the deepest and the far right sounds the highest. This is also true on your harmonica.
  • Most of the notes have an extra note in between – the black keys. These are called sharp and designated with a ♯, or flat and designated with a ♭. In between C and D for example you can see a note called either C♯ or D♭. At the moment it doesn’t matter which we call it, just realise that it’s the same note either way.
  • The distances between notes will become an important concept as we move forward. To refer to the distance from one note to another we use the term interval. If we were to play a C note, and then play the next highest note available (which is C♯ or D♭) we have gone a distance of one semi-tone. That’s a semi-tone interval.
  • As you might expect, if you increase the interval by one key again – i.e. another semi-tone – you get a whole-tone interval. The interval between C and D is a whole tone interval, for example, or between G and A. If you play an F and then an A you’ve played a two tone interval, and so on.
  • Some notes don’t have a black key between. Specifically, there are no sharps or flats in between E and F, or B and C. It seems strange but life is easier if you simply accept this and move on. As there is no black key in between, the interval between E and F, and B and C is a semi-tone.
  • So the chromatic scale is made up of only 12 notes. That’s practically all of western music from classical to jazz to folk to pop to blues. Just 12 notes organised in different ways. It’s pretty mind blowing to think about! That means that all the other scales we’ll use are made up from notes in the chromatic scale.

It’s useful to have a cheap keyboard to play with while you’re thinking about this. I sometimes even use a melodica. If you’re used to playing a guitar you’ll probably realise that all the notes on one string between the nut and the 12th fret make up a chromatic scale too. You can use this visual too if it helps.

In the next post in this series I’ll look at another important scale – the major scale – and we’ll start blowing our harmonicas too, I promise.