Pro Piano Improv With the Chromatic Scale
Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!
Sometimes it’s necessary to break the rules. In fact, professional jazz musicians do it all the time with their improvisation. While learning chord/scale relationships is certainly important, it would be misleading to imply that professional jazz musicians think exclusively in these terms. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn how to use the chromatic scale on piano to improvise jazz lines like a pro. This lesson explores:
- Intro to the Chromatic Scale and Chromaticism
- Chord/Scale Relationships
- How to Play the Chromatic Scale on Piano
- 2 Chromatic Neighboring Techniques
- Appendix—Unique Characteristics of the Chromatic Scale
If the idea that “rules are made to be broken” excites the rebel in you, then you will absolutely love today’s lesson!
The chromatic scale encompasses all twelve notes of Western harmony. The simplest expression the chromatic scale is an ascending or descending sequence of ½ steps. However, it rarely occurs in a performance setting in its entirety. Instead, jazz musicians commonly employ chromaticism (one or more notes of the chromatic scale) in tonal settings to create energy and expression.
Definition: the chromatic scale contains all twelve pitches arranged in ascending or descending ½ steps: C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B, B.
Be sure to check out this lesson’s Appendix—Unique Characteristics of the Chromatic Scale to learn more interesting facts about this one-of-a-kind scale.
The simplest way to understand chromaticism is as an adjective describing melody or harmony that is not diatonic. Harmonically speaking, secondary dominants, modal mixture and tritone substitutions are all examples of chromaticism. From a melodic perspective, bebop scales and blues scales are also examples of chromaticism.
In one sense, diatonicism and chromaticism are opposites—particularly by definition. However, legendary saxophonist and jazz educator David Liebman offers a more nuanced understanding. Liebman stats that “chromaticism doesn’t negate the use of diatonicism. The artistic goal is to have more choices during improvisation and composing so that a deeper emotional and expressive palette can be realized. Chromaticism does not necessarily replace diatonicism, but co-exists alongside it.” ¹
“Chromaticism does not necessarily replace diatonicism, but co-exists alongside it.”
—David Liebman, jazz educator, author and saxophonist
In fact, the goal of today’s lesson is for you to learn to use chromaticism in your jazz piano improvisation just as Liebman describes.
Before we dive head-first into chromaticism, it’s important to review the traditional principles of chord/scale relationships. The essence of chord/scale relationships is that jazz chord symbols simultaneously represents both a chord and a scale. Indeed, we will encourage you to go beyond these traditional rules in today’s lesson. However, we are not advocating that ignorance of such rules provides some kind of advantage or bliss! On the contrary, a solid foundation of chord/scale relationships provides the necessary intuition to successfully apply chromaticism in improvisation. In fact, you can take a deep dive on essential chord relationships in our course 2-5-1 Soloing with Chord Tone Targets (Level 2).
The musical examples below are excerpted from today’s lesson sheet. The complete lesson sheet and backing tracks are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music.
The diagram above outlines chord/scale relationships for three of the most common chord types in jazz repertoire. Despite educators’ best intentions, students tend to learn these associations early on as “the rules for jazz improvisation.” However, if you only “play by the rules” you are missing something of the essence of jazz. After all, the ethos of jazz is about freedom. The Last Poets, a collective of spoken-word artists organized in the late 1960’s, captured the essence of the jazz ethos in their 1976 collaboration entitled Jazzoetry.
“…Young and old as a whole
Those who know jazz is prose
And how it goes and is going to be
Me, us, we, free…”
— The Last Poets, “Jazzoetry” (1976)
In the next section, you’ll learn to play the chromatic scale with proper piano fingerings.
Gaining mastery of the chromatic scale is an essential jazz piano skill for aspiring jazz students. The example below shows two fingering options used to play the chromatic scale with the right hand while improvising.
Just how important is this scale? For some professional jazz pianists, it is the first thing they play each day to connect with their instrument while warming-up . In fact, becoming comfortable with this scale will enable you to unlock many more sounds from your instrument.
Now, let’s examine the a sample bebop line that uses chromaticism. The following example shows how a professional jazz pianist can actually use all twelve notes on each chord in a 2-5-1 progression!
Doesn’t that sound cool? Once again, all twelve notes are used over each chord in this demonstration. Admittedly, this is somewhat of an extremely example. However, it just goes to show that you can “break the rules” and still wind up with some pretty tasty lines.
Did you notice, however, that the example above does not contain extended use of ascending or descending ½ steps? In fact, the most successive ½ steps we see is five. This occurs on beat 4 of measure 5 in which the melody descends from A down to F. By contrast, most of the chromaticism in this example results from one or two chromatic ornaments at a time.
In the next section, we’ll explore two specific jazz piano techniques you can use to incorporate chromaticism into your improve lines.
In the previous section, we discovered that jazz improv with chromaticism does not typically draw on extended stretches of sequential ½ steps. This begs the question, “How do professional jazz musicians typically employ chromaticism in improvisation?” In this section, you’ll discover and apply two chromatic techniques: (1) neighbor notes and (2) enclosures.
The first technique we’ll explore to improvise with chromaticism involves chromatic neighbor notes. A neighbor note is a non-harmonic tone that contains the following characteristics:
- Occurs on a weak beat
- Approached form a chord tone by stepwise motion
- Resolves to the same chord tone by stepwise motion
When the neighbor note is above the chord tone that it ornaments, it is said to be an upper neighbor. Similarly, when the neighbor note is below the chord tone that it ornaments, it is a lower neighbor.
In jazz music, neighbor notes do not always meet all 3 criteria listed above. For example, if an ornament meets only 2 of the criteria, it is still considered neighbor note. Sometimes the term chromatic approach note is used when the ornament does not begin from the target note. For example, the C# that begins the following line can be called a chromatic lower neighbor or a chromatic approach note.
The following exercise will help you understand how professional jazz pianists approach improvisation with chromatic neighbors. In fact, after completing this exercise, you will know exactly how to practice adding chromatic neighbors to any jazz chord you encounter.
Step 1: Outline the Chord on Strong beats
The first step to practice jazz lines with chromatic neighbors is to outline the harmony on beats 1 and 3. The following example uses an ascending outline, but you can use any shape that places chord tones on beats 1 and 3.
Step 2: Add Upper Neighbor Motion
The second step to practice jazz lines with chromatic neighbors is to embellish your harmonic outline by adding upper neighbor motion to each chord tone. To do this, you’ll replace each half note from step 1 with two eighth-notes and a quarter note. The first eighth note is the target chord tone. The second eighth note is a ½ step above the target note. Finally, you’ll return to the target note on the quarter note to complete the neighbor motion. As a result, your outline now looks like this:
Step 3: Insert Lower Neighbor Motion
The third step to practice jazz lines with chromatic neighbors is to approach the first occurrence of each chord tone from below by a ½ step.
Did you notice that this exercise contains 11 out of the 12 notes from the chromatic scale? In fact, the only note that is missing is the note G. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t play the note G over Dm7. It just isn’t a chord tone or neighbor note. It is, however, a scale tone from D Dorian. Therefore, when you combine the scale tones for Dm7 and the neighbor notes for Dm7, you wind up with the entire chromatic scale. Most importantly, the neighbor note technique allows you to introduce chromaticism in a purposeful way within a tonal framework.
Keep in mind that the example above is an exercise to help you become proficient in using chromatic neighbor notes. In an actual performance situation, you will want to balance chromaticism with scalar patterns drawn from common chord/scale relationships. The following example demonstrates balanced use of chromaticism with upper and lower neighbors.
Improv Application With Neighbor Notes
To learn even more about jazz improv with neighbor notes, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Upper & Lower Neighbors (Level 3). This course features 10 additional neighbor note exercises and over 20 sample phrases.
The second way that jazz pianists improvise with the chromatic scale is the enclosure technique. An enclosure approaches a target chord tone using both upper and lower neighbors.
In the example above, each three-note melodic cell represents an enclosure. When the gesture begins with the lower neighbor, it is described as a lower enclosure. Similarly, when the gesture begins with an upper neighbor, it is described as an upper enclosure. Enclosures can draw from diatonic neighbors, chromatic neighbors or both. However, in today’s lesson, all of the examples will use chromatic enclosures.
In addition to the term enclosure, jazz authors use a number of other terms to describe this melodic shape. For example, encircling tones, rotations and surround notes are also common. In traditional music theory, the term cambiata is used to describe the same melodic contour.
To gain familiarity with enclosures, we can use a process similar to the three steps we employed to practice neighbor notes.
Step 1: Outline the Chord on Strong Beats
The first step to practice jazz lines with enclosures is to outline the harmony on beats 1 and 3. The following example uses an ascending outline.
Step 2: Approachment With Lower Enclosures
The second step to practice jazz lines with enclosures is to approach each chord tone with a lower enclosure. In the following example, each chord tone of Dm7 is preceded by its lower and upper neighbor (aka: lower enclosure).
Step 3: Approachment With Upper Enclosures
The third step to practice jazz lines with enclosures is to repeat the previous step while substituting upper enclosure approachment for each chord tone.
Once you are comfortable using enclosures to approach each chord tone, you are ready to try integrating them in to improv lines with stepwise motion and chord outlines.
Improv Application With Enclosures
To take a deep dive on jazz improv with enclosures, check out our full-length course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Enclosures (Level 3). This course packed with jazz piano accompaniment patterns, additional enclosure exercises and sample phrases.
Congratulations, you’ve complete this lesson on Pro Piano Improv With the Chromatic Scale. Well, what are you waiting for? Get out there and break some rules (musically speaking of course!)
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you will love the following resources:
- How to Play Jazz Piano Like Oscar Peterson (Levels 2 & 3)
- How to Play Jazz Piano Like Bill Evans (Levels 2 & 3)
- Solo Breakdown of the Brilliant Sonny Rollins (Level 2)
- All the Things You Are (Level 2, Level 3)
- Autumn Leaves Jazz Swing 1 (Level 2)
- Fly Me to the Moon (Level 2, Level 3)
In addition, be sure to check out our course series on 2-5-1 Soloing with...
- Chord Tone Targets (Level 2)
- Outlining Chords (Level 2)
- Diatonic Triads (Level 2)
- Upper & Lower Neighbors (Level 3)
- Bebop Scales (Level 3)
- Enclosures (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
Would you like to comment on this lesson?
Visit this Quick Tip on YouTube
The chromatic scale is an interesting topic in music theory. In fact, some go so far as to say that it isn’t a scale at all! Such a conclusion comes from the fact that it has no particular pattern of whole-steps and ½ steps like most scales we practice. Perhaps a more balanced conclusion is to say that the chromatic scale is a scale like no other.
The chromatic scale has several unique characteristics. Firstly, it is a symmetrical scale, which means it has recurring intervalic pattern. As a result, scales of this type do not have a “tonic note” in the traditional sense. Other examples of symmetrical scales are the whole tone scale and the diminished scale. Secondly, like all symmetrical scales, the chromatic scale is a scale of limited transposition. That means that there are not 12 unique transpositions of the chromatic scale. In fact, only asymmetrical scales such as major and minor scales have 12 unique transpositions. Therefore, while you can start the chromatic scale on any pitch, the notes contained within the scale will not change. Other scales of limited transposition are the whole tone scale, which has 2 transpositions and the diminished scale, which has 3 transpositions. Finally, since all the notes of the chromatic scale are equidistant, it only has 1 mode. In other words, beginning on a different tone of the chromatic scale does not product a different sequence of intervals.
Check out “Scale Construction: Asymmetrical vs. Symmetrical” to learn more about this topic and view related scale illustrations.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
More Free Lessons
This contemporary jazz piano arrangement of the traditional holiday classic "The First Noel" sounds so beautiful that it's bound to strike a chord.
Learn a beautiful jazz piano arrangement of "O Come All Ye Faithful" ("Adeste Fideles") and jazz arranging tips for other holiday favorites!
In this complete guide on 7th chords, Jonny breaks down the 5 categories of 7th chords on piano that form the foundation for jazz harmony.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
Get instant access to this Quick Tip and other member features with a PWJ membership!
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Join with the 14-Day Free Trial today!