Melodic Chromaticism

An introduction to some chromatic concepts that can be applied to your single-note lines.

Ultimate Guitar
Chromaticism is the usage of notes outside the key in a variety of ways, which can give one's lines some flavor. In this context, I am not talking about "the chromatic scale", which is made up of all 12 notes. I am talking about something more subtle in which one makes use of "outside" notes, but not running up and down all 12 notes. The most simple form that this can take is the chromatic leading tone and the chromatic passing tone. The Chromatic Leading Tone A chromatic leading tone is the use of a note a half-step below another note that you are "targeting", which resolves upwards by a half-step (and the inverse can be done as well, with a chromatic leading tone going in the opposite direction, but I'll leave that aside for this lesson). For example, if one is playing in C major and is approaching an E note, one can precede the E with an Eb. The Eb is "outside" the key, but naturally resolves to a consonant note, E, producing a kind of tension and release. One simple exercise to make use of this would be to target the three notes constituting a triad (effectively, outlining an arpeggio) and approach them with the note a half-step under. Using a C major triad (C, E, G), we can make an ascending pattern out of this by approaching each note of the triad by a half-step, with B leading to C, Eb leading to E, and F# leading to G:
We could make an excersize with the same concept, descending:
This also applies to the minor. Switching to C minor, if we were to target the notes of a C minor chord (C, Eb, and G), we'd approach the C with a B, the Eb with a D, and the G with an F#. Similar exersizes could be made with this.
We can expand on this concept by surrounding the target note with both a chromatic leading tone and whatever diatonic note is above it, creating a kind of motif. So, returning to C major, we get the following exersize:
These are just exersizes built from the basic concept of the chromatic leading tone. It can be applied to any note that you are targeting in a melody or a solo - it doesn't have to outline a triad or arpeggio, it can be used to target chord extensions as well, it can be used with modes, and so on. Once the basic concept is internalized, you can mix it up and expand on it in many ways. Things can get much more interesting than what's shown here. But it's a good starting point. The Chromatic Passing Tone A chromatic passing tone is a chromatic note used to fill in the space between two diatonic notes. The most common and straight forward form this takes is simply to "fill in the gap" between a wholestep. For example, if one is in C major and is moving from the notes D to C, one can "fill in the gap" with a Db. In such a case, the chromatic note occurs "in passing" in a linear manner. If we take a look at the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B), it's notable that there are four whole steps in it. In terms of chromatic passing tones, that's four gaps to potentially fill: between C and D, between D and E, between F and G, and between G and A. We could fill them either ascending or descending, yielding a total of eight possible 3-note manuevers. We could make an exersize with chromatic passing tones in C major by going through all of them in a given position on the neck. Using the open position, we could make something ascending like this outlining all of the descending 3-note manuevers:
Or we could make something that descends with ascending 3-note manuevers:
Keep in mind that these examples are just meant to showcase all of the little 3-note manuevers with chromatic passing tones that exist within a given position on the neck when playing in a certain key. In a musical context, you're not likely to see something as purely formulaic as such examples. But the purpose here is to outline the concept on the fretboard. The most important thing to understand is that it's a viable melodic option for you to use chromatic passing tones as part of your lines. It's something to incorporate into everything else. Application Example I'd like to briefly make something up to give an example of how these concepts can be applied to playing single-note lines over a chord progression. Let's say we have a basic chord progression in C major like this: Am, Dm, G7, C (VI, II, V7, I). Over the Am, I could play something like this:
This uses both a chromatic passing tone (the Db between D and C) and surrounding a target note (A) with a leading tone and the diatonic note above it. Over the Dm, I could play something like this:
This uses two chromatic leading tones: the Db leading to D, and the G# leading to A. Over the G7, I could play this:
This uses a chromatic leading tone (the Bb leading to B), a chromatic passing tone (F#) between G and F, and a chromatic passing tone (Db) between D and C. Over the C, I could play this:
This surrounds a target note (G) with a chromatic leading tone (F#) and A. Summary Chromaticism is a useful tool that can make your lines more interesting. What we just went over is just an introduction to the concept, with some basic examples. None of what has been tabbed out here should be approached as a "lick" for you to learn. The exersizes can be used as drills, but once you have internalized it you will find yourself expanding on it in a musical context. I hope that people have found this to be enlightening and that they can find ways to make use of this in their own music.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    i understand the passing tone, but i can't understand the leading tone. it's like changing a note form a scale to a note half-step down?
    The leading tone is using a note that's "outside" to resolve a half-step up to a note that's "inside". If you're in A minor and you see a G# going to an A, the G# is functioning as a leading tone. It naturally "leads" upwards.
    Basically, the leading tone is used in the context of targeting a certain note from a half-step under (or as part of a manuever to "surround" a target chord tone), while the passing tone occurs "in passing" between a wholestep. An ascending passing tone could simultaneously function as a leading tone.
    I'd just like to note that for my examples at the end, I purposefully don't indicate any time signature, rythm, or technique. It's meant to just be a group of notes for you to take and construct a line with as you please over associated chords.