The Basics of Music Theory - Part 1 (The Chromatic Scale)

No matter what level you attain at any skill, the basics always seem to need review. Therefore, whether you are new to the guitar or not, this series will hopefully help you understand or remind you of the importance of theory. As this is a guitar focused blog, the theory will obviously have a bent towards how most guitarists see theory on the guitar.

The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale is made up of twelve ascending or descending half steps. A half step on the guitar is equal to each fret. When you play a note on the first open string and then hold your finger down to play the note under the first fret, then you have just played a half step. This is called an interval and we will discuss those more in the future.

A good way to practice this chromatic scale to get it into your head is to continue the idea mentioned above. Play each successive note on a single string all the way to the twelfth fret. Then return again. You just played an E chromatic scale. Remember, the lowest note you played was the first degree of the scale (1). This is also known as the root of the scale. In the example below, you will notice that the C is the root of the given scale and is the first (1) degree. D in the scale is the second degree (2). D# in the scale is the sharped second degree (#2) etc.

Enharmonic Equivalents

Each note in the chromatic scale has a letter and degree number. Notice in the example above that some notes have a sharp (#) or a flat (b) sign behind them. The top line is ascending and therefore it has sharps (sharp means to raise by a half step) and the second line has flats (flat means to lower by a half step). As a rule, the scale degrees have the sharp and flat signs listed before the number instead of after. This means that a note can have more than one name or has an enharmonic equivalent. In this C chromatic scale, there are five pairs of enharmonic notes as seen below.

C# and Db or #1 and b2
D# and Eb or #2 and b3
F# and Gb or #4 and b5
G# and Ab or #5 and b6
A# and Bb or #6 and b7

The spellings of the enharmonic will depend on a number of different criteria. It will relate to the key you are playing in, whether you are ascending or descending, the other intervals involved, and ease of sight reading.

FYI: For those of you interested in a much deeper level of theory study on the guitar, check out: Music Theory for Guitarists: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask. Tom Kolb does a great job explaining the ins and outs. It also includes access to online audio access.

Continue on to: The Basics of Music Theory Part 2 (Intervals and the Major Scale) ->>

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