How to Play Chromatic Scales on the Piano

Introduction: How to Play Chromatic Scales on the Piano

Scales are the building blocks of music.

Typically we learn our Major and Minor scales first and practice them for some time before we move on to learning additional types of scales that we call modes.

A Mode is a specific type of scale, such as Major, Minor, and Chromatic.

  • The mode that we are already familiar with is the name for our Major Scales, and the name of this mode is the Ionian mode.

~ Scales in this mode start on the note that is the same note as the name of the Key.

~ For example, C Major Scale starts on the note C on the keyboard. There is also a specific finger pattern in each hand for all scales in this mode, as well as all other scales for that matter.

There are many other types of modes that we will end up learning as we advance in our playing.

Some of those different modes are:

  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Locrian

Chromatic Scales are one of the first types of scales that we learn after we have mastered major and minor scales. Chromatic scales can be found in more than one mode and are very good to add in to your piano technique repertoire as you will see them a lot in more advanced pieces.

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Step 1: What Is a Chromatic Scale?

Remember how in your Major Scales you played only 2 1/2 steps; between the 3rd & 4th step, and the 7th & 8th step? The rest of the notes are all a whole step apart.

* There are no whole steps in Chromatic Scales. Simply put, a Chromatic Scale is one in which every half step in the scale is played; ascending and descending.

* You will play every single white and black key from the first note to the last note.

With regards to all of the scales that you will learn on the piano, remember that each one has its own finger pattern, and note patterns. There will be a specific number of whole and 1/2 steps in each scale.

The finger pattern for a Major Scale can be written like this:

W=whole step H=half step


The finger pattern for a Chromatic Scale looks like this:


All half steps, see?

Before we move on to the fingerings for Chromatic Scales, let's review what 1/2 steps and semitones are.

Step 2: Review of Semitones or Half Steps

When 2 notes are a 1/2 step apart, it means that there is no other note that can be played in between them. Sometimes half notes will occur between a white/black key or a white/white key.

A Semitone is another name for a 1/2 note.

Notice where the 1/2 notes are in the C minor scale above. There are no other notes that can be played in between each of these 1/2 steps, in this particular key.

There is a note that can be played in between each of your whole notes.

Now let's find out the great fingering for you to learn how to play Chromatic Scales quickly!

Step 3: Fingering for Right Hand

We're going to use C major for our first example.

Remember you are going to play 12 notes total in this Chromatic Scale and you will play every white and black key between Middle C and the C and octave higher.

Start with your thumb on middle C.

* Use fingers 1 & 3 whenever you are playing a black and white key together. This would include the first 4 notes of this scale.

* When you get to the 2 white keys, (E and F natural in this scale) you will use your 2nd finger, instead of your 3rd finger.

* Then repeat using your 1st & 3rd fingers for the white/black keys.

* Repeat using your 2nd finger when you get to the next white/white keys, (B and C natural in this scale.)

Here's what this finger pattern looks like.

* 13131231312...and then continue this on for each octave of the scale you play.

Step 4: Fingering for Left Hand

Our left-hand fingering has a similar pattern to our right-hand fingering and one very specific difference.

* Again, alternate between the 1st and 3rd fingers for the white and black keys that are played together.

The difference between the two hands is seen in this specific way, in how you finger the white/white keys.

* You do the complete reverse of the pattern you used in your right hand.

* You still use your 2nd and 1st fingers, but you place your 2nd finger first, then place your 1st finger down to continue using your 3rd finger on the next black key.

Here's what this finger pattern looks like for your left hand:


That is a bit of a twist for your brain when you start playing Chromatic Scales with both hands together with this opposite pattern going on in your right and left hand fingerings!

Let's find out the easiest way to start playing Chromatic Scales on your piano, now.

Step 5: The Best Way to Start Playing Chromatic Scales

First off, take one hand at a time.

  • You could choose to dedicate one week at a time to each hand, to give yourself plenty of time to learn the new finger patterns.

Next, build up one note at a time instead of trying to play through the whole scale at first. Take just the first 2 notes and play them a few times.

  • Add the next note in line, once you feel secure with the first ones and continue to do this as you progress through the scale.

Always review what you learned the day before to help reinforce it.

Do the same with both hands but give yourself plenty of time to do just one at a time.

  • This is really important in helping you to learn these scales quickly.

Then you can try them together but use the same method above playing one note at a time with both hands together, then adding in more as you progress; all while playing very slowly.

Another great way to practice your chromatic scales with both hands is with rhythms! I'll show you how in the next step when you Come Practice With Me!

Step 6: Come Practice With Me!

Rhythms in our practicing are a fabulous way to help reinforce finger patterns in not only scales but also in our pieces and etudes. Practicing the same notes in a variety of ways helps us to stay focused and keep our minds from drifting, which can sometimes happen when we're doing repetitive work.

This video goes over every step in this lesson and we will go over several different rhythms that you can apply to learning your Chromatic Scales and anything else that you are having difficulties in playing.

This is a great resource that you can come back to anytime you need to go over the fingers, go through the different rhythms again, see close-ups of where to put your fingers on the piano keyboard, and lots more.

Enjoy learning Chromatic Scales - they will add a lot into your piano playing and experience!

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