The difficulty of reading chromatic passages is discussed in Music Reading and Notation Problems. Here however we will look at the problems associated with playing chromatic passages.

We are so used to playing tonal, scalic, singable music, that when we come across complex chromatic passages we have to change gear. We can no longer easily imagine or sing the pitches and thus need to start playing “by numbers” like a computer …….. or develop our aural and harmony skills to a higher degree of sophistication (to the level of the composer).

Playing normal chromatic scales (in which there is a semitone between each note) is not usually particularly problematic. Whether we play them across the strings or up and down one string, we can rapidly get used to these both from an aural and a fingering point of view because they are symmetrical, predictable, standardised.

chromatic scales norm rep

The most problematic chromatic scale passages are those that are interspersed with occasional non-chromatic intervals. Apart from the reading problems that they pose, these types of passage often pose fingering problems because, unlike for standard chromatic scales, there is usually no “system” or pattern that we can rely on. Look at the following passage from the overture to Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser”. Placing a bracket over all the tone intervals makes the reading much simpler.

This passage continues on, and then comes back later in a more extended version in another key (with completely different fingerings). On a bad day we could be tempted to consider particularly complex passages like these as “chromatic slime” because of the amount of work that is necessary to play them accurately and up to speed. However we can also look on them as a sort of musical test (a “smear test”?) that prepares us for the complexities of modern music and, at the same time, makes most chromatic passages in earlier music – such as this one right below – look positively easy!

schub quintet vc II

This is about as far from “chromatic slime” as it is possible to get …….