The difficulty of reading chromatic passages is discussed in Music Reading and Notation Problems. The difficulties of hearing (imagining the pitches with our internal ear) of chromatic passages are looked at in the Ear Training page. Here however we will look at the mechanical 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 simple chromatic scales is quite a specialised skill and can be somewhat problematic. From both an aural and a fingering point of view they pose unique problems and we will therefore need to practice them. All those semitones piled on top of each other can be hard to hear with our inner ear and the number of different fingering possibilities is enormous. Because of this complexity of the ear-brain-hand-eye information processing task, it can be very easy to get in a coordination tangle during the scale and get lost somewhere along the way. Fortunately, what looks like complex notation (with many sharps and flats) doesn’t in fact normally constitute a great reading problem because we play them more by interval than by note-names. The fact that they are symmetrical, predictable, standardised, with one semitone between each note makes this reading task easier.

There is a great difference between playing a chromatic scale across the open strings, on one string, or in thumb position: aurally they are identical but the physical movements required for these three situations are very different:

Whether we play them across the strings or up and down the same string we have a large choice of possible fingerings and can often choose our fingering between those that follow a simple repeating “formula” (pattern) or those that take into account the rhythmic groupings (location of the beat). Choosing our fingerings according to the beat can greatly help us with the coordination (see the highlighted link).

Chromatic Scales Across Open Strings: EXERCISES      Chromatic Scales Across Open Strings: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

Chromatic Scales Across Strings Without Open Strings: EXERCISES

 Chromatic Scales On One String: EXERCISES      Chromatic Scales On One String: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

A special case scenario occurs with same-string chromatic scales that are played with only one finger. There are really only two reasons for which we would play an entire scale passage on the same finger:

  • if the scale is in doublestops

  • if it needs to be played so fast that the use of standard fingerings (with shifts and changes of finger) is impossible.

The following links opens up some study material for working on these specific “one-finger chromatic scale” situations:

Doublestopped Samefinger Chromatic Scales: EXERCISES      Doublestopped Samefinger Chromatic Scales: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


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”. Writing 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 …….