AskDefine | Define chromaticism

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the quality or state of being chromatic
  2. the act or action of chromaticizing: the use of chromatic notes or tones (contrasted with diatonicism)
    excessive chromaticism means excessive increase in harmonic tension -- Mosco Carner

Extensive Definition

In music, chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing the primary diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale. These may be unrelated or as secondary pitches.
David Cope (1997) describes three forms of chromaticism: modulation, borrowed chords from secondary keys, and chromatic chords such as augmented sixth chords.
List of chromatic chords:
Other types of chromaticity:
  • The minor mode in major keys (mode mixture)
    • (Shir-Cliff, etc., 1965)
As tonality began to expand during the last half of the nineteenth century, with new combinations of chords, keys and harmonies being tried, the chromatic scale and chromaticism became more widely used, especially in the works of Richard Wagner, such as the opera 'Tristan und Isolde'. Increased chromaticism is often cited as one of the main causes or signs of the "break down" of tonality, in the form of increased importance or use of:
As tonal harmony continued to widen and even break down, the chromatic scale became the basis of modern music written using the twelve tone technique, a tone row being a specific ordering or series of the chromatic scale, and later serialism. Though these styles/methods continue to (re)incorporate tonality or tonal elements, often the trends which led to these methods were abandoned, such as modulation.
The total chromatic is the collection of all twelve equal tempered pitch classes of the chromatic scale.


Chromaticism is often associated with dissonance, which is commonly held to indicate negative events or feelings.
Susan McClary (1991) argues that chromaticism in operatic and sonata form narratives can often be understood as the "Other", racial, sexual, class or otherwise, to diatonicism's "male" self. Whether through modulation, as to the secondary key area, or other means. For instance, Clement calls the chromaticism in Wagner's Isolde "feminine stink" (Opera, 55-58, from McClary p.185n). However, McClary also points out that the same techniques used in opera to represent madness in women were historically the avante-garde in instrumental music, "In the nineteenth-century symphony, Salomes chromatic daring is what distinguishes truly serious composition of the vanguard from mere cliché-ridden hack work." (p.101)

See also


  • Shir-Cliff, etc. (1965). Chromatic Harmony. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0-02-928630-1.
  • Cope, David (1997). Techniques of the Contemporary Composer, p.15. New York, New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-864737-8.
chromaticism in Bulgarian: Хроматизъм
chromaticism in Spanish: Cromatismo (música)
chromaticism in Portuguese: Cromatismo
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