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Solving the Puzzle of Chromaticism in Jazz

One of the main defining characteristics of all great bebop solos is their use of chromaticism. But for those unfamiliar with chromatic concepts, the idea of using chromaticism in your playing can be really difficult to understand. After all, it’s not enough to just wander around the chromatic scale — you have to know where you are and where you want to go, as well as how to land there on a strong beat.

Jazz music solo targeting chord tones on strong beats
Targeting chord tones on strong beats

It can also be confusing when you realize that not every chromatic configuration sounds good.

Jazz chromatic passage that sounds bad
Not all chromatic passages sound good!

To make things worse, because most common scales have an asymmetrical intervallic pattern, you can’t always apply the exact formula to every area of the scale.

Breaking down the asymmetry in a dorian scale in jazz
Breaking down the asymmetry in a dorian scale

With all these choices over all 12 keys, this can all be very overwhelming. But there is good news! The 15 Approach Note and Enclosure Exercises PDF resource from can give you practice and help acquaint you with some of the tricks that can make you more comfortable with chromaticism.

Each of the exercises in this resource chromatically targets all seven scale tones of the major scale in a creative and melodic way to solve the asymmetry issues. Plus, all of the exercises sound good, too—so they’re not just the repeating drudgery of some exercise routines.

We’re going to jump in on one of the exercises and see what we can learn from it. But before we get going, make sure to check out the full PDF package here, as well as our accompanying YouTube video, “Solving the puzzle of chromaticism in jazz,” which features Nathan walking you through these concepts.

Now let’s get playing!


Selecting an exercise

The best way to find an exercise that you like is to trust your ear. When Nathan is looking for one to work on, he sight reads the exercises several times and chooses one to dive deeply into. This helps keep your ears as the main boss.

Once you found one that sounds good to your ears, it’s good to focus deeply on this exercise for a few weeks. From Nathan’s experience, it’s more helpful to digest one exercise permanently, rather than just scratching the surface of 10 of them and forgetting them forever.

Chromatic exercise analysis

In each exercise in this book, you’ll see that there’s an intentional pattern going, which will make it easier to understand. In this exercise, you’ll notice that if you split the bar in two, the first four notes are your enclosure and the second four notes are strictly diatonic. This scheme carries through the whole exercise, even descending.

Jazz chromatic enclosure exercise ascending

To note, the second half of the measure is a 1, 2, 3, 5 shape, which carries up every single step of the scale.

Jazz chromatic enclosure exercise descending

When we descend, we have the same thing—but instead of going 1, 2, 3, 5, we’re going to go back to the note we started on, so 1, 2, 3, 1.

Analyzing jazz enclosure exercise ascending

Taking a look at the first half of the bar, that’s where we have a four-note enclosure happening. But as you can see, they’re not strictly the same set of intervals. Looking at the first measure, those first two notes are a whole step apart, while the next measure they are a half step apart. Same is true for the next measure, then the next measure is a whole step. So how does this sound so good? Yes, there are some slight differences going on, but there’s a clue in the underlying line.

Underlying scale line in jazz exercise
Notice how the first notes move up the scale

If you look at the first note of each of the measures, it’s going up in a scale—the first note starts on the third of C and just goes up diatonic steps.