Chromatic approach notes really deserve an entire book to themselves. They form a massive topic and we can only really explore the tip of the iceberg here.
A crude explanation would be to say that “the melody notes that fall on the strong beats should be chord tones and the notes that fall between the strong beats should be scale tones or chromatic approach notes”.
While even the shallowest exploration of the previous statement will find it to be untrue in many circumstances, it is nevertheless a useful starting point to learn one of the most important concepts in bebop.
We will explore soloing with scale tones in a later lesson, but for now let’s examine the concept of inserting chromatic approach notes before rhythmically strong chord tones.
A chromatic approach note can be any melody note that approaches a target note by step. Chromatic approach notes are always outside the prevailing scale or harmony but sometimes notes that are in the relevant scale are treated in the same way as chromatic approach notes.
You can hear the audio for the following examples here:
Study example a:
On beat four of the first bar I have played the note C natural which is a semitone below the C# I wish to target in bar two. (C# is the 3rd of A7) This C natural has nothing to do with the prevailing harmony, yet because I place it on a weak part of the bar and resolve it to a strong arpeggio tone in bar two, it has an extremely melodic and pleasing effect on the melody line.
I can use the same concept as we move into bar three. Look at example b:
Again, I have placed a chromatic note on beat four of the bar. This time you could say the note is a true chromatic passing note because the melody between the A7 and Dm7 chords ascends G, G#, A.
It is completely acceptable that the chromatic passing note is taken from outside our key centre because it is played on a weak beat and resolves convincingly to a strong arpeggio tone in the following bar.
Example c is another chromatic idea that begins from the b3 of Em7b5 and uses an ascending chromatic passing note between each chord:
Chromatic notes don’t have to be between the two notes in question. We can approach any arpeggio note from a semitone below as long as the chromatic note lies on a weak beat. These notes are more accurately named chromatic approach notes. Exercise d is an example of a chromatic approach note from below.
As you can see, this line ‘jumps’ to a note one semitone below each of the first two chord changes. Again, as this occurs on a weak beat and resolves to a chord tone in the next bar our ears accept the momentary dissonance. In bar three I use a true chromatic passing note to move into the second octave of the Dm7 arpeggio.
We can also approach a chord tone from a semitone above as in exercise e:
Between bars one and two I use a chromatic approach note from below, but between bars two and three I use a chromatic approach note from above.
A great way to practice exploring chromatic approach note ideas is to play three 1/4 notes in the bar and then do an 1/8th note chromatic pattern on beat four. Exercise f demonstrates this idea using a concept known as boxing in:
As I mentioned, chromatic approach notes are an extremely extensive topic but I’ve tried to show you some of the more common approaches to ‘filling in the gaps’ between chord changes. These ideas will be used repeatedly in this book and form a great deal of the bebop musical vocabulary.
As much as they are a melodic device, chromatic approach notes are also a rhythmic device that can be used to ‘fill in a gap’ between two adjacent notes, helping us to ‘force’ an arpeggio note onto a strong beat. We will examine this idea in later chapters.
Finally let’s study an extremely chromatic line which will give you an idea of just how far these concepts can be taken. Example g:
Instead of circling the notes that are chromatic alterations, this time I have highlighted only the chord tones. As you can see, the majority of the line is comprised of chromatic approach notes while still targeting the strong chord tones on most of the beats.
The first four notes of the previous exercise form a useful pattern called a ‘double chromatic above, double chromatic below’. The target note on the Em7b5 is ‘sandwiched’ between two chromatic approach notes on each side.
Go through each bar in turn and ‘extract’ the chromatic ideas used. See if you can apply them to one chord. For example, try targeting every note of an A7 chord from a semitone below as shown on Dm7 in the last bar above. Don’t worry about rhythm at this stage; just explore as many chromatic possibilities as you can.