Learning one halfstep at a time

If you want to know what quartertones sound like, get your class of kids to sing the Beatles song When I’m 64. The second line is supposed to sound like this:


And what you will generally get, when you average out all the voices, is something  like this:


So what went wrong with the birthday greetings? They didn’t have that trouble singing the same notes at twice the speed in bar 1, with “Will you still be sending me a-“.

It could be that the E-flat on the second syllable of “bottle” is somehow dragging up the D of the second syllable of “greetings”. Or the B-flat in Valentine has sucked down the entry on “Birth”. After which the rider never quite gets back in the saddle, so to speak. Sort of magnetic effect.

Either way, chromatic passages are a minefield for the learner. To learn to hear and sing them correctly requires careful and disciplined work.

It is hard to find examples of a rising chromatic passage in the popular songbook any longer than 3 successive halfsteps. The only one that comes to mind is in the last bar of the bridge of Duke Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss. Was he trying to prove a point? 3 rising halfsteps seems to be a limit for the untrained singer. So you might just have to chain up this 4 times to fill up an octave:

{=0  +1  +1   +1  -3  +1  +1  +1} × 4
will  you  still  be  sen-ding me a

Or if you prefer, you can use the opening phrase of Chattanooga choo-choo, where it goes:

=0  +1  +1   +1  >  =0  +1  +1   +1 >  =0  +1  +1   +1 >  =0  +1  +1   +1 >
Par-don me boy –   Par-don me boy –  Par-don me boy –   Par-don me boy

At each iteration of the phrase we can hear that we are transposing up by a minor third, so in fact we have merely practised the short scale {1 1 1} and stacked it four times.

Thelonious Monk chains up that very same link in bars 5 and 6 of his tune Blue Monk:

To convert it into an octave-long chromatic scale we need to keep singing it until we can store it in our auditory memory and perform it without the pauses and the =0 moves.

When it comes to descending chromatic scales we are in luck.  I don’t know if he did it for a bet or if it just came to him in a dream, but we should take a moment to remove our hats for Peter de Rose, whose 1933 hit Deep Purple has a complete octave of descending semitones (-1):


As you can see he takes a breather after every 5 halfsteps, so we are dealing with the {1 1 1 1 1} short scale. This is confirmed by the accompanying chords, C, F and Dm-G7. You can work out how to stitch that into a single scale by singing it to your auditory memory and retrieving it without the =0 moves. This is a key skill in developing your intervallic awareness. Some people do it without thinking, but if that’s something you’ve never done, try it now. You can find the passage 50 seconds into this video (note how Paul Whiteman’s over-the-top introduction slings in a few descending chromatic scales in triplets on the piano before the tune even starts – just to get you prepped up):

Five descending semitones is also as far as Duke Ellington dared to go in his ballad Prelude to a Kiss. Whether that’s based on some hidden rule of music or just a meme, or whether there’s any difference between the two, I leave you to ponder.

Be that as it may, for a complete ascending and descending chromatic scale (again in triplets) feast yourself with Herbie Hancock’s tune Toys which starts after a minute-long microtonal bass intro from Buster Williams:

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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