Nimble Chromatics – Practising the Piano

When it comes to fingerings, it helps to understand the principles behind certain fingering patterns we find in our scores, rather than just merely playing what we see. In this post I would like to discuss the best fingering for fast chromatic scales that we find in the repertoire, and chromatic minor 3rd scales using the sliding 2nd finger approach.

Basic Chromatic Scale Fingering

Here is the first chromatic scale fingering we learn; it is perfectly serviceable for beginner-intermediate levels.

3rd finger on black keys; thumb on white keys – except on the two adjacent pairs of white keys within the octave (E-F and B-C) where 2nd finger acts as a substitute thumb.

Thus (RH up from C): 1-3-1-3-1-2-3-1-3-1-3-1-2

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Advanced Chromatic Scale Fingering

This fingering is much faster. Use a large group of consecutive fingers from 1-4 (or 4-1) whenever possible, except when to do so would position the thumb on a black key – in which case use a smaller group of consecutive fingers from 1-3. The 5th finger can be used at the end of a pattern, or when the scale changes direction.

Thus (RH up from C): 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3; 1-2-3-4; 1-2 (etc).

If you practise chromatic scales starting on any note, your hand will eventually get used to this fingering and you will find you can do it without thinking. I suggest practising hands together as soon as possible in symmetrical inversion (contrary motion). Using the symmetry of the keyboard, you can create an exact symmetrical version in one hand of any passage you are playing in the other, including scales. You match identical fingers and intervals and play the mirror image of the other hand simultaneously. Thus, when you play a black note with the 4th finger in one hand, you’ll also be playing a black note with the 4th finger in the other hand. The two points of symmetry on the piano keyboard are D and A flat, you can begin on the unison or an octave apart. Begin on other notes too – you can find a point of symmetry from any note within the octave by counting outwards an equal distance in both directions from D or A flat.

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You’ll find you learn fingering patterns much more quickly and easily this way – it does take a bit of getting used to but once you’ve tried out symmetrical inversion you can apply it to tricky passages in your pieces and watch the difficulties melt away.

For more on using symmetrical inversion in practice (a technique favoured by Marc-André Hamelin), follow this link to my blog post.

Now you will be able to apply this fingering easily to any chromatic scale in the repertoire. Here is a good example, the descending chromatic scale at the end of the Grave in the first movement of the Pathétique Sonata.

Pathetique Chromatic Scale

Chromatic Minor Thirds

In my experience, by far the best general fingering for chromatic minor thirds involves sliding the 2nd finger off the end of a group of black notes onto the adjacent white note – the note you slide off changes depending on whether you are ascending or descending. Understanding the fingering principle helps us apply it in any given situation in the repertoire.

When learning this fingering, I suggest thinking of the scale as two independent voices (top and bottom). Start by becoming very familiar with the sliding component of the scale (thumb and 2nd finger – lower RH, upper LH). Practise each hand alone – the fingering in this example applies to both hands.

chromatic sliding 2nd finger

The principle for the outer fingering (involving fingers 3, 4 and 5) is to use 3 on a black key and 4 on a white key except where we find two white keys in a row (E-F, and B-C), where we use 5th on the second white key. Again, familiarise your hand with the outer fingering before putting the thirds together (do this hands separately, I’ve given RH and LH fingerings on the example below, for convenience).

chromatic outer fingers

When you are ready to put both voices together, I strongly suggest doing so by joining one voice and tapping the other voice lightly twice on each note. Do this both ways round, of course.


Again, you’ll find this fingering translates extremely well to any example you might find from the repertoire. Here is an extract from Chopin’s Etude in thirds, op. 25, no. 6.

op 25 no 6