Music theory > Lessons > Pitch of sounds > Whole steps & half steps (Tones & semitones)

Whole steps & half steps (Tones & semitones)

Interval

An interval is the distance between two music notes.

If you consider the C Major scale, the intervals between two consecutive music notes are not identical, I will explain that later.

British and American Musical Terms

Below are the equivalence of two terms:

united states of americaunited kingdom
Whole step (noun)Tone (noun) (but as an adjective, whole-tone scale = whole-tone scale)
Half stepSemitone

Whole steps & half steps in the C Major scale

  • The smallest interval between two pitches is a half step .
  • One whole step contains two half steps.

Here are the intervals between consecutive notes in the C Major scale:

Tones and semitones in the C Major scale

There is only one half step between E and F notes, and only one half step between B and C note.


Tones and semitones in the C Major scale

And here is the distribution of whole steps and half steps on a keyboard, you can have the impress that black keys are missing, each interval between 2 green dots is a half step:

Semitones on a keyboard

All major scales are built in the same way, for example with the E flat major scale which has three flats on the key signature:

whole steps and half steps in E flat major scale

Raise and lower by a half step

The accidentals are used to raise and to lower the pitch of a note by a half step:

  • The sharp ♯ raises the sound by a half step.
  • The flat ♭ lowers the sound by a half step.

With sharps, it looks like this on a piano keyboard:

Sharps on a piano keyboard
ascending chromatic scale

(On this music sample, notes are played form left to right)

And with flats, it looks like this on a piano keyboard:

Flats on a piano keyboard
descending chromatic scale

(On this music sample, notes are played form right to left)

Notes:

  • The natural sign ♮ cancels the effect of the sharp or the flat.
  • An accidental is placed before the note.
  • An octave has twelve half steps.

Diatonic and Chromatic half steps

A half step can be diatonic or chromatic, but a half step is always the half of a whole step.

Chromatic half steps

A half step is chromatic when the two notes names of the interval have the same name, example: C and C#

Chromatic semitones

Diatonic half steps

A half step is diatonic when the two notes names of the interval have not the same name, example: D and Eb or E and F

Diatonic semitones

Chromatic scale

The chromatic scale is a succession of twelve pitches, each separated by a half step.

Here is a ascending chromatic scale played by an oboe:


Here is a descending chromatic scale played by a soprano recorder:


Whole steps half step in minor scales

Half steps and whole steps in the minor scales are not distributed in the same way as in the major scale, and there are also four types of minor scales for each minor scale. Explanations with the C minor scale which has three flats on the key signature:

Distribution of whole steps half steps in the C natural minor scale:

C natural minor scale

Distribution of whole steps half steps in the C harmonic minor scale:

C harmonic minor scale

Distribution of whole steps half steps in the C ascending melodic minor scale:

C ascending melodic minor scale

Is there anything smaller than half steps?

On a piano, the smallest interval is a half step, and this is the case for all Western music, but there are many other ways of distributing the sounds in a mode. Western music uses practically only two modes: the major mode (major scale) and the minor mode (minor scale). Musical cultural diversity is very rich and very varied, this is the case for Arab music which has many more modes than Western music has. Arabic music uses maqams, and most of them include quarter tones.

Bayati maqam is one of the most popular maqam in the Arabic music:


The inverted flat in front of the E note is a half flat, so this note is a quarter of a tone lower than the E note.

Obviously it's impossible to play quarter tones on a piano, but the piano is not the only instrument in real life . Most of the other instruments can play quarter tones, all brass such as the trumpet for example, and all instruments of the wind and strings family.

Contemporary music also uses quarter tones.

Game about half steps

Here is a game to play with half steps:

Test your knowledge



How many half steps (semitones) are there in a whole step (tone)?

there are two half steps in a whole step.

  • none
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 12
  • too much for me


How many half steps (semitones) are there in two whole steps (tones)?

there are four half steps in two whole steps.

  • none
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 12
  • too much for me


How many half steps are there in the C major scale?

there are twelve half steps in the C major scale.

  • none
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 6
  • 12
  • too much for me


How many whole steps are there in the C major scale?

there are six whole steps in the C major scale.

  • none
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 6
  • 12
  • too much for me


How many half steps are there between C and D?

there are two half steps between C and D.

  • none
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 6
  • 12


How many half steps are there between E and F?

there is only one half step between E and F.

  • none
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 6
  • 12


How many half steps are there between B and C?

there is only one half step between B and C.

  • none
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 6
  • 12


Is the C-C♯ interval ...? :

The interval C-C♯ is a chromatic half step.

  • diatonic half step (semitone)
  • chromatic half step (semitone)
  • both


Is the E-F interval ...? :

The interval E-F is a chromatic half step.

  • diatonic half step (semitone)
  • chromatic half step (semitone)
  • both
  • It is not a half step


Is the B-C interval ...? :

The interval B-C is a chromatic half step.

  • diatonic half step (semitone)
  • chromatic half step (semitone)
  • both
  • It is not a half step


Is the E-F♯ interval ...? :

The interval E-F♯ is a chromatic half step.

  • diatonic half step (semitone)
  • chromatic half step (semitone)
  • both
  • It is not a half step

External links to learn more about :

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semitone
2 - https://www.dolmetsch.com/musictheory7.htm
3 - https://musicterms.artopium.com/w/Wholestep.htm
4 - https://musicterms.artopium.com/s/Step.htm
5 - https://www.maqamworld.com/en/index.php maqamworld.com


Find all my music theory games by clicking this link music theory games
music theory games

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