We use 'tone' and consequently 'semitone' a lot in music - in Western music, the semitone is the smallest possible difference between two notes. (Not including guitar bends etc!).

However, the word 'tone' means several other things musical, so its use can be confusing. Where/when/why did the word actually come to mean the difference between C and D; F♯ and G♯, E♭ and F?

The word 'step' occurs from time to time - but that again is two half-steps. With the 12 tone system well in place now (or should that really be 6 tone..?) should there be a more apposite term we could use?

Funny - I tried 'tone' tag - and it's for a different 'tone'!

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    Is this really a music question or an etyomology question? Are you asking for the origin of the definition of tone (which I'm sure exists) of the many uses of the term by musicians?
    – user50691
    Aug 4, 2020 at 14:38
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    @ggcg - I'm asking for the origin of the term tone with specific reference to its use to identify an interval. The other meanings probably won't have any bearing on that. And I need help with tags!
    – Tim
    Aug 4, 2020 at 14:52
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    I don't find a better tag than history.
    – guidot
    Aug 4, 2020 at 15:00
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    I like these questions about basic terms. Etymology and music theory are very close, remember the question about the meaning of minor and major! Aug 4, 2020 at 15:17
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    This usage appears in Guido d'Arezzo's Micrologus, which Wikipedia says is from approximately 1026. I can't say whether the terminology was established earlier or what logic led to its adoption (I looked for evidence that Aristoxenus used the term, and it looks like he did, but I didn't find anything conclusive online). But there is obviously an ambiguity between two senses of the word tone: one sense means pitch, while the other sense denotes a particular range of distances between two pitches.
    – phoog
    Aug 5, 2020 at 1:04

3 Answers 3


The relevant part of the etymology of tone is:

from Greek tonos "vocal pitch, raising of voice, accent, key in music," originally "a stretching, tightening, taut string," related to teinein "to stretch"

Note that many of those meanings seem to have to do with stretching and preparing an instrument or voice to produce a (specific) pitch. The tonos was originally a sort of conceptual tool for constructing the scale, for "stretching" the strings or "raising the voice" to produce tones. The specific pitches (which we now also call tones) were frequently the result of tuning through whole tones, originally the ratio of 9:8.

To see the origin, we have to go back to the ancient Greeks, specifically the Pythagoreans. Among the Pythagoreans, all consonant intervals could be formed through ratios from the first four integers: 1, 2, 3, 4, part of a doctrine known as the tetractys.

A 2:1 octave, a 3:2 perfect fifth, and a 4:3 perfect fourth were consonances, of course. So were a 3:1 perfect twelfth and a 4:1 double octave. (The only other combination of these numbers -- 4:2 -- was equivalent to a 2:1 octave. Notably, the Pythagoreans called the 4:3 fourth a consonance, but the 8:3 perfect eleventh would not be a consonance, as it required an integer greater than 4, whereas the 3:1 twelfth and 4:1 double octave were consonances. The Pythagoreans were concerned mostly the importance of rational number, rather than practical consistency in how musicians may have used these things.)

Anyhow, the whole tone emerges naturally from these intervals, specifically defined in most ancient Greek music theory treatises as the difference between the 3:2 fifth and the 4:3 fourth, which produces a 9:8 tone. The Greeks also were somewhat fascinated with mathematical properties of so-called "superparticular" ratios, where the larger number is one bigger than the smaller number, another reason for privileging the 9:8 tone. This interval is implied clearly perhaps the first time in a fragment by the early Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus (ca. late fifth century to early fourth century BCE) by the division of an octave that would create a 6:8:9:12 ratio with perfect fifths, fourths, and a central whole tone:

The magnitude of harmonia [in this case, an octave] is syllaba [perfect fourth] and di’oxeian [perfect fifth]. The di’oxeian [fifth] is greater than the syllaba [fourth] in epogdoic [9:8] ratio. From hypate [E] to mese [A] is a syllaba, from mese [A] to neate [or nete, E'] is a di’oxeian, from neate [E'] to trite [later paramese, B] is a syllaba, and from trite [B] to hypate [E] is a di’oxeian. The interval between trite [B] and mese [A] is epogdoic [9:8], the syllaba is epitritic [4:3], the di’oxeian hemiolic [3:2], and the dia pason [octave] is duple [2:1]. Thus harmonia consists of five epogdoics and two dieses; di’oxeian is three epogdoics and a diesis, and syllaba is two epogdoics and a diesis.

[Translation from Barker, Greek Musical Writings: Volume 2, Harmonic and Acoustic Theory]

Interpreting this terminology a bit using modern note letter names (as given in brackets), we get an octave tuned with an E-A-B-E in the 12:9:8:6 ratio.

In the final sentences here, we can see this early notion of an octave divided into five tones ("epogdoics" here, which refers specifically to a 9:8 ratio) and two "dieses" (a generic Greek term for a small interval). It's pretty clear even in this early form that the "diesis" was not exactly half of a whole tone, as the ratios wouldn't work out correctly. Greek treatises almost always make a significant point of how it's impossible to divide the whole tone into two equal parts. It's only much later that you start seeing reference to a specific sort of "semitone" interval, and that interval was almost always only thought of as approximately half a tone, though it could be given a number of specific ratios and sometimes just was a term for any interval smaller than a whole tone. Meanwhile, the whole tone could easily always be tuned as a 9:8 ratio, the difference between a perfect fifth and fourth.

The association of "tonos" with this interval dates at least to the Euclidean Sectio canonis (likely from around 300 BCE) as well as to Aristoxenus (also around this same time). I believe Aristoxenus may be the first to actually use the term "tonos" for this interval. In Elementa harmonica he makes statements like:

The tone [tonos] is that by which the fifth [diapente] is greater than the fourth [diatesseron]; the fourth contains two and a half tones.

[Translation from Creese, The Monochord in Ancient Greek Harmonic Science. In brackets here I noted that the Greek nomenclature is much closer to standard terminology than in the archaic terms Philolaus used: not only the term tonos but what became standard Greek/Latin terms for intervals like diapente ("through five [notes]") and diatesseron ("through four") are employed by Aristoxenus. The idea of a "half" tone mentioned here will be addressed below.]

The Sectio canonis is more explicit about associating the specific ratios:

It remains, then, to give an account of the interval of the tone [toniaion diastema], that it is epogdoic [9:8]. For we learned that if an epitritic [4:3] interval is taken away from a hemiolic [3:2] interval, the remainder is epogdoic. And if the fourth is taken away from the fifth, the remainder is the interval of the tone; the interval of the tone is therefore epogdoic.

[Translation from Creese, The Monochord in Ancient Greek Harmonic Science.]

The Sectio canonis goes further with the concept of the tone and specifically discusses "diatonic" divisions of the scale, which involve combinations of 9:8 whole tones with other intervals. Basically, it begins with dividing an octave in the 6:8:9:12 ratio as discussed above, creating the so-called "immovable" notes of the scale. The other notes that filled in the 6:8 and 9:12 perfect fourths depended on the specific tuning system.

But when they were tuned using 9:8 whole tones, those notes were referred to as the "diatonos" versions of those notes, as they were derived using whole tones. ("Diatonic" means roughly "through [whole] tones.") Generally, Greeks tuned the scale from the high notes downward, so the E-B fourth could be filled in with a 9:8 E-D and a 9:8 D-C, leaving a 256:243 diesis (also known as a leimma/limma or "leftover part") between C and B. Similarly, tuning from A we could construct G and F with 9:8 whole tones, with a leftover 256:243 limma between F and E. (The 9:8 whole tone, for reference, is about 204 cents, while the 256:243 limma is about 90 cents.)

Note that the term tonos in ancient Greek music theory could refer to other things, particularly tonoi could be scale systems and methods of tuning that we might today call "modes" or different "species" of octave with semitones in different locations. (I'm going to ignore the various terms used to denote these things and how they may have differed -- I just wanted to point out that the word tonos also had other connotations at the time.)

The 9:8 interval had a number of different names, often referred to in early sources by mathematical terms for the ratio 9:8 itself (epogdoic was one of those), and by tonos and various other words with the root ton-. Also, while the earliest "diatonic" tunings were based around a 9:8 tone, later treatises introduced other possible "tones" with other ratios that were somewhat close in size to that interval. However, out of context, the "tone" came to be associated with a 9:8 ratio.

Greek theorists as early as Aristoxenus recognized it was also possible to view the octave as a division into 12 roughly equal parts, but such a concept was only mentioned in passing, and there were no practical tuning instructions or approximations given for such a notion. (Aristoxenus discusses the possibility of third-tones and quarter-tones as well; while some people attribute the concept of a 12-tone equal tempered scale to him, it's clear that he was just using all sorts of approximate small interval divisions to describe various intervals -- he'd just as easily describe a fourth as composed of ten quarter-tones as he'd think of it as five semitones. However, Greek music never used more than a couple consecutive small intervals in this manner. While it was theoretically possible to divide up octaves and other intervals into semitones, it really had no meaning or utility in Greek music, which is probably why Aristoxenus and other Greek theorists never really pursued this line of reasoning much further.)

Instead, the closest the Greeks had was the 9:8 whole tone as a standard measure derived from consonant intervals and with a rather simple numerical relationship that could be easily measured with a ratio of string lengths.

That's why the "tone" emerged as the standard intervallic measure in music for thousands of years. As for the rest of the question about what we should do with "steps" or whether semitones are a better measure, that's calling for more of an opinion. However, as long as we keep using the letter-name system (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) that relates fundamentally to a diatonic scale, it probably still makes sense to think of the tone as pretty fundamental to the standard Western scale.

  • Awesome answer with just the right amount of context given
    – Creynders
    Jul 26, 2021 at 8:31
  • Wow! That's all until I digest everything. Wow!
    – Tim
    Jul 26, 2021 at 9:31

German Wikipedia offers (my translation):

„Tone“ derives from Tonus, the Latin form of ancient Greek τόνος, tonos, meaning „Tension“; the related verb is τείνειν teinein (to stretch).

The English Wikipedia attributes the coinage of the term to the philosopher Aristoxenus (375-335 BC).

  • It seems obivous that tone is derived from tonos and the tension of the string of an arrow bow and the noise that was produced when the arrow was shot. The higher the tension - the higher the tonos. But interesting would be the question: how named the Greek the sound of the Syrinx (Aulos)? Did they transfer and apply the term tonos? Aug 4, 2020 at 15:06
  • Interesting, but one tone is the same anywhere on the audible spectrum. I understand the Hz difference is different.
    – Tim
    Aug 4, 2020 at 15:33

It seems obivous that tone is derived from tonos and the tension of the string of an arrow bow and the sound that was produced when the arrow was shot. The higher the tension - the higher the tonos. But interesting would be the question: how named the Greek the sound of the Syrinx (Aulos)? Did they transfer and apply the term tonos?

The word 'step' occurs from time to time - but that again is two half-steps. With the 12 tone system well in place now (or should that really be 6 tone..?) should there be a more apposite term we could use?

We can apply the step also for a finger step on the guitar frets (-> monochord or flute), but it seems to be derived from the scale or tone ladder where you can go up and down a whole step or semi step. The Greek named their mode scales different. But there were also Organs with 12 "keys" in 2 manuals, where the players had to do a whole step or a half step.

  • The higher the tension the higher the tone? But one tone is a difference in pitch, so that doesn't sound too plausible.
    – Tim
    Aug 4, 2020 at 15:30
  • If you augment the tension of an E-string the tone will be higher? May be this is a problem of translation. We use term for the tone and the tone pitch identical. A higher tone has a higher pitch, isn't it? Aug 4, 2020 at 16:53
  • Yes, tone isn't pitch. There is definitely a language problem here. The interval between C1 and D1 is one tone. The interval between C6 and D6 is also a tone.
    – Tim
    Aug 4, 2020 at 17:01
  • Don‘t you think we both, we all use tone as abbreviation for tone pitch as well as for tone step? Aug 4, 2020 at 18:41
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    @Tim tone is pitch (at least, in one of its senses). See for example this definition from Wiktionary: "tone (plural tones) 1. (music) A specific pitch. 2. (music) (in the diatonic scale) An interval of a major second. 3. (music) (in a Gregorian chant) A recitational melody. ..."
    – phoog
    Aug 5, 2020 at 0:50

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