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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? – ggcg Aug 4 '20 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 '20 at 14:52
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    I don't find a better tag than history. – guidot Aug 4 '20 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! – Albrecht Hügli Aug 4 '20 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 '20 at 1:04
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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).

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  • 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? – Albrecht Hügli Aug 4 '20 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 '20 at 15:33
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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.

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  • 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 '20 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? – Albrecht Hügli Aug 4 '20 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 '20 at 17:01
  • Don‘t you think we both, we all use tone as abbreviation for tone pitch as well as for tone step? – Albrecht Hügli Aug 4 '20 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 '20 at 0:50

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