Why did we choose to put a note between c and d but have b and c be a semitone away? Why couldn't we have divided the 12 tones as a a♯ b b♯ c c♯ d d♯ e e♯ f f♯ as that would be much simpler to understand?

  • 1
    I'm not sure the linked answer will be clear to you. Look up diatonic and chromatic en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatonic_scale and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatonic_and_chromatic. Basically music notation is based on a 7 tone diatonic scale which can be filled in with chromatic tones, its original is not dividing an octave into 12 steps. Oct 31, 2022 at 19:43
  • Basically, as the answer alludes, it's an artifact of history. We started out with the seven "natural" notes and then people started to find that sometimes it was better to have B a semitone above A and a whole tone below C instead of a whole tone above A and a semitone below C. This was the origin of B flat. Then people started to have a need for E flat and A flat (flats came before sharps) and also for F sharp and C sharp and G sharp, closing the circle of fifths and resulting in the 12-tone keyboard we have today, which still betrays its historical origin in the 7-tone medieval scale.
    – phoog
    Nov 1, 2022 at 12:29

1 Answer 1


The reason for this is that the note names more or less came first, and then some chromatic alterations were added, eventually filling up the chromatic scale. The way note names are chosen is consistent with the melodic concepts of traditional west European music. The notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G form a minor scale and thus simply by shifting also a major scale.

Instead if we chose note names symmetrically then suddenly the notes A-B-C-D-E-F would form a whole tone scale. Then suddenly C major would not be simply C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, but it would be B#-C#-D#-E-F-C-B-B# (note we have to double a note name as we have one less note name).

Now, if traditional European music was in any way centered around whole tone scales this would have been a viable option, but this is not the case.

Just imagine: Your child in music school learns the note names of "Ah! vous dirai-je maman" (twinkle, twinkle, little star, whatever), and instead of C-C-G-G-A-A-G F-F-E-E-D-D-C you go C-C-F#-F#-A#-A#-F# E#-E#-E-E-D-D-C. And now tell me which of these would be more simple to understand?

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