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Why is the first bar a whole step? To me, it seems like both the first and second bar would be half steps since both notes are as close as possible to each other without them being in the same height position.

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    Honestly, it seems like you just know enough theory to be dangerous! To conclude that "both notes [in each bar] are as close as possible to each other", you would have to identify what those notes are. And there is also the realization that some adjacent "letters" (i.e. B and C, or E and F) are just a half step apart, while all the other adjacent letters are a whole step apart. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 16:46
  • Agree with The Chaz! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! Hang on in there, and take each new bit of theory with a pinch of salt - usually it's merely one piece of a quite complex jigsaw, and eventually needs other bits around it to be able to appreciate a bigger picture.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 8:13
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    You are right that this looks as if they should be the same step... but they aren't. The fact that two intervals which differ by 100% are notated the same is a historical accident; it made sense at a time when out-of-scale notes were rare and you could almost always predict whether the next interval in your melody would be a minor or a major second. This is no longer true, but the notation system is so entrenched that it's hopeless to try and change it - many attempts have already failed. Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 8:55
  • @KilianFoth in some areas, we have less need for an agreed-on general musical notation systems as things like MIDI and other sequencer files, audio recordings, and videos (as well as alternatives notations like tablature) have taken over some of the functions that standard notation used to be necessary for. Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 9:06

6 Answers 6


It's entirely logical of you to think that the musical stave would work like a graph of notes evenly spaced by semitone, with each position a semitone apart (this being the smallest interval normally considered in Western music).

However, standard musical notation doesn't work like this. Instead, standard notation shows a graph only of the notes in the C major scale (i.e. the white keys on the keyboard)*.

In your picture, the first interval is between A and B, which is a gap of two half steps. The second interval is from E to F, which is one half step. If you want to know why the major scale is like this, with these uneven gaps, then The major scale - why and how? and other questions on this site might be interesting.

Why is music theory built so tightly around the C Major scale? might also explain why, in turn, that scale is taken as the basis of the most common Western notation system.

However, all of this is only one way of representing music. There are other ways that work differently - if you google for 'chromatic staff', 'chromatic stave', or 'chromatic notation', you'll find systems of notation that represent notes more evenly, as you expected (though these are much less commonly-used than standard notation).

*these notes can then be altered by key signatures and accidentals to facilitate different keys and notes outside of the key.

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    I like to describe the staff as a graph of the named letter notes, A through G. There is no specific scale implied in the staff, it just tells you which pitches you should play. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 20:19
  • @AlphonsoBalvenie Surely both the "named letter" system and the staff are based on a presumption of the diatonic scale..? Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 22:10
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    Yes, diatonic note spacing, but not necessarily based on a specific scale. While the staff contains the notes of the C major scale, it also contains the notes of the A (natural) minor scale. To avoid later confusion with relative scales, I describe the staff as just containing the letter notes, and the notes in between the letters are described as higher or lower than the letters, using sharp and flat as the indicators. This is especially useful when teaching instruments that don't traditionally start with C major, such as violin starting with D major instead. Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 1:49
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    Yes, we agree on the concept for sure. My issue with your answer is the line: "standard notation shows a graph only of the notes in the C major scale", which to me could be confusing for a beginner because notation isn't using only the notes of C major scale. It is showing only the notes that have their own letter names, irrespective of any tonic based scale pattern. I see confusion about this sometimes in students when I introduce relative scales in a key. Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 19:41
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    @AlphonsoBalvenie you are right, and I did try to think whether I could be more precise without losing simplicity of explanation; my difficulty was that what the letter names represent is also quite hard to concisely describe, because you can't fully describe all the things those letters can mean without going into key signatures and accidentals, which seemed to be to be a whole level of knowledge beyond that which the OP was asked at. Hopefully these comments provide some clues as to the next things to learn! Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 20:51

Using the note names A>G, (7 names), and having 12 separate notes (including #and b), things are not straightforward. Looking at a piano keyboard will help it make sense. Each white key has a letter name; the blacks are #/b. So, starting at A, which is just to the right of the middle of the three blacks, the whites go up sequentially. That means that next note to the right (white) is B, as shown in your stave. Because there is another note between them, it's a tone - a whole step.

Going backwards to the E>F in your second stave, you'll see that there's no black between, so it's a semitone - or half-step. There are only two half-steps in music - between B and C, and your example, between E and F. All other dots on a line and the next space (and vice versa) will be a whole step - properly named 'tone'.


Generically the space between lines and spaces on staff is called variously: a step, second, or tone.

Letters A-G (for English) are applied to the lines and spaces.

Super, super importantly you need to put a clef on the staff to know which letters are assigned to which lines and spaces. In your example you have a G clef which assigns the letter G to the second line from the bottom.

The steps between the letters are not the same size!

There are two sizes of steps: whole steps and half steps. Or you can call them major seconds and minor seconds, or whole tones and half tones. You can also use "semi" rather than "half" like whole-tones and semi-tones.

All the steps are whole steps except those between E and F, and B and C which are half steps.

So, it is not a matter of visually how much space there is between notes on the staff, but about tones spelled with letters and how much spaces is between the letters.

Sharps and flats are used to change the letter positions by half-steps. So, for example, A to B is a whole step, but the A can be raised a half step with a sharp so that A# to B is a half step. Those sharps and flats can come from either a key signature or from accidentals added within the score.


As close as possible on the staff does not translate to as close as possible in frequency or pitch. The natural notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) are separated in frequency in the following pattern, (W, W, H, W, W, W, H). In more detail the intervals between consecutive notes are as follows.

C to D = Whole step (W)

D to E = W

E to F = Half step (H)

F to G = W

G to A = W

A to B = W

B to C = H

This is how the major scale is structured regardless of music notation.

Standard music notation places the natural notes on a staff or grid so that each line and space corresponds to a note in sequence. For the treble or G clef the notes on the staff are as follows, from the bottom line to the top line.

E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F

The sequence starts on the bottom line and lines and spaces are included. The notes on lines only are

E, G, B, D, F

and those on spaces only are

F, A, C, E

The interval pattern in the major scale is more fundamental than music notation. The notation treats each note equally (as you point out) but the natural scale is not built from only one interval. The two half steps are (E, F) and (B, C).


The notes on the stave do not indicate whole or half step intervals except when a sharp or flat sign is included. The answer to the question posted here is in the understanding of how different scales are constructed, major, minor, etc. The notes on the page only represent the notes of the scale in question. Look to the Key signature at the beginning of the piece for that information. If the key signature were to indicate the F to be Sharp or the E to be flat, the individual notes would appear on the stave in exactly the same relationship to each other but the interval between the tones would then be a whole step and the half step position would be moved accordingly.

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    That is incorrect. The notes on the stave do indicate whole and half steps even when there aren't sharps or flats. The notes E-F and B-C are half step intervals. The others are whole steps. Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 19:50
  • Your statement only refers to scales that have half steps between E-F and B-C. Several scales instead use a step pattern that moves the noted half steps to other positions on the stave and the only indication of the change is indicated in the key signature. I stand by my statement as accurate. Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 0:48
  • @skinny peacock As Alphonso Balvenie explained, the intervals between notes are fixed. E-F is always a semitone regardless of the key signature. If there is an F# in the key signature, the interval changes to E-F#. You can determine the interval between two notes on a stave. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 14:59
  • The original Question as I understand it asks why is E-F on the stave only a half step and A-B a whole step, E-F will stay the same on the stave, even if the key is Eb and the interval is now a whole step. If the key is changed to Bb the notes on the stave stay the same, but the interval becomes a half step. the only difference is noted in the key signature, I continue to stand by my statement as accurate. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 15:38
  • This seems to be confusing some of you. The notes on the stave can have their value assigned by the Key signature. Because of this, the whole step and half step assignments move when the key is changed or the type of scale is changed. The way the notes appear on the stave remain the same. Further study recommended Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 16:08

Do yourself a favor and read about any basic text explaining standard staff notation. The notes in the first bar correspond to white keys on a keyboard with a black key between them, the notes in the second bar correspond to white keys on a keyboard without a black key between them.

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