1

My choir teacher talks to my class about whole steps, and half steps a lot. The problem is, I am unable to understand what whole step and half steps are. What are whole steps and half steps?

  • 1
    These are intervals that measure the distance between two pitches. music.stackexchange.com/questions/65309/… may address your question. – Richard Mar 6 at 4:45
  • I think this question should have some in-depth answers. Not sure whether steps are the same as tones...You should really be asking choir teacher to explain, even they might not fully understand the terms. – Tim Mar 6 at 6:32
3

"Step" is the generic term for moving from one musical letter to the next. But not all steps are the same size - if you look at a piano you'll see there is no black key between E and F or between B and C.

So we call those smaller steps half steps, and the larger ones (A-B, C-D, D-E, F-G, G-A) are whole steps

  • 1
    So what does that make C>Db? Or even C#>Db, as the musical letter name has changed. Tone/semitone is so much simpler! – Tim Mar 6 at 6:30
  • 3
    The US terms are "diatonic half step" for C-Db and "chromatic half step" for C-C#. C#-Db isn't described as a step of any kind on either side of the pond, because they're enharmonic, and the term "step" (or "tone") is too generic. C#-Db is a doubly-diminished second when it needs a name. – Tom Serb Mar 6 at 11:10
2

In standard 'Western' musical thinking, the octave is divided into 12 semitones, or 'half-steps'. A half-step is simply the distance between one note in the 12-tone (or 'chromatic') scale, and the next note down or up.

A half-step is the same thing as a semitone - so C to C# is a half-step; C to Db is a half-step; B to C is also a half-step. If you play any key on the piano keyboard, and then play the next note up or down (whether that happens to be black or white), you've moved up by a half-step.

A step is just two half-steps. So C to D is a step.

In most music, we don't use all 12 notes of the scale, but just a subset, such as the Major scale. Scales can be defined in terms of steps - for example, the step sizes in the major scale are:
whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.
If we check this against the C major scale, we see that there is:

A whole step between C and D
A whole step between D and E
A half step between E and F
A whole step between F and G
A whole step between G and A
A whole step between A and B
A half step between B and C

  • This may - or may not - be the same answer as Tom's. I'm not quite sure! :) – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 6 at 12:37
1

No need to get complicated here. Adjacent note in the chromatic scale - 'Half-step' (American) or 'Semitone' (British). Next-note-but-one - 'Whole-step' (American) or 'Tone' (British). And if 'chromatic scale' hangs you up, it's all the notes on the piano keyboard, white and black. All the fret positions on a guitar. Not just the selection of them that form a major or minor scale.

Unlike interval names (Major 2nd, Minor 2nd) Half-steps and Whole-steps have nothing to do with note spelling. It's just pure counting.

Sit down at a keyboard with a more advanced musician and get him to demonstrate the chromatic scale, other scales and what a close-spaced 'Half-step' and a slightly more distant 'Whole-step' sounds like. That will be more use than pages of description!

And, yes, both 'step' and 'tone' have other musical meanings. Cope with it!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.