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 '19 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 '19 at 6:32

"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 '19 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 '19 at 11:10

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 '19 at 12:37

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!

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