Semitones And Tones

What Is A Semitone? (Half Step)

In music, we talk a lot about intervals which is the distance in pitch of one note to another. 

The smallest possible interval (in western music anyway) is a semitone, or in the US they call it a half step.

A semitone is the very next higher or lower note., i.e from E to F or from C to C sharp (C#) on a piano keyboard.

There are two types of semitones:

  • Chromatic semitones
  • Diatonic semitones

What are Chromatic Semitones?

Chromatic semitones are when you have a semitone interval where both notes have the same letter name.

For example C to C# or Gb to G.

What are Diatonic Semitones?

Diatonic semitones are when you have a semitone interval where the two notes are different letter names.

For example C to Db or F# to G. 

In these two examples they are exactly the same notes but are enharmonic equivalents.

What Is A Tone? (Whole Step)

The word semi means half so we could think of the word semitone as 'half a tone'.

A tone (or whole step), therefore, is an interval of two semitones.

For example, from C to D or from E to F#. 

What Do We Use Semitones and Tones For?

We use semitones and tones to form scales.

A major scale is made up a certain combination of semitones and tones.

That sequence is:

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone.

You might see that abbreviated to the first letters:

T, T, S, T, T, T, S.

If you're in the US you might refer to semitones and tones as whole steps and half steps and so that same sequence would be:

Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half.

Or again for short we can use just the first letters:

W, W, H, W, W, W, H.


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