Tones and Semitones

Spy Tunes GuruTones and Semitones describe scales!

Instead of seeing all intervals in relation to the root we can take our seven notes and look at the distance from one to the next.

This is described in intervals of Tones and Semitones, or Whole steps and Half steps if you are American, not English.

Describing the major scale in this way we get:

1 (T) 2 (T) 3 (S) 4 (T) 5 (T) 6 (T) 7 (S)

We can see that between the 3rd and the 4th we have a semitone as well as between the 7 and octave.

On the guitar it looks like this around fret 3 and 15 in C major.

On the piano in C major it would look like this:

Every instrument in the world that use the major scale will have a unique twist on how the scale is displayed, how it changes in order to play the same scale, but in a different octave or key etc.

Consequentially, when you learn an instrument, you have to learn how to finger the pattern of the major scale in order to have a frame work to play sheet music from.

It’s important to understand that it is only the piano that has this incredibly clear view of C major when you look at its keys.

Perhaps it is because of this that music theory is often taught with the starting point of “all white keys on a piano is C major”.

But as you know now, music is created from a series of natural intervals, not letters of the alphabet!

It’s the piano that has adjusted to the way music work, not the other way around!

Name the notes

So far we have established that it is not 12 notes between an octave but a series of intervals that after thousands of years of development got specified and named using letters.

This journey wasn’t without hiccups either, for example, in Sweden they used to call the note B H and the note Bb B, some actually still do!

The formal explanation for this was that the note H sounds harder than Bb, which is basically a way to complicate something that was pretty difficult to grasp in the first place…

Anyway, replacing the 1 2 3… with notes of C major we would get this:

C (T) D (T) E (S) F (T) G (T) A (T) B (S)

On the stave it looks like this:

It is from this benchmark that music is written and read as well as how the remaining notes of the 12 note chromatic scale are discovered.

In this series of music theory lessons I will discuss how to change from C major on the stave using sharps and flats but we shall see how the pattern on the guitar remains the same.

On the piano on the other hand, it would look completely new!

All instruments have unique ways to deal with key signature changes in practice, but can with sheet music communicate with each other.

It is because of this that you need to learn how traditional music theory work on the stave as well as on the fretboard.

Without this it will be very difficult to communicate with musicians playing other instruments than guitar.

Find out more about music and how to apply theory when you play guitar by taking one of our guitar courses.

Dan (your guitar guru)

Low big ad intermediate course

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9 thoughts on “Tones and Semitones

  1. Nal

    “It’s important to understand that it is only the piano that has this incredibly clear view of C major when you look at its keys.

    Perhaps it is because of this that music theory is often taught with the starting point of “all white keys on a piano is C major”.”

    And too perhaps also because the C major scale on the staff has no sharps or flat? So people tend to learn it first?

      1. Nal

        But in general people, even teachers forget about transposing instruments ‘c major’.

        Right or wrong, when I took saxaphone, it was the first scale I was shown, of course it looked like C major on the page but only later I learned that it was sounding a different note.

        Maybe some teachers get lazy and just start with C major because of habit?

        I dunno :-)

  2. Steveo

    Pretty cool stuff.
    I do think the piano, in some ways may be easier to get.
    It all in black or white.
    This with the fact that you can sustain notes may make it the easiest instrument to learn harmony by.
    It’s range is greater as guitarist we have two octaves under our one hand, while a pianist has almost 8 octaves and 10 fingers ,

    We are getting into ares that may make a guitarist wish to look at some things.

    One I meet musicians of all kinds and all levels.
    You see some children who play wind instruments and they play melodies.
    Most of these are basically a major or a relative minor scale.

    Guitarist start by learning licks and tricks.

    To be honest there are also some tricks to wind instruments ,like a Saxophone,I can make some really bad sounds at the start of learning.

    So there a learning curve, instruments like keyboard or piano is the only instrument a person who can’t play can sit beside me and I can get them making music almost instantly.

    I love the guitar myself

  3. Steveo

    Well I see that Good old American’s think in Whole steps and half steps.
    The the British think of it a tone and a semi tone..
    In my mind maybe moving to the music or grooving to music may also be why. American’s use a different terminology..
    I can understand both thoughts but music is motion and the tern steps seem to fit with motion.
    So I have something I can relate too.

    People have dance to music for well as long as there has been music.
    Too dance you have to take certain steps.

    The half steps or semi tone I think of Jail House rock.
    I do agree that the B is a harder sound than B flat.

  4. spytunesfan

    The difference between H and B is alcohol.

    Very long time ago, in the light of a candle, the monks copied note sheets by hand and thought poorly written B is H.

    Either the reader or writer was drunk, or both.


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