When learning the notes of a piano or completing your singing scales, those sneaky semi-tones can often be missed or forgotten.

However, learning the pitch and the distances between each note is extremely important when learning a new musical instrument and learning to compose your own music.

In this article, we will cover the foundations of pitch: semitones and tones. Among a few other scale terms that are important to know.

You will never forget those all-important, although frustrating, semitones again.

What Is An Interval?

Yes, we will cover the meaning of a semitone. However, first, we must understand what an interval is.

The difference in pitch between any two notes is known as an interval in music.

The interval increases with increasing pitch distance and decreases with decreasing pitch distance, respectively. This is measured through the number of tones or semitones the notes are apart.

What Is A Semitone?

A semitone or half-step is the difference in pitch between one note and the immediately higher or lower note after it.

For example, on a piano, the semitone would be the difference between E, and F, or C# and C.

A semitone or half-step is the smallest interval throughout western music. There are two types of semi-tones to be aware of:

  • Chromatic semitones
  • Diatonic semitones

They are often confused with chromatic and diatonic scales which can be critical for your theory learning and performance.

Chromatic Semitones

When two notes in a semitone interval share the same letter name, you obtain what are known as chromatic semitones. For example, C and C# are chromatic semitones as they share the same letter name.

Chromatic semitones helped design chromatic scales. Yes, it is confusing. A chromatic scale is made up of 12 notes with each note being a semitone higher in pitch than the last.

This scale does not have to begin and end on C, it can begin and end on any note so long as each note is a semitone interval from the other.

Diatonic Semitones

Diatonic semitones are the other type of semitones within western music. These are different from chromatic semitones as each semitone has a different letter name.

For example, C to Db or F# to G.

Chromatic and diatonic semitones are exactly the same notes on a piano, although they are written differently on a stave.

This is an example of enharmonic equivalent notes.

Enharmonic Equivalent Notes

Enharmonic equivalent notes are a fancy term for the same note. They are another way to describe chromatic and diatonic semitones which are the same notes.

When playing your semitones you may find that two sound the same yet they have different names. For example, Db is the same note as C#. They just have different names. This makes them enharmonic equivalent notes.

While this may seem confusing if you are new to music theory, it will become common practice to discover enharmonic equivalent notes as you practice your scales and become more accustomed to the tone and pitch of each note.

What Is A Tone?

Where there is a semitone, there is a whole tone. A tone or whole step is the next interval after a semitone. As semi means half, it is common for a semitone to also be considered a half step.

Following this process, we can conclude that a tone or whole step is made of 2 semitone intervals.

From E to F# is an example of a tone as there are two semitone intervals completed. As long as 2 semitone intervals are completed then you have performed a whole step or tone.

Semitone Scales

When learning an instrument, learning the scales is highly important. Otherwise, you may lack the knowledge of how each note sounds and may not gain the skills to perform without sheet music.

A scale is a set of notes played in a certain order. Examples include: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, etc. the cycle is repeated.

On this scale, we begin on the do note and proceed through a clearly defined series of intervals until we reach the do note once more.

There are two main types of scales:

Major Scale

The major scale is one of the most common musical scales used around the world, although more popularly in western music. It is one of the diatonic scales which we have covered above.

A major scale follows one simple formula:

  • Starting on note C.
  • From note C, take a whole step or tone to D.
  • From note D, take a whole step or tone to E.
  • Now from note E, take a half step or semitone to F.
  • From note F, take a whole step or tone to G.
  • Now, take a whole step or tone to A.
  • And another whole step or tone to B.
  • Lastly, a half step or semitone to C.

You can build any major scale using the formula above starting at any note to begin.

Minor Scale

Minor scales have 3 natural patterns: natural, harmonic, and melodic. They are used to produce melodies, riffs, and chord progressions which can be seen throughout all of western music.

Depending on whether the melodic minor scale is ascending or descending, different notes are used.

A melodic minor scale has raised sixth and seventh degrees and a flat third (or minor third) degree while moving up. The melodic minor scale is identical to a natural minor scale as it descends.

The minor third is what separates minor scales and major scales.

Final Thoughts

As you begin learning how to play an instrument, you will begin to learn the scales. Whether it is a chromatic, diatonic, major, or minor scale, each one is highly important.

It might not seem like it but it is an amazing thing to learn this stuff as it will help your composing so much.

Within each scale is the combination of tones and semitones, also commonly known as whole steps and half steps.

A semitone is extremely important when it comes to identifying the pitch of a note and whether you are off-key.

Take the time to learn your tones, semitones, intervals, and scales and you will learn the wonders of instruments like a pro.