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Music

Whole Steps and Half Steps: The Basics of Musical Scales

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 1, 2020 • 2 min read

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Jake Shimabukuro Teaches ʻUkulele

The basic building blocks of chromatic and diatonic scales are half steps and whole steps, the two smallest intervals between notes in Western music.

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Jake Shimabukuro Teaches ʻUkuleleJake Shimabukuro Teaches ʻUkulele

Jake Shimabukuro teaches you how to take your ʻukulele from the shelf to center stage, with techniques for beginners and seasoned players alike.

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What Are Steps in Music?

In the language of music theory, a step is the distance between notes of different pitches. A half step, or semitone, is the smallest interval between notes in Western music. Notes that are directly next to each other—such as E and F, or A sharp and B—are a half step apart. Two half steps equal one whole step. The notes G and A are one whole step apart, as are the notes B flat and C.

What Are Half Steps?

In Western music theory, a half step or semitone is the smallest interval between two notes. On a piano keyboard, the note C is a half step below C sharp (or its enharmonic equivalent D flat). The notes C and C♯ are adjacent on the keyboard with no notes between them.

Any scale that only moves in half steps is a chromatic scale. When you play a chromatic scale on a piano keyboard, you play every white key and black key in order—all twelve tones. Composers and performers rarely use pure chromatic scales since they lack a tonal center. However, brief chromatic phrasing is standard in many genres, most notably jazz and contemporary classical.

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What Are Whole Steps?

A whole step is the distance between two notes that have one note in between them. In other words, a whole step is equal to two half steps or two semitones. If you play the note C on the piano, the note D is one whole step above it, and B flat is one whole step below it.

Any scale that proceeds in whole step intervals is a whole tone scale. This type of scale sounds unstable and almost ethereal. If you have ever heard an old film score evoke the sound of "dreams" or "time travel" you may be familiar with the sound of the whole tone scale.

Half Step and Whole Step Pattern in Major Scales

The building block of Western music is the major scale, which consists of seven notes. Starting from the lowest note—the root of the scale—and going up, all major scales progress in the following pattern, regardless of key signature: root, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (back to the root an octave higher).

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Half Step and Whole Step Pattern in Minor Scales

The minor scale is a fundamental part of Western music. There are actually three minor scales—the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and melodic minor scale—but it’s the natural minor scale that is most common in Western music. All natural minor scales progress in the following pattern: root, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step (back to the root an octave higher).

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Grab a MasterClass All-Access Pass, stretch out those fingers, and get your strum on with a little help from the Jimi Hendrix of ‘ukulele, Jake Shimabukuro. With some pointers from this Billboard chart topper, you’ll be an expert on chords, tremolo, vibrato, and more in no time.

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