In music, whole steps and half steps are two foundational building blocks that are definitely worth knowing. Once you understand these two things, all other future musical knowledge will fall right into place. Like with many other things, sometimes we have to understand one thing before we can build upon it to understand something else.
With that in mind, let’s talk about half steps…
Half steps (also called semitones) are the smallest distance between two pitches. The easiest way to understand this is to see it on a keyboard.
Half steps are represented by two immediately adjacent keys on a piano. In other words, it is moving from one key to the very next possible key that you can play.
If there is a black key in between two white keys, then a half step is moving from a white key to a black key. Where there is not a black key in between two white keys, you would move from a white key to the very next white key.
A whole step (also called a whole tone) is nothing more than two half steps. Another way to look at this is moving from one key to another key skipping a key in between. You now need to travel a total of two keys adjacent to each other away from they key you are currently on.
For example, moving from one white key to another white key, skipping the black key in between, is a whole step. If there is not a black key present in between two white keys, you would move to the next black key you see skipping the white key in between.
Now let’s test your knowledge. Looking at the keyboard example below, try to answer the following questions.
What is a half step up from C? That is right. It is C# or Db. Remember that moving up is moving to the right on the piano.
A whole step down from G is what? Yep, you’ve got it again. It is F. Again, moving down the piano is moving to the left.
Let’s look at a few more. A half step down from A is Ab or G#. A whole step up from D is E.
Now let’s try some tricky examples. A half step up from E is F while a half step down from C is B. A whole step up from E is F# while a whole step down from C is Bb.
Congratulations on mastering the concept of whole steps and half steps! You are well on your way to understanding how to read and play music. With this new knowledge in mind, you are now ready to learn about sharps, flats, naturals and maybe even some scales. Don’t worry, it is all pretty easy to learn with the help of a keyboard to look at. Good luck and keep up the good work!