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Whole Steps and Half Steps
By Jason Steele

Welcome to another Theory Thursday!

Next we are going to make some simple observations as to how all of these notes relate to one another. Understanding this will allow you to be able to locate the 12 different notes on your guitar. We are still sticking with the piano for now, but we will dive into the guitar in just a bit.

We can relate each of the notes to one another based on how far apart they are from each other. The two basic units of measure for this are half steps (represented by a “H” symbol) and whole steps (represented by a “W” symbol).

Let’s first look at an example of two notes that are a half step apart. C is one half step away from C#/Db. Moving from a C to a C#/Db is called moving up one (1) half step because we are going from a lower note to a higher note. 

piano diagram C to C#/Db moving up one(1) half step

You can also move in reverse order: C#/Db moving to a C. This is still a half step move, but would be called moving down one (1) half step. This also demonstrates that you can start on any one of the 12 different notes – even a black key. Understanding what direction (up or down) you are moving will also be very helpful when applying this to guitar.

An example of moving up one (1) whole step would be from C to D. This skips the black key (C#/Db) and goes directly to D. Look at it this way: C to C#/Db is a half step, and C#/Db to D is another half step. One half plus one half equals a whole right? Moving from one white key to the next is a whole step, but you can also move from one black key to another. F#/Gb to G#/Ab is also a move up one (1) whole step. Remember you can also move the opposite direction (right to left on the piano) – this would be called moving down.

piano diagram C to D whole step and F#/Gb to G#/Ab

So far we have looked at the rules for half steps and whole steps so now let’s dig into the places that it changes up a bit – this part is VERY important!!! Locate the notes B and C as well as E and F on the piano. Do you notice that there is no black key between B and C or between E and F? That’s because when you go from from B to C or from E to F you have only moved one(1) half step!! 

piano diagram E to F and B to C half steps

This is the place where a half step naturally happens. In other words there is no such thing as E#, Fb, B#, or Cb…at least for right now. Later we will learn how to use those notes. One easy way to remember this concept is to first think about only the notes on the white keys, A, B, C, D, E, F, G and say that every one of these notes are 1 whole step apart from each other except for B to C and E to F. 

In fact as your assignment for this section repeat the following statement out loud at least 100 times per day: “everyone one of the white key notes are 1 whole step apart from each other except for B to C and E to F – these are only one half step apart.

Below is the piano diagram with the whole and half step written in. 

piano diagram w/ whole and half steps, up and down arrows, labeled notes, and specific examples from above writing

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