Almost every melody you will play as a guitarist to an extent will comprise of whole and half steps. They’re everywhere, and understanding them is vital to playing any sort of lines, either melodic or accompanimental, on the guitar.
If you’d like to see the lesson this blog post is based on, click here to watch it for free — otherwise, read on!
Whole Steps & Half Steps: Overview
Let’s look closer at the melody to “Happy Birthday” and try to identify whole steps and half steps.
These are two types of intervals, or distances between successive notes. The very first notes from “happy” to “birthday” cover the notes C and D – two white keys with a black key in between. Between “to” and “you,” the notes F and E, we see white keys without a black key in between. The interval from C to D is a whole step, while the other interval from E to F (or F to E) is a half step.
A half step is the name of the distance between neighboring keys on the piano (counting both black and white keys). A whole step is twice as large as a half step, and therefore skips over one key.
Whole steps can exist between black keys, and half steps can exist between white and black keys. However, two black keys will never be a half step apart (they always have a white key in between).
The melody to “Frère Jacques” begins with two consecutive whole steps (also the beginning notes of a C major scale): C, D, and E. Later, the melody continues on from E to F and G, a half step and whole step. Together, these five unique notes give us the beginning of a C major scale.
Even at this early stage, it’s valuable to practice transposition. Let’s move this melody from C major to D major.
This means we preserve the same order of intervals, simply starting a whole step higher than we normally would (the distance from C to D). A sharp next to a note means we raise it by one half step. A whole step above E, then, is not an F, but an F♯.
This popular melody from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”) contains the same five notes as “Frère Jacques”. In the key of C, it begins on the note E.
Let’s look at all the ways we can split the octave into even segments. There are 12 unique notes, and if we play them all (every white and black key from C to C), we generate a chromatic scale.
The chromatic scale isn’t a key of its own, though composers do use it often. “Flight of the Bumblebee” is a common example where the melody comes straight from the chromatic scale:
On the other hand, if we divide the octave using only whole steps, we find six distinct pitches: C D E F♯ G♯ and A♯. It makes sense that we would find half as many notes using whole steps as we do when using half steps.
This creates the whole-tone scale, a favorite of Debussy. There are two whole-tone scales, one beginning on C and another beginning on D♭. Together, these two scales (6+6) use all 12 pitches exactly once.
Both the chromatic and the whole-tone are symmetrical scales, meaning they are made of smaller units that repeat exactly.
Another symmetrical scale is an octatonic (also called diminished) scale, made of a repeating pattern of one whole step followed by one half step. There are three unique octatonic scales:
Major and minor scales do not follow this pattern of symmetry.
The C major scale (pictured below) skips over the middle point of the octave (F♯), and does not repeat exactly before reaching the next C.
This feature actually allows us to transpose major scales to any key and get a unique set of notes. It also allows for the unfolding of all the beautiful aspects of tonality that we are about to discover!
Whole steps & half steps on the guitar
Chromatic scales can be visualized even easier on the guitar than on the piano.
Every fret represents a half-step, and there are no white or black keys to concern ourselves with.
When you go up twelve half-steps from an open string, you reach a note with the same letter. This is one octave above the original note (in this case, the note E).
We can create a whole-tone scale on the guitar, too, simply by skipping every other fret.
Whole steps and half steps make up every scale we play on the guitar, be it our major scales or the three octatonic scales. Now that we understand how they work, we’ll be well on our way to a clearer understanding of music theory on the guitar.
If you’d like to watch the lesson on this topic for free, just click here.
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