A whole step is the second smallest interval between two notes (“half step” being the smallest). As the name suggests, it is equivalent in size to two half steps. Just as the term half step is used interchangeably with the term semitone, a whole step is sometimes referred to as a “tone.” (This usage may be potentially confusing as the word tone can also take on other musical meanings.)

One can find a whole step on the piano by locating any two white keys that are separated by a black key. In all but two cases, a whole step lies between two adjacent white keys (the two exceptions occur between the keys B-C and E-F which are separated only by a half step apiece). Those who play fretted instruments (i.e., guitarists, electric bassists) can find a whole step by counting two frets up or down the neck of the instrument.



The “Yankee Doodle” melody contains many whole steps. In the first measure, for example, the melody ascends by successive whole steps after the repeated notes on the word “Yan-kee:” the whole step C-D lies between the “-kee” of “Yankee,” and “Doo-” of “Doodle”; the whole step D-E lies between “Doo-” and “-dle.” The same succession of whole steps appears in the third measure, on the words “rid-ing on a.”


Yankee Doodle in C major Hear Audio File


Whole steps and half steps make up the fundamental elements of major and minor scales, and largely depend upon them for their meaning. Just as it makes little sense to speak of rungs without speaking of a ladder, it makes little musical sense to speak of a whole or half step outside the context of a scalar system of pitch organization. To extend the ladder and rungs analogy, scales are like treacherous ladders in which the rungs are not uniformly spaced one from the next. The rungs of such a ladder – while promising in terms of comic potential – are useless from a practical standpoint, unlike the unevenly placed half and whole steps comprising various music scales, and which provide aural piquancy that interests and satisfies our ears.


References to other Glossary terms:

Half Step