Pitch Basics: Tones and Semitones

Listen to the following example, which presents the dramatic opening to Franz Liszt's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in Eb-major.

Example 4. Franz Liszt, opening from the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in Eb-major.

The passage oscillates back and forth between two pitches, before slinking down to a third, slightly lower pitch. The small intervals between adjacent notes in the passage are all examples of semitones. A semitone is the smallest interval used in traditional Western classical music--it defines the smallest possible distance between musical pitches (although smaller intervals are used, for example, in Indian classical music).

As the prefix "semi" suggests, a semitone is half of something, namely the interval know as a tone, also called a whole tone. Example 5 illustrates how two consecutive semitones fill the span of a tone (i.e. how two semitones rise in pitch by an amount equivalent to a whole tone).

Example 5. Tone and Semitone.

The interval between the highest and lowest notes in the Liszt passage is a whole tone; one sings a whole tone (ascending then descending) to the words "happy birthday" when one performs the song of the same name at a birthday party. Tones and semitones are ubiquitous intervals in music; we shall see later that they are also the building blocks of musical scales and of larger intervals.

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