What exactly is a whole step? Since we’ve got all the time in the world, I’ll give you the long explanation here.
So, let’s talk about intervals.
The term “interval” basically means the same thing in music as it does in normal English. In music, it means the distance between two notes, or the space between them.
For all of these, we’re going to say the starting note of the interval is the “1”. This means that the very first interval you can have is a unison, which would be the same note repeated twice. For example, if we’re finding the interval between C to C, we would say it’s a unison.
The next interval would be… the number after 1… a second! If we’re finding the interval between C and D, we’d say that C is our “1” and D is our “2” because ABCDEFG.
And yes, it simply continues, all the way up to 8, which we call an octave. Other than unison and octave, all of the intervals are just called what number they are (second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh).
Okay, now here’s the slightly trickier part.
How would we show, in words, that it’s a different interval between C – Eb and C – E ?
If you play them, they don’t sound the same. And they’re also just not the same notes, right? So, we need to use more words to describe this. Hmm…
Let’s think about a C Major Scale. It goes
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
Now, due to historical reasons, we split the scale into two different parts, each with its own set of rules.
The first part is 1, 4, 5, 8.
The second part is 2, 3, 6, 7.
The first part (1, 4, 5, 8) is oh-so-special. If the second note is in the major scale of the first note, then we call it a “perfect” type of that interval. That sounds confusing, so here’s an example. What’s the interval between C and F? If C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, and F is 4, so we know it’s some kind of fourth. What kind of fourth, though? Well, F is in the C Major scale, so this is a “perfect fourth.”
Other examples: C to G is a perfect fifth, G to C is a perfect fourth, A to E is a perfect fifth.
Now, to the second part (2, 3, 6, 7) – If the second note is in the major scale of the first note, then we call them “Major” (whatever number it is). So, what’s the interval from C to E? C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, so it’s some kind of third. E is in the C Major scale, so this is a major third.
Other examples: D to F# is a major third, F to D is a major sixth, B to C# is a major second.
Okay, now let’s go crazy. Remember that C to Eb question I asked earlier? I’m getting to it now. So, we know that it’s some type of third, right? C is 1, D is 2, E is 3. Eb is a version of E, so we pretend it’s E while we count up. So, Eb. Flats lower the pitch by a half step. When a major interval is lowered by a half step, it becomes a minor interval. That means that the interval between C and Eb is a minor third.
Other examples: C to Ab is a minor sixth, A to Bb is a minor second (also known as a half step), Eb to Db is a minor seventh, A to C is a minor third.
So one day you decide that’s just not enough – you really need to have a way to explain an interval where the second note is TWO half steps below where it would be in the major interval. That word you’re grasping for is diminished. C# to Eb would be a diminished third, because a major third up from C# is Eb, and Eb is two half steps below E#.
What about the interval from C to Gb ?
Well, we count up first. C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, G is 5. So it’s some kind of fifth. But wait – 5 is one of the perfect intervals! The thing about making things a half step lower “minor” only applies to major intervals. If a perfect interval is lowered by a half step, it becomes a diminished interval. Yes, this is the exact same word that we use to describe major intervals that are lowered by a two half steps. All I can say is that perfect intervals are just… too perfect… too good to have minors like the rest of them… yeah…
And to finish it off, what happens if you raise an interval by a half step? For example, what is the interval between C and A#? C to A is some kind of sixth, and the word you’re searching for to describe the quality of the interval is augmented. This is an augmented sixth. The nice thing about augmented intervals is that it doesn’t matter if the interval is originally perfect or not – every interval, when raised a half step, becomes augmented.
To answer the opening question: A whole step is a major second, which is the same thing as two half steps. A half step is the smallest difference between two notes that we can play on the clarinet and many other instruments (play legitimately, without just playing a note super flat or super sharp). For example, there is a half step between each consecutive note on a piano keyboard.
To conclude, I’d like to point out that what I’ve said here isn’t really correct in every case. I’ve assumed that you’re always starting with the lower note in the interval and going to the higher one, but that’s not always true. I said that you “lower” intervals by half steps in order to make it less confusing, but you’re really “decreasing the size of the interval” by a half step, and so I’m just going to ask that you keep that in mind.
- When finding intervals, you say the first note is 1, and count up.
- Perfect interval – some kind of 1, 4, 5, 8, on the major scale
- Major interval – some kind of 2, 3, 6, or 7 on the major scale
- minor interval – some kind of 2, 3, 6, or 7 and a half step less than a major interval
- diminished interval for some kind of 2, 3, 6, or 7 – a half step less than a minor interval
- diminished interval for some kind of 1, 4, 5, or 8 – a half step less than a perfect interval
- Augmented interval – any interval one half step greater than the perfect or major interval