• Introduction to Melodic Progressions: Semitones and Wholetones Redefined

    in Piano,Theory

    melodic progressions image

    In this lesson, I want to introduce you to melodic progressions.

    In a previous lesson, we covered the 4 Dimensions of the Octave. We associated octave with eight.

    In this post, we’ll cover a slightly different perspective to an octave.

    Even though an octave is an eight-tone series, it contains all the pitch classes. This is because all the pitch classes [12 of them] are within the compass of an octave.

    Below is an octave:

    However, within this same compass, there are 12 pitches

    This means that an Octave has twelve parts [by default], notwithstanding that the name octave comes from the relationship between the first and eighth tone.

    In this article, we’ll associate Octave with twelve because:

    • There are twelve pitch-classes within the compass of an octave
    • An octave is naturally divisible into twelve equal parts.

    For the rest of this lesson, the use of the word ‘Octave’ will mean twelve – as opposed to the previous article where we considered it to be eight.

    DEFINITION OF MELODIC PROGRESSIONS

    Melodic progression is the DIVISION of the octave into a certain number of EQUAL parts. Even though there are several melodic progressions, in this article, we’ll restrict our study to two basic melodic progressions.

    • Semitone
    • Wholetone

    Before now, you’ve come across these words. You probably know that the distance between these two notes is a semitone:

    and that this one is a wholetone

    However, don’t be in a haste to leave this page. This article is prepared to redefine semitone and wholetone. It is good that you have an idea of where we are going. If you don’t, don’t worry – we’re stopping at nothing to make sure that you understand everything, step-by-step.

    Let’s get started with these melodic progressions – semitone and wholetone.

    SEMITONE

    There are several definitions of the semitone out there. They all share one thing in common – they talk about distance. However, in music, distances are described as intervals and a semitone is not an interval.

    Intervals have two things – Quality and Width.

    Quality refers to the use of adjectives like Perfect, Major, minor, diminished and Augmented while…

    Quantity refers to the use of ordinal numbers like 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th… 13th, etc.

    The term semitone clearly doesn’t represent a quality or width. If you want to understand the difference and relationship between melodic progressions and intervals, read this article – Melodic Progressions vs Intervals.

    At this point, you may be asking… “Chuku! What is a semitone?”. Here you go…

    A semitone is the melodic progression that divides an octave (12 pitch classes) into 12 equal parts.

    From the definition above, the semitone is a melodic progression and not a distance. Now, this melodic progression divides an octave into 12 equal parts to yield a semitone.

    Mathematically, an octave (containing 12 pitches) divided by 12 can be represented as 12/12 = 1

    Here are four facts that will redefine the semitone:

    Fact #1: The Octave is naturally divisible into 12 equal parts.

    In-between the compass of an Octave, you can see 7 naturals and 5 accidentals.

    Fact #2: Adjacent notes on the keyboard differ from one another by the melodic progression of a semitone.

    That sounds very familiar. Right?

    From C to C♯ is a semitone progression,

    C♯ to D is a semitone progression,

    D to D♯ is a semitone,

    D♯ to D is a semitone progression etc.

    These are all melodic progressions of semitone or simply a semitone progression.

    Fact #3: The shortest melodic progression in European music (instruments) is the semitone.

    On the piano and most European Instruments (where an octave is divisible by twelve), the shortest melodic progression is the semitone. In other words, when pitches are ascending and descending, the smallest perceptible difference between successive pitches in both directions is a semitone progression.

    Fact #4: There are 12 semitone progressions in an octave.

    Remember the mathematical calculation earlier.

    [12/12 = +1] A semitone is equivalent to +1

    If you raise a note by the shortest possible distance, you’ll have a semitone. Right? Alright!

    In the case of C below…

    A semitone progression moves us from C to C♯:

    Starting from C, semitone progressions will move thus:

    C-C♯                   1st semitone progression

     

    C♯-D                   2nd semitone progression

     

    D-D♯                   3rd semitone progression

    D♯-E                   4th semitone progression

    E-F                   5th semitone progression

     

    F-F♯                   6th semitone progression

     

    F♯-G                   7th semitone progression

     

    G-G♯                   8th semitone progression

     

    G♯-A                   9th semitone progression

     

    A-A♯                 10th semitone progression

     

    A♯-B               11th semitone progression

     

    B-C               12th semitone progression

    I purposely stuck to the use of the sharp (♯) pitch modifier. Feel free to visualize the notes using alternate enharmonic spellings (aka – “flats / ♭”).

    Before we get into the next melodic progression, let’s look at the common definition of a semitone.

    A semitone is the shortest distance on the piano/keyboard that exists between adjacent notes whether white or black.

    There’s really nothing wrong with that definition, except for the use of the word distance. Therefore, if we substitute the word “distance” with melodic progression, we’ll have:

    A semitone is the shortest melodic progression on the piano/keyboard that exists between adjacent notes whether white or black.

    12 of such melodic progressions [semitones] will give you an Octave.

    Equal Division of an Octave into 12 parts will give you a semitone.

     

    WHOLETONE

     It’s easier to redefine wholetone progressions. Let’s look at its definition. So, what is a wholetone?

    The Wholetone is the melodic progression that divides an octave (12 pitch classes) into 6 equal parts.

    Just like the semitone, the whole tone is a melodic progression and not a distance. Now, this melodic progression divides an octave into 6 equal parts to yield a wholetone.

    Mathematically, an octave (containing 12 pitches) divided by 6 can be represented as 12/6 = 2.

    An octave has 12 semitones by default and when we divide these 12 semitones by 6 parts, we are going to have 2 semitones in each wholetone progression.

    [12/6 = +2] A wholetone is equivalent to +2

    If you raise a note by two semitones, you’ll have a wholetone.

    In the case of C below,

    A semitone progression moves us from C to D:

    Starting from C, semitone progressions will move thus:

    C-D                   1st wholetone progression

    D-E                   2nd wholetone progression

    E-F♯                   3rd wholetone progression

    F♯-G♯                   4th wholetone progression

    G♯-A♯                   5th wholetone progression

    A♯-C                   6th wholetone progression

    So, we basically have 6 wholetone progressions within the octave.

     

    Final Words

    With all we’ve covered, I’m sure you can see the terms as melodic progressions derived from the division of an octave into a certain number of parts.

    I want to recommend that you read Melodic Progressions vs Intervals if you want to learn more. I’ll be sharing with you lots of ideas that are based on these melodic progressions and, of course, there are several melodic progressions: sesquitone, ditone, diatessaron, diapente, quadritone, sesquiquadritone, quinequetone, sesquiquinequetone, septitone and more (even the tritone).

    40% of these melodic progressions are covered in the HearandPlay 110 Workbook – All You Need To Know About NOTES. Click here if you’re interested in redefining what you know already about NOTES.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 David Brakes

    …And this is one of my favourite topic.

    Reply

    2 Gideon Raveh

    When it comes to sound frequency, the division of an octave to 12 semitones is logarithmically equal, since each octave has double frequency than its predecessor. The subject of consonance and dissonance becomes clearer by using some elementary sound theory (overtones).

    Reply

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