Kids love to play with building blocks. Their various shapes, sizes and colors can be combined to build almost anything the imagination can dream up. Some blocks are small while others are large… all of the sizes are important.
Music is made of building blocks, too. The smallest building block in Western music is called the half step or semitone. On the piano, a half step is the distance from any key (white or black) to the very next adjacent key (white or black). On the guitar, a half step is the distance from one fret to the very next adjacent fret.Put two half steps together and you get a larger building block, the whole step. Specific numbers of half steps and whole steps are called intervals and are combined to create scales or chords.
Building scales with half and whole steps.
Scales are a series of notes played one after another with specific numbers of half and whole steps between them. The most basic scale is the chromatic scale. It is made of twelve notes that are a half step apart. The chromatic scale, beginning with A, is: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#. You can easily play a chromatic scale on the guitar by starting with an open string and playing every fret until you reach the octave at the twelfth fret.
The most well known scale is the major diatonic scale. It is built with a series of whole and half steps in this order: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. This means that there would be a whole step between the first note in the scale (the tonic note) and the second, a whole step between the second and the third, a half step between the third and the fourth, etc. If you were playing an A major diatonic scale, it would look like this:
Building chords with half and whole steps.
Chords are combinations of three or more notes that have certain numbers of half or whole steps between them and are played simultaneously. The most basic chord is built with three notes and is called the triad chord. A triad chord is always built with the first, third and fifth scaled degrees. For instance, the A major triad chord is built with A, C# and E from the A major diatonic scale. When you add up the number of half steps between each of these notes (remember that a whole step is two half steps), you see that there are four half steps between the A and C# and three half steps between the C# and E. Regardless of the chord or the notes used to build it, this will always be the number of half steps between the three notes in a major triad chord.
Chords can be built with more than three notes. The numbers of half and whole steps between the notes defines what type of chord it is. Every variation of a chord is understood in relation to how it modifies the triad.
To really understand how music works, you must first understand its most basic building blocks. Let your imagination run wild as you use different combinations of these musical building blocks to create something unique!