The Power of Half-steps in Classical Guitar Music

Most scales in Western music are a series of whole and half steps (definition below). And how the composer arranges these – that’s what makes music.

When we understand what half-steps are, and how to use them, we play better. We can play so that listeners (and we) understand more of how the music works.

And by studying and playing in this way, we deepen our exploration of music and practice.

What is a Half Step?

An “interval” is the distance from one note to the next. Most of us can recognize when one note is higher or lower than the previous one. An interval answers the question of “how much higher or lower”.

The smallest interval in western music is the half-step. A half-step is an interval of just one note. On the guitar, this usually means one fret (string-crossings aside).

bass leading tone
A half step moves just one pitch or fret away. Here’s a half step in the bass.

What Does a Half Step Do in Music?

In music, half-steps can be extremely powerful. Composers often use half-steps to move from one harmony (chord) to another.

The half-step at a harmony change can lead the ear to the new chord. It can pull the music forward.

Ascending half-steps are usually more powerful than descending (though exceptions abound).

A musical experiment for you

Some notes create an expectation, and we need to “close the loop”. For example, here’s an experiment:

Sing a basic scale: Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti…..

If you sing this, it feels very strange to stop on “Ti”. We want to complete the scale by going to the next note – “Do”. When we stop at “Ti”, it’s like stopping a sentence before it’s …

Not all half-steps have this gravitational pull. There is also a half-step between “Mi” and “Fa”. But we may not even notice that one.

So where are half-steps powerful, and how can we make the most of them?

Common Places for Powerful Half Steps in Music

Halfsteps are often used, as mentioned above, to move from one harmony to another. And these are usually ascending, meaning going from lower note up to a higher one.

These are especially powerful at big points in the music. These are places such as the ending of a phrase, section, or the piece.

half steps
Ending of Bach’s first cello prelude, in half-steps.

Another use of half-steps is to lead to a surprise harmony. These “surprise chords” could be anywhere in the phrase, and not necessarily at the end.

Indeed, from any bar (measure) to the next we may find half-steps leading the way.

Milk It: How to Play Half Steps

To make the most of the musical moment, we can bring attention to the half-step.

To bring attention to it:

  • Play the first note slightly louder.
  • Hold the first note for the full value (length of time).
  • Make sure to connect the notes in the half-step. Play legato, not staccato. Any break in sound could weaken the effect.
We often see half steps at bar lines.

As with any phrasing device, it has to sound good. So let your ear be your guide.

Think of music like a game of “show and tell”. Demonstrate how the music is moving, and your listeners will appreciate it.

Half Steps as a Structural Device

Some music is difficult to understand. Modern compositions often stretch the boundaries of how we understand music. This is especially true for many advanced modern or avant garde pieces.

But regardless of the genre, we still need to make sense of the music so we can play it convincingly. Simply playing the notes does not make for good music. We need to take a point of view and try to communicate something.

And when we are lost and don’t understand how the melody works, we can use half-steps as a place to start.

We can emphasize the half steps that imply changes in the harmony (chords).

We can find the half-steps that appear more structural. This means they imply changes in harmony.

Starting here, we can start to shape the phrases. We can think of these as the pillars holding up the roof the of the music. Experimenting in this way, we can begin to understand how the music works. From here, we can decide how we want to use dynamics, rhythm and tone to play the phrase.

At the Least, Be Aware of Them

Not every half step in a piece is a “big deal”. And we shouldn’t bring attention to every one.

But we can still be aware of them. We can let them inform our moment-by-moment choices. We can decide which to use to full effect, and which to let flow by.

With practice, exploration and experimentation, we can learn to recognize the juiciest half-steps. We can gain the sensitivity and technique to play them well.

In time, half-steps become another useful tool in the chest. We can learn to use them, and add more beauty, momentum and expression to our music.

chromatic half steps
Chromatic half steps build suspense and excitement.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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