semi·​tone ˈse-mē-ˌtōn How to pronounce semitone (audio)
: the tone at a half step
also : half step
ˌse-mē-ˈtä-nik How to pronounce semitone (audio)
semitonically adverb

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Get Musical With the Definition of Semitone

A semitone (sometimes called a half tone or a half step) is the distance from a white key to a neighboring black key on the piano keyboard—for example, from G to G-sharp or from E to E-flat. In an octave (from G to the next G above, for instance), there are twelve semitones. Semitones are the smallest intervals that are used intentionally in almost any of the music you'll normally hear. Two semitones equal a whole tone—the distance from G up to A or from E down to D, for example.

Examples of semitone in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Pitch is measured in cents (100 cents = 1 semitone = ¹∕12 octave), and pitch errors can be defined as the number of cents a sung note differs from the intended note. James Dziezynski, Discover Magazine, 22 June 2014 Being off by more than a half semitone (50 cents) is considered poor singing. James Dziezynski, Discover Magazine, 22 June 2014 The score begins with horns and trombones blaring a semitone dissonance, like a motor horn in a nightmare city, and goes on from there. Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 9 Mar. 2020

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'semitone.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of semitone was in the 15th century

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Cite this Entry

“Semitone.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 25 Sep. 2023.

Kids Definition


semi·​tone ˈsem-i-ˌtōn How to pronounce semitone (audio)
: the smallest difference in pitch between any two tones of a scale

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