What does “tone” mean in music? This multipurpose word can actually take on some very different uses depending on the context it’s mentioned in. Learn about how “tone” can refer to a note, a frequency, or an interval.
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Let’s start with a question: what do you think of when you hear the word “tone”?
Imagine you’re talking with a musician friend and they use that word? What would you expect them to be talking about?
In our recent episode with Donna Schwartz we talked about “tone”, for example her struggles to get a good tone on trumpet or how she now helps saxophone players develop a good tone.
From the context I’m sure you understood what we were talking about. But that word “tone” can be tricky!
In this episode I’m going to share 6 different meanings the word “tone” can have in music – and there are probably even more. I’ll do my best to be clear and specific – but please keep in mind that often the way musicians use this word is fuzzy. So if you’ve heard the word used for a blend of these things or with a meaning that isn’t quite what I’m describing, please know that this is not a precise thing with official definitions! In fact that’s the main reason I wanted to talk about it on today’s episode, so that you’re equipped with several clear, specific definitions of the word “tone” and can use that to understand it wherever and however it’s used.
I’ve roughly grouped the 6 meanings into two categories. Three are about a “tone” as a sound itself, and three are about “tone” as a quality a sound can have.
When I started planning out this episode it quickly got out of hand! There’s a lot to cover. So we’re going to discuss the first three now, and then the other three in a future “Part two” with a recap.
Let’s get started.
1. Tone means “a note”
Perhaps the simplest of meanings, many musicians use the word “tone” interchangeably with the word “note”. For example they might say:
“I’m learning to play tones by ear”
“I understand the rhythm but I’m struggling to figure out what tones are being used in the melody of that song”
“Bar 13 is tricky, sometimes I play the wrong tones”
In fact we’ve used the word like this here on the podcast, when talking about the concept of “chord tones” – which just means the notes belonging to a chord.
Personally I don’t love this use of the word. Some people use it just to mean the pitch of a note and others to mean the note as a whole. I think it’s clearer to use the word “note” to mean a musical sound with both pitch and duration (and possibly other characteristics) and if you just mean “pitch” use the word “pitch”. It’s not a big deal, but as we’ll be discussing there are several other more specific meanings of the word tone, so I find it tends to confuse people when it’s used in this very broad and general way to essentially just mean “note”.
2. Tone means a pure single frequency
The second meaning of tone is the one typically used in a scientific context like when analysing audio files, or by studio engineers who think in terms of frequencies.
For example they might say:
“Can you play a 500 Hertz tone so I can test this speaker?”
“We’re getting a sustained high pitched tone on this recording, there must be interference leaking in from somewhere”
“We can test the resonance by comparing the volume of a 1 kilohertz tone and a 2 kilohertz tone which are input at the same level.”
In those cases “tone” means an audio wave which has a single frequency component. We won’t go deep into audio frequencies here but just to quickly give you the idea: Pitch and Frequency are similar, they both measure how high or low a sound is – but musical notes from an instrument or our voice have a single pitch – but they actually have a ton of different frequencies which is a big part of what gives them such a rich sound.
When a sound only contains a single frequency it’s called a tone. For example you might have heard of a “sine wave” which just sounds like the simplest possible long beep sound. Here’s an example:
That is just a single frequency, it’s the A 440Hz that orchestras tune up to. And that is what scientists and audio engineers would call a “tone”. That’s a nice, clear definition.
3. Tone means a particular interval
The third way “tone” is used to mean a certain sound is in the world of musical intervals. One of the things that can trip people up when first learning to recognise intervals by ear is that each one can have multiple names. Some of these come from music theory allowing different interpretations, but others are just differences by country or tradition. The word “tone” is one word used for a particular interval
So you might hear a musician saying:
“I think the final interval in that tune is a tone, not a semitone.”
“I’ve nailed major vs. minor thirds but I sometimes mix up minor thirds and tones.”
“The major scale goes tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone.”
The word “tone” is used to refer to the interval of a “major second”, also known as a “whole step”. On a piano keyboard or guitar fretboard you go up two steps – because it uses two of the smallest building blocks we use, called “semitones”, “minor seconds” or “half steps”.
To hear a tone using this meaning means hearing two notes – these might be one after the other or both together. For example here are several tones played one note after another:
and here are a few played both notes together:
Okay, so those were our three examples of “tone” meaning “a sound”:
- It can be used very loosely to just mean “a note”
- It can be used to mean a sound that’s a single pure frequency, or
- It can be used to mean a particular interval, two notes played one after the other or together, also known as a “whole step” or a “major second”
The next three meanings are when “tone” means a specific quality or aspect of a sound. We’ll be covering that in a future “Part two” episode soon!