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tone. In music, a tone is distinguished from noise by its definite pitch, caused by the regularity of the vibrations which produce it. Any tone possesses the attributes of pitch, intensity, and quality. Pitch is determined by the frequency of the vibration, measured in cycles per second; intensity (or loudness) is determined by the amplitude, measured in decibels. Quality is determined by the overtones (see harmonic), the distinctive timbre of any instrument being the result of the number and relative prominence of the overtones it produces. When two fairly loud tones of equal volume but different pitch are sounded together, a fainter resultant tone, representing either the sum of their two rates of vibration (summation tone) or the difference (difference tone) may be heard. The term whole tone or whole step refers to the interval of a major second or its equivalent; the term half tone, semitone, or half step denotes a minor second (see scale).
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in language. (1) A phonologically meaningful melodic variation of a sound’s pitch. A tone is produced by raising or lowering the voice; the resulting level of pitch may remain the same throughout a syllable or may become higher or lower. The number of such levels, or registers, varies from one language to another, but probably does not exceed four: one upper level, two intermediate levels, and one lower level.

A tone whose level remains constant throughout a syllable is called an even tone, and one whose level changes is called a contour tone. Contour tones may be one-directional (rising/falling) or two-directional (rising-falling/falling-rising). For example, in Chinese, (“mother”) has an even tone, nán (“south”) a rising tone, (“to stand”) a falling tone, and hsiěh (“to write”) a falling/rising tone. In some languages, such as Vietnamese, other features also distinguish tones, for example, intensity, length, pharyngealization, and glottal stops.

The character of tones may also depend on the nature of a syllable’s consonants. For example, in Tangut, initial voiceless consonants are combined with high pitch, and voiced consonants with a low pitch. All languages have pitch, or tonal modification of the voice as an element of intonation patterns, but not all languages have tones. In some languages, such as Serbo-Croatian, in which tones may be distinguished only in a stressed syllable, tones are usually regarded as a type of stress. In languages all of whose syllables have tones, tones are also called syllabic accents. Tones form a separate system of suprasegmental units of language; the system has its own paradigmatics and syntagmatics.

Tones also constitute a way of expressing lexical and grammatical meanings; compare, for example, shīh (“to lose”), shíh (“ten”), shìh (“deed”), and shǐh (“history”). In Nuer, a Nilotic language, lèi means “animal” and léi “animals.” In a spoken chain, the difference between tones is based on linear contrasts and not on the absolute physical pitch of a sound. A given tone may have different absolute characteristics in different positions, but it can always be identified by its contrast with other tones and by the morpheme’s paradigmatic unity. The number of tones in the world’s languages ranges from two to ten.

(2) The acoustic characteristics of a sound, determined by the concentration of energy in the sound’s higher and lower frequencies. In phonetics this concept is expressed by the term “tonality” rather than “tone.” Sounds may have high or low tonality; for example, in terms of the average frequency of the F2 formant, the Russian vowels u, o, and a have low tonality, whereas e and i have high tonality. In phonology, tonality is one of the universal distinctive phonemic features constituting the system of linguistic features formulated by R. O. Jakobson and M. Halle.


Zinder, L. R. Obshchaia fonetika. Leningrad, 1960.
Fant, A. Akusticheskaia teoriia recheobrazovaniia. Moscow, 1964. (Translated from English.)
Pike, K. L. Tone Languages, 5th ed. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961.
Wang, S.-J. “Phonological Features of Tone.” International journal of American Linguistics, 1967, vol. 33, no. 2, part 1.
Welmers, W. E. African Language Structures. Berkeley–Los Angeles–London, 1973.




in music:

(1) A sound having a specific pitch; a musical sound. A tone may be either a pure sinusoidal vibration at a given frequency (pure tone), or it may contain several constituent frequencies.

(2) A whole tone, whether expressed as one-sixth of an octave, a major second, a diminished third, or a double augmented prime.




a river in Japan, on the island of Honshu. The Tone measures 322 km in length and drains an area of 15,760 sq km. Its sources are in the Echigo Mountains. The river irrigates the Kwanto Plain and flows into the Pacific Ocean. The Edo River, a branch of the Tone, flows into Tokyo Bay at Tokyo.

The mean flow rate in the lower course is approximately 180 cu m per sec, and the maximum flow rate is more than 500 cu m per sec. There are freshets in summer. The Tone is used for irrigation and as a water source. It is navigable as far as the city of Koga. The large fishing port of Choshi is situated at the Tone’s mouth.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A sound oscillation capable of exciting an auditory sensation having pitch.
An auditory sensation having pitch.
(graphic arts)
Each distinguishable shade variation from black to white on photographs.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. US and Canadian another word for note
2. (in acoustic analysis) a sound resulting from periodic or regular vibrations, composed either of a simple sinusoidal waveform (pure tone) or of several such waveforms superimposed upon one main one (compound tone)
3. an interval of a major second; whole tone
4. any of several plainsong melodies or other chants used in the singing of psalms
5. the quality of a given colour, as modified by mixture with white or black; shade; tint
6. Physiol
a. the normal tension of a muscle at rest
b. the natural firmness of the tissues and normal functioning of bodily organs in health
7. the overall effect of the colour values and gradations of light and dark in a picture
8. Photog a colour or shade of colour, including black or grey, of a particular area on a negative or positive that can be distinguished from surrounding lighter or darker areas
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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