Intervals In Music
An intervals in music is a relationship between two notes. It describes the harmonic distance between notes with a unique sound. Each interval has a unique sound and a unique name. The names of the intervals in music comes from their position in diatonic scales. In that sense, intervals can be either:
Major and minor intervals are used a lot in Western music, while Perfect intervals are generally used more in ethnic music all around the world.
Music Intervals Spelled Out
Take a look at the note circle again which we discussed in the previous blog, if you haven’t gone through yet, go and checkout that, this will helps you in understanding this topic very well.
There’s an interval between any of the notes from the note circle – you can start on any note and play any other note (including itself), and you will play an interval of some kind. In order to show you all the intervals in music, we need to first choose the Root note, which can be any note.
The Root note is the starting note, it is the harmonic center of whatever chord or scale you are using. In this example the note C will be used as the Root.
1. First we have C to C: Yes, there’s an interval between the Root and the Root (the exact same note played two times), and it’s called Perfect Unison.
2. The next note, C#/Db, is a minor 2nd above C (and also a major 7th below it). This is also the equivalent of one semitone (S).
3. D is a Major 2nd above C (and a minor 7th below). Also the equivalent of one tone (T).
4. D#/Eb is a minor 3rd above C (and a major 6th below).
5. E is a Major 3rd above C (and a minor 6th below).
6. F is a Perfect 4th above C (and a Perfect 5th below). Fourths and fifths are said to be “perfect” rather than major or minor because they are the same in the major and minor scales, as well as most other diatonic scales (don’t worry if you don’t understand this right now).
7. F#/Gb is Augmented 4th — also called a Tritone — above C (and a Tritone below it).
This is a strange interval in music. It is highly dissonant and often avoided. It sometimes functions as a sharp 4th, and other times it is a flat 5th. The tritone is also the only interval that is the inversion of itself — if a note is a tritone up from another note, then it is a tritone down from it as well.
8. G is a Perfect 5th above C (and a perfect 4th below it).
9. G#/Ab is a minor 6th above C (and a major 3rd below).
10. A is a Major 6th above C (and a minor 3rd below).
11. A#/Bb is a minor 7th above C (and a major 2nd below).
12. B is a Major 7th above C (and a minor 2nd below).
13. And lastly, we have C which is a Perfect Octave interval above root C.
We have now gone through the full note circle.
There are 4 Major intervals, 4 minor intervals, 4 Perfect intervals, and that “strange” interval — the Tritone (Augmented 4th or flat 5th).
In Terms Of Semitones
Perfect Unison (C to C) is 0 semitones apart
minor 2nd (C to C#) is 1 semitone
Major 2nd (C to D) is 2 semitones
minor 3rd (C to D#) is 3 semitones
Major 3rd (C to E) is 4 semitones
Perfect 4th (C to F) is 5 semitones
Tritone (C to F#) is 6 semitones
Perfect 5th (C to G) is 7 semitones
minor 6th (C to G#) is 8 semitones
Major 6th (C to A) is 9 semitones
minor 7th (C to A#) is 10 semitones
Major 7th (C to B) is 11 semitones
Perfect Octave (C to C) is 12 semitones.
Sometimes, we define intervals above an octave. These are named by adding 7 to whatever the name was in the first octave. For example, a major 2nd interval an octave higher becomes a major 9th, a minor 6th becomes a minor 13th, and so on.
Note that in music theory the terms: “Major” and “Perfect” are usually capitalized, while “minor” isn’t.
Intervals in music are used to define both chords and scales because a particular set of intervals defines a unique sound, a unique harmonic space. If you have listed all of the intervals that are in a given scale or chord, then you have fully defined that scale or chord. In later blog series you’ll see how intervals are used to define chords and scales and how important they are in music theory.
Inverted Intervals (With Interval Exercise)
Beyond the interval quality (major, minor, perfect) and its name, there is one more property of intervals which is important to understand. Take a look at the note circle again. Notice that intervals in music between any note can go up or they can go down. They can be either:
1. Ascending (lower note in pitch going to a higher note, for example C to D#)
2. Descending (higher note in pitch going to a lower note; for example, B to Ab)
3. Harmonic (when two or more notes are played simultaneously)
4. Played in Unison (the same note played twice)
You can say that B is a Major 3rd interval up from G, but that Eb is a Major third down from G. So that means that intervals can be inverted — if B is a Major 3rd up from G, then it is also a different interval — in this case, a minor 6th — down from the G of the next octave.
In this way, intervals come in pairs. Every relationship can be defined by two different intervals, one up and one down. That should explain the intervals in parenthesis from the intervals list. To explain it further, interval is a relative property of notes.
For example, we want to figure out what interval it is from A to C. We have 2 possible solutions. C note is a particular interval away from A. If the C note is higher in pitch than A, then this interval is ascending. So we can say that C is a minor 3rd up from A, and that C is A’s minor 3rd interval.
A -> C = minor 3rd (ascending interval)
But if the note C is lower in pitch than A, then this is a descending interval. We can now say that C is major 6th down from A.
A -> C = major 6th (descending interval)
When figuring out intervals, unless we don’t have any information on what kind of interval it is (ascending, descending or harmonic), we always treat the lower note as the root note, and we count intervals clockwise on the note circle from the lowest note.
Try to do this yourself and see how easy it is. Here are some intervals to figure out:
E -> C (ascending) — ?
E -> C (descending) — ?
D -> A# (ascending — the sharp symbol tells you that this is an ascending interval) — ?
D -> Bb (descending — again, the flat symbol indicates that this is a descending interval) — ?
Gb -> Ab — ?
It is important to remember that when an interval is ascending you will see/use sharp (#) symbol, and when it is descending you will use flat (b) symbol. Like I said before, there is a different interval pair for every note of the note circle. You can use the note circle and count the intervals there. The answers will be provided in the next blog of series.
Chromatic and Diatonic Intervals
All of the intervals shown so far fall under one large group of Chromatic intervals. The term Chromatic tells us that this is a set of ALL intervals that exist between the notes that are used in the conventional tonal music today, same as how the chromatic scale is the set of all 12 notes that exist in today’s 12-tone music system.
Within those Chromatic intervals there is a specific group of intervals, called Diatonic intervals which are quite important. Diatonic intervals are those intervals that the Major scale is comprised of. Major scale is the most popular scale in music and all other scales are measured against it in one way or another.
Major scale, the most important scale to learn, is a Diatonic scale (you will soon find out what this means, just bear with me for a bit), and that’s why all intervals that make up the Major scale are called Diatonic intervals.
In that sense, Diatonic intervals are: Perfect Unison (C to C), Major 2nd (C to D), Major 3rd (C to E), Perfect 4th (C to F), Perfect 5th (C to G), Major 6th (C to A), Major 7th (C to B). These Diatonic intervals fall under Chromatic intervals as a special group of intervals which make up the Major scale. In other words, all of these intervals appear in the Major scale.
Augmented and Diminished Intervals
Beyond Major, minor and Perfect intervals, there are also Diminished and Augmented intervals. These intervals are in a way hidden because they are used in theory for showing the interval structure of only those scales and chords that require the use of them. What do I mean by this?
All scales and chords are made up of individual notes and intervals between those notes. We use this interval structure to write out the notes and name any scale or chord. However, at certain times, depending on the scale, we have to abide by certain rules in music theory when it comes to writing out the notes and intervals.
That’s usually when these theoretical intervals come into play. We will get to these rules soon, for now understand that diminished intervals lower or narrow the minor and Perfect intervals by one semitone. Augmented intervals expand or widen the Major and Perfect intervals by one semitone.
A couple of things to note here:
1. Diminished and Augmented intervals are equivalent to their Major, minor and Perfect interval counterparts – they are the same distance, but have different name.
For example, diminished 4th and Major 3rd are physically (distance-wise) the same intervals. The name which will be used for intervals is usually in the Major, minor and Perfect column, but in some instances, depending on the scale or a chord that interval is a part of, we will have to use its alternative — diminished/augmented name.
2. Notice that Major, minor and Perfect intervals lack one interval with the distance of six semitones. 2 semitones are equal to 1 tone, so this interval has 3 tones, and that’s why it’s commonly called “Tritone”. This is a diminished 5th/Augmented 4th interval (can be either), and it is the only interval from this column which appears, not in the Major scale itself, but in the modes of the Major scale, also called Diatonic modes
3. Diminished intervals are usually shown with a lower case first letter, while Augmented intervals usually have an upper case first letter. Understanding intervals — truly understanding them and how they relate to one another and learning to hear and use them — takes a lifetime.
In a sense, all of the other learning about scales and keys and chords is a way to make sense of the wide-open space of the network of intervals in the 12-tone system. It is very well worth always keeping an eye on your comfort level with this idea and training your ear to recognize them.
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