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What are Music Intervals?

One of the fundamental building blocks of all music is known as the interval. What are intervals, and how can they help you better understand music?

It turns out that intervals are critically important, but the good news is that understanding them isn’t too difficult. Why is it important to learn about music intervals?

  • Understanding intervals makes it easier to read music.
  • Knowledge of intervals makes it possible to analyze music.
  • Recognizing intervals can make it easier to understand and identify harmony.
  • Being familiar with interval patterns can make it easier to memorize a piece of music.

What Are Intervals?

If you have ever taken voice or instrument lessons, then you probably engaged with some ear training. Intervals are a fundamental part of this learning. Basically, an interval is defined as the distance between two tones. Composers and musicians assign numerical values to indicate the number of tones on the diatonic scale.

Consider it this way: an interval is the distance between two musical notes. Some theorists feel that this distance is measured on the musical staff while others relate it more closely to the difference in wavelength between the two notes. Accordingly, intervals may be oral or written.

Have you ever heard a music instructor refer to terms such as:

  • Half-step
  • Whole-step
  • Semitone
  • Tone

If so, now you know that the instructor was talking about intervals. A reference to a half-step, as you look at a sheet of music, means moving up one. For example, that would mean moving from an E to an F. References to a whole step mean that you need to add one more key, such as moving from a C to a D or an E to F#.

Musical intervals are measured by the distance from the starting note, which may be called the “tonic,” to the note. Accordingly, going from C to E is called a “third” as it requires three steps to get there. In another example, C to F is a fourth with four steps in between.

Harmonic and Melodic

Intervals are either harmonic or melodic. The main difference between these categories is that a harmonic interval is played with both notes at once while melodic intervals are played individually in succession.

Size and Quality

Each interval has a size and a quality. The size refers to the distance between the two notes on a music staff. Effectively, this is all about counting the number of lines and spaces on the music staff between the two notes. Sizes are noted in Arabic numbers like 2, 3, 4, and so on. However, if you are speaking the size aloud, you say “second, third, fourth,” etc. A note is counted as a one to itself when you are counting size, but it is not called “first.” Instead, this is referred to as “unison.” Similarly, an interval that has eight lines and spaces in between is not called an “eighth.” This is referred to as an “octave” instead.

Interval qualities refer to characteristics such as major, minor, augmented, diminished, and even perfect. Certain rules govern these qualities. For example, perfect, diminished and augmented intervals refer to unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves. Big, or major, intervals and small, or minor, intervals are seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths. If you incorporate flats or sharps with these intervals, then they may be described as diminished, or especially small, or as augmented, or especially big.

Intervals that Are Perfect, Augmented or Diminished

Unless you add a flat or a sharp, all unisons and octaves are perfect intervals. Additionally, there are perfect fourth and perfect fifth intervals. To be categorized as perfect, the upper note must be in the major scale of the lower note.

An exception to this is the fourth that is found between F and B. This interval is bigger than most fourths, making it augmented.

On the other hand, the fifth between B and F is smaller than the other fifth intervals, making it a diminished interval.

Here is another wrinkle: A fifth additionally can include three whole steps, which is a phenomenon known as a tritone. It sounds just like an augmented fourth because it has the same interval between the tones.

Intervals That Are Major and Minor

Sometimes, you will hear teachers and musicians refer to steps. These usually are seconds intervals, and they may be either whole steps, or tones, or half steps, otherwise known as semitones.

If you are looking at a piano keyboard, this can be easy to see. Most adjacent white keys have a black key in between them. From one of these white keys to the adjacent white key is a step.

A whole step has a black key in between two white keys or it may be two black keys with one white key between. Half-steps are smaller, requiring moving from one key to the immediate next key. For example, this would mean playing one white key and then an adjacent black key as an interval.

Accordingly, whole steps may be referred to as major seconds while half steps can be called minor seconds.

By contrast, thirds are intervals that include two whole steps, which is a major third, or thirds may include one and a half steps, making them minor thirds. Major thirds tend to have a happier, brighter sound while the minor third is more likely to sound sad.

If you want to find out if a sixth is major or minor, all you have to do is flip or invert the sixth to a third. For instance, move a C to an octave lower, and you may discover that while the third is major, the inverted sixth is minor.

This trick also applies to sevenths. Invert a minor seventh and you’ll discover a major second.

Does this sound confusing? Intervallic inversion is simply flipping two notes. As an example, think about a C note on the bottom and an E note on top. To invert this, simply picture the E on the bottom with the C on top.

Inverted notes have all sorts of interesting qualities, many of which are used by composers. For instance, the size of an inverted pair of notes will always add up to nine. Plus, you’ll quickly discover that perfect intervals consistently invert to perfect intervals while major intervals become minor intervals and vice versa.

As long as no sharps or flats are involved, these intervals are “natural.” However, if you incorporate sharps and flats, then the intervals become larger or smaller.

Accordingly, it is possible to make second, third, sixth, and seventh intervals major, minor, diminished, or augmented, but they can never be perfect.

By the same token, unisons, octaves, fourths, and fifths all may be diminished, augmented, or perfect but they are never minor or major.

Compound Intervals

So far all of the intervals that have been introduced may be called “simple” intervals. This means that all of these intervals are the size of an octave or less. However, in the world of music, there also are compound intervals that are larger than one octave.

Quality remains the same whether simple or compound intervals are being used. If you want to transform a simple interval into a compound interval, all you have to do is add seven to its current size.

This means that unisons are turned into octaves and seconds become ninths. Similarly, thirds are turned into tenths and fourths become 11ths. Fifths are transformed into 12ths.

Octaves, along with 11ths and 12ths, are perfect just like their simple interval counterparts. Ninths and tenths are major or minor.

Learn More with Prodigies

Admittedly, any discussion of intervals in music can get pretty technical. Maybe your family isn’t quite ready to hit the ground running with intervals, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great place to start your musical journey.

At Prodigies, we strive to make music instruction accessible and fun for everyone. That’s why our video lessons and supporting materials are designed to be engaging and thought-provoking while always being age-appropriate.

Parents can learn right along with their kids as the fundamentals of music are explored. Start learning today with the programs at Prodigies Music.

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