Understanding Music: Intro to Intervals

An interval in music is the distance between notes.  Music is made of intervals. All chords, scales, and melodies are built on intervals, so this is a basic of music theory that you need to begin understanding (if you don't yet).

We will not go into detail here, as those details will begin to fill in when you understand scales, chord theory, and as you play and learn.

Notes that are at the unison interval are simply the same notes.  If you play the same note twice in a row, or if you play the same note doubled, you play a unison interval.

Unison notes

After this, the shortest interval is a semitone, or half step. This interval occurs between the notes A and A# (sharp), for example.  Or B and Bb (flat).  A# and Bb are the same note, by the way! The sharps and flats are known as enharmonic. I have written more about this in the scales post.

It is only a half step, also known as a minor second interval, between the notes B and C, and also between E and F; these notes don't have sharp or flat notes between them.  You see this on the piano by the patterned groupings of black keys, which are all sharps and flats.  There is no black key between the notes B and C, or between E and F.  A semitone, half step, or minor second interval are different names for the distance between any piano key and the adjacent key, whether white or black.

  On a ukulele or guitar, a semitone is the distance between two adjacent frets on any string:

A tone, or step is the distance between the notes A and B, for example, or C and D, or D and E. Or two keys apart on the piano or two frets apart on a guitar, ukulele, or bass. A tone is also known as a major second interval. 

Each of these notes are a tone, or major second interval, from the next.

An interval of an eighth is an octave.  So if you played middle C, for example, and then the C above that, you have played the interval of an octave.

A wide interval, an octave, from D to D

These are the basic intervals you need to understand in order to create scales.  Building the scales for yourself will help you to easily see and learn the other intervals.

A good understanding of intervals is important, because to understand chord theory- that is, to understand how all the chords are built and which notes they should include, as well as harmony and understanding which chords belong in each key- you need to know intervals.

Here is a list of intervals you will use in playing chords, chord progressions, and melodies, licks, and riffs:
  • unison
  • semitone, or minor second
  • tone, or major second
  • minor, or flattened, third
  • major third
  • fourth
  • fifth
  • minor sixth
  • major sixth
  • minor, or flattened seventh
  • major seventh
  • eighth, the octave
There are also augmented and diminished intervals that are wider and narrower by a semitone, respectively,than the intervals in the above list, as well as intervals which span more than an octave: ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteens.  An interval of a tenth, for example, adds to the tonic or root note the second of the second octave; the eleventh and the flattened eleventh would add the minor or major third over the octave.  You will understand these intervals when you need to, don't worry!
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