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Intervals or The Key to Harmonic Understanding

Intervals are the key to understanding everything you will ever learn in music or play on your instrument. Think about it: scales are made up of intervals, chords are made up of intervals, melodies are made up of intervals, the music you play, write, listen to ..... breaking it down ... intervals are the primary building blocks.

I have received many harmony related questions, e.g. modes and scales and the answer to these questions always lie in the concept of intervals and the knowledge surrounding them. So here's my advice - study them to the degree of perfection. Know them in your sleep!

I hope with this article I will provide you with all necessary theory, knowledge and exercises to master this topic for good :-) If you have any questions regarding this topic please use the Music Theory Forum to post them.


Western Music, its melodic and harmonic concept, is based on a very mathematical system to describe the relationship between two single notes. These relationships are called intervals. The term "interval" comes from Latin and means something like ‘the valley inbetween'.

An interval describes the distance between two notes

That's it!?! I had to wait for this page to load just to get this wise description!?! Well, let's get serious. The sentence above is simplistic of course, but in essence it stands for what intervals are: A mathematical concept, a strict meassurement.... In the same way you would explain to somebody the way from point A (your favorite pub) to point B (your favorite blues bar), you describe the distance between two notes. The difference being that with music, it's intervals that are your miles and minutes.

Before we go into further detail let's just have a quick look at how we come across intervals with two examples. Note that these can be seen vertically, meaning single notes stacked upon each other, ie a chordal approach, and horizontally, meaning single notes played one after the other, ie a melodic approach.

2 single notes:
              Note 1      Note 2
1 interval

triad (3 single notes):
              Note 1      Note 2      Note 3
1st interval 2nd interval
3rd interval

Feel free to examine 4 notes or apply the above to a scale. So how about one single note you might ask. Well, as long it's just one note- no real interval is involved. But let's say we play the same note twice (either on the same instrument or on two different instruments) then an interval is involved. In our metaphorical example this would mean that your favorite pub is also your favorit Blues bar (ya a lucky guy:-).

Ok let's dig a bit deeper.
You are all familiar with the concept of time as we measure it. If I say "1 hour", you have a clear understanding of what this means, the same with minutes and seconds. In the same way intervals are a concept with units and a corresponding terminology.

The Terminology

In order to measure the distance between two notes we have to define two main families of intervals.

The first family is called Perfect Intervals. The second family is called Major or Minor Intervals. Whereas our Perfect Interval family solely exists of one option, (ie Perfect), the Major or Minor Intervals family can take 2 forms: either Major or Minor, whereas Minor means “not as far away as Major", (ie Minor is always one half step below major).

Below is a graphical visualisation of the above said. Remember, we are talking about a distance here.

It wouldn't be in the nature of science (and music theory is a vast science) if there weren't some options/complications. No worries though - it's all structured and logical.

To both families of intervals there are 'alterations', which help us in certain situations to be more accurate in describing the distance between two notes.

This is how it goes: altering from our two main families we can distinguish between Augmented and Diminished, whereas Augmented expands upon the original family (by a half step) and Diminished lowers it (by a half step).

Let's look at our visual examples again:

A Quick Review

So far we have learned some important terminology which is used to describe the distance between notes. We know that there are Perfect Intervals and that there are intervals that can be either 'Major or Minor'.

Note: Intervals can only belong to one of these families - it can't be Perfect and Major or Major and Minor or Perfect and Minor. An interval can only be Perfect or Major or Minor.

Then we learned that there are options in the 2 main families called Diminished and Augmented. Augmented expands upon the original interval family and Diminished lowers it.

Now that the terminology is out of the way we can talk about the ‘units' that are used in describing music and thus intervals and their names.

Perfect Intervals >>