What are intervals: An introduction to learning music

Did you know there are varied types of intervals in music? Intervals are the most basic building blocks of music. An interval is a distance between two notes on a musical instrument. To a vocalist, it is the difference between two pitches. All your scales, chords and melodies are a result of the connection between intervals. Learn intervals before anything else in music to understand music to the fullest.


Intervals are what you are listening to when you listen to music and not just the notes. On its own, notes don't have any colour. But as you change the distances between one note to others, you will start noticing differences in tonality. The distance between notes is called an interval. Notes are nothing but frequencies. If a combination of notes sound dissonant, disturbing, or consonant, pleasant, depends on the frequency ratio of the frequencies played. By understanding intervals better a musician can express him/herself accurately. Intervals are what make music happen and hence are the fundamentals to learn before pursuing music.

The smallest interval in Western music is a semitone. But there are cultures around the world that use intervals lesser than a semitone. Those are microtonal intervals. There are twelve main intervals in Western music assuming a semitone as the smallest possible interval. Before we start, a semitone is the distance of one key in a piano or one fret in a guitar. A whole-tone is the distance of two keys in a piano or two frets in a guitar. Which means if I play the key right next to what I played just now on a piano, I played a semitone. And a whole-tone is just two semitones. Usually, the closer two notes are, the more dissonant they are. Dissonance in music must be brief and resolves to consonance.

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Main simple intervals in music and their applications

Western music tries to break an octave into 12 semitones for the purpose of easy tuning of instruments. What is an octave? Let us find out.
  • Root/ Unison Imagine you are playing a note. Let us assume you play D note. If you did not move away from that note and hit it again, it is called a Unison/ Perfect unison. It is also called a diminished second because we are one step away from the minor second note. There is no difference in pitch. Therefore it is one of the most consonant notes. This interval can be used very well to build and break the tension. And since you have started playing from D, that note becomes our root. All our intervals now lie according to their distance from D. Notes starting from D through the octave are: D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D(octave).

  • Minor second Is one of the most dissonant intervals. The note next to D is D# or Eb. This has a very dramatic and grief-inducing, melancholy sound. It is also called Augmented unison. It is a prominent interval in Middle Eastern music. Basically in music augmenting in music means progressing forward a semitone and diminishing means receding backward a semitone. So it is augmented unison as you just played the key or fret right next to your root. This sound is used to build tension, cause anger, sorrow, and fear in the minds of the listeners.

  • Major second Is a pleasant interval compared to minor second. It is also called a diminished third. Major second to D would be E or Fb. It is a prominent interval in Middle Eastern music too. It is not very happy and not very sad. It lacks a distinct identity unlike the minor second.

  • Minor third Also called as augmented second is used very widely. It is used in tons of classical pieces to evoke sadness. Minor third to D will be an F.

  • Major third Or diminished fourth is another very commonly used interval. It adds happiness to the ears of the listener. For D, the major fourth is F#.

  • Perfect fourth While the Major and Minor thirds add color to your playing, Perfect fourth/ Augmented third gives an uneasy tension kind of sound. Perfect fourth to D is G.

  • Tritone/ Augmented fourth/ diminished fifthIs branded the most dissonant interval. It is used to horror media to strike sudden fear. It is used to cause cacophony like sound. Excellent music can be written with it if you know how to resolve it. To D, G# is tritone.

  • Perfect fifth Right after the most dissonant interval comes one of the most consonant interval. Also known as diminished sixth. Its special characteristic is, it resolves to the root very well. So root and its fifth are deeply connected. Root and fifth in combination give a stable sound. To D, A is the fifth.

  • Minor sixth Is another exotic interval used in Middle Eastern and Asian music. Some Indian scales use this interval too. Being an augmented fifth, it is used in many chords in present day music. It also adds the color of sadness to the scale. To D, A# is the minor sixth.

  • Major sixth or diminished seventh is the opposite of minor sixth and adds cheerfulness to the sound. It is also very commonly used. To D, B is the major sixth.

  • Minor seventh Is one of the unstable intervals. But it resolves to root really well. So it is used in the dominant seventh chord. It is also called augmented sixth. It is widely used in genres like jazz. It can give a feeling of uncertainty. To D, C is the minor seventh.

  • Major seventh Is also unstable. It is called a diminished octave. It also resolves nicely to the root or the octave. It doesn't come under the color adding intervals because of its closeness to the root. Many chords would add a major seventh because it alleviates the quality of a chord. To D, C# is the major seventh.

  • Octave It is same note as the root but higher in pitch. It is the most consonant interval. It can be used to emphasize a certain note to add power. D is the octave of D. It is also the most stable interval.

There are other compound intervals. Those intervals form when you play something above an octave. So major and minor ninths are similar to major and minor seconds but higher in pitch. Similarly major and minor tenths are similar to major and minor thirds. Perfect eleven and augmented elevens are similar to perfect and augmented fourths. Perfect and augmented twelfths are similar to the perfect and augmented fifths. Thirteens, both minor and major are similar to sixths. Fourteens, major and minor, are similar to sevenths. Then again fifteenth would be an octave. Only intervals to this point can be played physically.

Scales and chords

Scales are the base of musicality. You cannot go wrong following any scale. The music sounds only "out of key", dissonant and cacophonous when you go out of the scale. The scales are built by intervals. For example, D major scale has D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# notes in it. These are root, major second, third, sixth and seventh, and the perfect fourth and fifth. So learning intervals makes it easier to build and understand scales. By learning each interval by ear you can identify a scale. That would help a lot in transcribing instrumental pieces. It would help vocalists hit accurate notes.

The "color" notes of the third and sixth are used to build major and minor chords. From the above D major scale, we can build a D major chord by taking root, major third and fifth. That would give us notes D, F#, A. The notes in D major chord. The D minor chord though has a minor third while the root and the fifth stays the same. Minor third of D is F. So D, F and A will give us a D minor chord when played together. But the major scale isn't the only scale. In fact it is not even required that your scale must have 7 notes. With the knowledge of intervals and their functions, you can build your own scale. Intervals give a huge scope for creativity to musicians. Hence, it is important to know and learn them.


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