What Is An Interval?

By | May 7, 2018

In an earlier post we discussed the fact that musicians can express the pitch difference between two notes in terms of how many half-steps apart the two notes are. We commonly use the term “distance” when in reality we mean “difference in pitch.” For example, we might say that the distance between C# and D# is two half-steps, or a whole step.

The “distances,” or pitch differences between notes are also known as “intervals.” We have names for all the intervals, and learning the names of all the intervals from a half-step on up to an octave (12 half-steps) will become very useful to us for the purposes of ear-training, as well as to help us understand how chords are named. Especially the more complicated chords.

Here is a list of the first thirteen intervals including the distance in terms of half-steps, the interval name and the interval abbreviation:

  • 0 half-steps – “perfect unison” (P1)
  • 1 half-step – “minor second” (m2)
  • 2 half-steps – “major second” (M2)
  •  3 half-steps – “minor third” (m3)
  • 4 half-steps – “major third” (M3)
  • 5 half steps – “perfect fourth” (P4)
  • 6 half-steps – “augmented fourth” (A4) OR “diminished fifth” (d5)
  • 7 half-steps – “perfect fifth” (P5)
  • 8 half-steps – “minor sixth” (m6)
  •  9 half-steps – “major sixth” (M6)
  • 10 half-steps – “minor seventh” (m7)
  • 11 half-steps – “major seventh” (M7)
  • 12 half-steps – “perfect octave” (P8)

I know this seems like a lot of information. Memorizing these will be extremely helpful when it comes time to do some serious ear-training. It is really worth the effort to do so. What’s more, the interval naming system has a close relationship to our system of naming harmony. So, knowing these names will help you understand chords and their names. Try memorizing one interval every time you practice, or one per week. Whatever works for you.

Cheers, until next time.

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