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Music Theory Basics

Intervals An interval is a measure of the specific distance between 2 pitches. We label intervals by basic interval and quality. The basic interval is the number, while the word (or letter) that precedes the number tells us the quality. Finding the basic interval is easy. Simply start on the first note, then count up (or down) through the letter names until you reach the second note. Let's try a few of these. Let's find the basic interval from any C to the G above it. First, say the letter names, in order, as if you were playing a scale from C to G. Count on your fingers, counting C as 1, D as 2, etc. When you get to G you should be on Five. (C-D-E-F-G = 1-2-3-4-5) The interval from C up to G is called a Fifth. Now do the same thing going from E up to D (You'll have to use both hands). If you got 7 you're doing it right. Remember to always count the note you start on as 1. All intervals are referred to with ordinal numbers (2 = second, 5 = fifth, etc.). For this number a step is always the next letter name, regardless of the exact number of half steps. The complete list of intervals within an octave is: Same Note (count = 1) 1 step (count = 2) 2 steps (count = 3) 3 steps (count = 4) 4 steps (count = 5) 5 steps (count = 6) 6 steps (count = 7) Unison

Second Third Fourth Fifth Sixth Seventh Octave (Back to the same note 7 steps (count = 8) name) Figure 1 Now try the same method to find the basic interval for D up to E, A up to C, and D up to B. If you got Second, Third and Sixth you're on the right track. Because intervals are just a measure of distance, they will be the same regardless of the direction. For instance, C up to G is fifth, therefore G down to C is also a fifth. Piano Keyboard

Figure 2 The specific quality of an interval is determined by the number of half steps it contains. The Smallest interval in traditional western music is the half step. If you play every note on the piano in order, including all the black and white keys, you are playing half steps. Look at the picture of a keyboard just above. Notice that there is a black note in between C and D, but not between E and F. If you work out the basic interval, those are both seconds, but one has 2 half steps, and the other only one. We need interval qualities to distinguish between these 2 different sized seconds. Unisons, fourths, fifths and octaves can be perfect, augmented, or diminished. As the names imply augmented intervals are a half step larger than Perfect intervals and diminished intervals are a half step smaller than Perfect. Let's look at an example. C up to G is a perfect fifth (P5). If we were to make the interval smaller by either raising the lower note or lowering the upper note the resulting interval would be a diminished fifth. If you think of the interval as a physical space it's easier to visualize. Carl & Gil are standing 7 feet apart (there are 7 half steps in a perfect fifth). If Carl moves one foot closer to Gil, then the distance becomes 6 feet (6 half steps = a diminished fifth). If Carl had stood still, and Gil had moved one foot closer the new distance would still be 6 feet. With notes we use accidentals to move the pitch up or down a half step. So moving the lower note up a half step would mean changing the C to C#. C# to G is a diminished fifth. Moving the top note down would make it closer to the lower note, and C to Gb is also a diminished fifth. You can count the half steps on the piano keyboard to confirm this. The important point here is that accidentals change the SIZE of the interval depending on whether the move the note they are attached to closer to or further from the other note. So a sharp on the upper note would make the interval larger, but a sharp on the lower note would make the interval smaller. We have not yet mentioned the intervals of the second, third, sixth, and seventh. These are the intervals that can have either Major or minor qualities. They can never have the "quality" of a Perfect interval. They work the same way Perfect intervals do, except they have both Major & minor qualities possible in between Augmented and diminished. The charts below shows the relative size of the different interval qualities, and the number of half steps in each type of interval.

This chart shows the relative sizes of different interval qualities. Doubly Augmented
r e g r a L S m a l l e r

Doubly Augmented Augmented Augmented Major Perfect Minor diminished diminished doubly diminished doubly diminished Figure 3

This chart shows the number of 1/2 steps in each specific interval.
# of 1/2 steps


0 P1 (unison) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 m2 M2 m3 M3 P4 A4 / d5 P5 m6 M6 m7 M7

12 P8 (octave) Figure 4

Inversions When we counted from C up to G we came up with the interval of a fifth, but what would happen if the G was the lowest note. Counting from G up to C gives us a fourth. How can that be when it is the same 2 notes? Just write a two C's and octave apart with a G in between on a piece of staff paper and you'll easily see the difference in distance. Intervals like this, where the same two notes are present with their vertical order reversed (a different one on top) have a special relationship that we call an inversion. The reason this is important is that intervals always invert in a definite pattern. That pattern can help you to learn all the intervals more quickly. The pattern is very simple. Look at figure 3 and imagine a line drawn through the middle of the word perfect that extends between the words Major and Minor in the next column. That line is your center point and all intervals will invert to the quality that is the same distance on the other side of that line. All major intervals invert to minor intervals and vice-versa, all diminished intervals will invert to augmented intervals and vice-versa, and all perfect intervals will invert to perfect intervals (that's why they're perfect). The two numbers that represent the basic intervals will always add up to 9. So seconds will invert to sevenths, thirds will invert to sixths, etc. Following this rule C down to Bb will be a major second, so C up to Bb will have to be a minor seventh. If you count it out you will find that to be true.

Review An interval is a measure of the distance between 2 pitches. It is referred to by both basic interval (number) and quality. The number of note names (or lines and spaces) spanned determines the basic interval, while the exact number of half steps determines the quality. Intervals are always read as ordinal numbers, so when you see a 2 you say second, when you see a 4 you say fourth etcetera. The exceptions to that rule are unisons (1) and octaves (8). The intervals that can have a perfect quality are unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves. The intervals that can have either major or minor quality are seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths. All intervals can be augmented or diminished. Inversions of intervals will always have a symmetrical relationship and add up to 9. Interval Spelling Drill Page Back to Horn Studio Home Page