What is an interval?
Simply put, an “interval” in music describes the “distance” between two notes. There are many intervals to describe the many two note possibilities.
The Naming Scheme
The interval names are named according to their relation to scale steps in a diatonic scale. The names of the “Major” and “Perfect” intervals are derived from their position within a major scale. The “minor” intervals are named due to their positions between the notes of the major scale.
Minor Second (m2)
The “distance” between two notes that are a half-step apart is called a minor second (m2). For example, the notes E (such as an open E string on a guitar in standard tuning) and F (first fret on the E string) is a minor second. Other examples would be the interval between the notes B and C, between F and F#, or between ANY two notes that are a half step apart (see fig. 1 below for a generic visual example of two notes that are a minor second apart).
m2 – a minor second interval
Major Second (M2)
Two notes that are a whole step apart are considered to be a major second (M2) interval, as shown in fig. 2 below.
M2 – a major second
Minor Third (m3)
Two notes that are 1 and 1/2 steps apart are a minor third (m3) apart.
m3 – minor third (m3) between two notes on the same string.
m3 – between two notes on different strings (other than the 2nd and 3rd string – see fig. 5).
m3 – between two notes on the 2nd and 3rd string. This situation occurs ONLY when dealing with the relationship between the 2nd and 3rd strings (in standard tuning) due to their slightly different relative tuning (M3) compared to all the other strings. ALL other pairs are tuned to a 4th interval. So, ANY interval shape will appear slightly different when looking at the relationship between the 2nd and 3rd strings as compared to the shape on any other pair of strings.
Please note: Because of the staggering of note positions along the strings when using “standard” tuning, there is more than one way of visualizing and playing intervals. For the purposes of this article the focus is on only the most common interval shapes.
Major Third (M3)
Two notes separated by two whole steps are said to be a major third (M3) apart. Of course the look of a M3 could also be shown on one string but it’s more commonly useful to know the shape across strings for intervals between pairs of notes as far apart, or further apart, than a major third.
M3 – between two notes on different strings (other than the 2nd and 3rd strings).
M3 – between the 2nd and 3rd strings.
Perfect Fourth (P4) or (4)
Two notes 2 and 1/2 steps apart are a perfect fourth (P4). The perfect fourth can also be referred to as simply a fourth in common usage.
P4 – between two strings other than the 2nd and 3rd.
P4 – between the 2nd and 3rd strings.
Two notes 3 steps apart form a tritone, or flat 5 (b5) interval. When talking about this interval it’s referred to as a tritone more often than not, but in chord naming (chord construction) it is most often referred to as a flat 5th (b5). It can be called by other names as well but tritone and b5 are the most common.
Tritone – between two strings other than the 2nd and 3rd.
Tritone – between the 2nd and 3rd strings.
Perfect Fifth (P5) or (5)
Two notes 3 and 1/2 steps apart are a perfect fifth (P5). Like a perfect fourth, a perfect 5th can also be referred to more simply as a fifth for the sake of convenience.
P5 – between two strings other than the 2nd and 3rd.
P5- between the 2nd and 3rd strings.
Minor Sixth (m6)
The distance between two notes 4 steps apart is known as a minor sixth (m6) interval.
m6 – between two strings other than the 2nd and 3rd.
m6 – between three strings
m6 – has this shape whether between the 1st and 3rd strings or between the 2nd and 4th strings.
Major Sixth (M6)
The distance between two notes 4 and 1/2 steps apart is known as a major sixth (M6) interval.
M6 – between three strings other than the 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th.
M6 – has this shape whether between the 1st and 3rd strings or between the 2nd and 4th strings.
Minor Seventh (m7)
Two notes 5 steps apart constitute a minor seventh (m7) interval.
m7 – between three strings other than the 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th.
m7 – has this shape whether between the 1st and 3rd strings or between the 2nd and 4th.
Major Seventh (M7)
Two notes 5 and 1/2 steps apart is a major seventh (M7).
M7 – between three strings other than the 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th.
M7 – has this shape whether between the 1st and 3rd strings or between the 2nd and 4th.
Two notes 6 steps apart is an octave (8va).
8va – between three strings other than the 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th.
8va- between four strings other than the 1st and 4th or the 2nd and 5th strings.
8va – has this shape whether between the 1st and 3rd strings or between the 2nd and 4th.
8va – has this shape whether between the 1st and 4th or the 2nd and 5th strings.
First Things First
It’s important to understand that, on it’s own, an interval is simply the measure of the distance between two notes. The goal is to get to where you know the following well before integrating them further.
- m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, tritone, P5, m6, M6, m7, M7, 8va is the order in which the intervals increase.
- they increase by 1/2 step (M2 is bigger than a m2 by a 1/2 step, m3 is bigger than a M2 by a 1/2 step, etc…)
- the visual shapes of each interval as shown should become familiar enough that you can use them easily when you begin to use them in chord construction and other musical ways.
Tip: knowing how many steps each interval has is secondary to understanding and recognizing the shapes, so I wouldn’t worry about that beyond the small intervals (m2, M2, m3, Ma3).
Why A Shape-based, Relational Approach?
The goal here is not to replace intervals as a function of notes as written on paper and by their letter names, but to prioritize the development of a visual, shape oriented system in order to more quickly and easily apply intervals to understanding chord construction, the harmonized major scale and other musical concepts. Ideally, a holistic understanding of all tools that can be used in the pursuit of musical mastery will still be the ultimate goal, but a pattern-shape-form-locational-relationship based approach will speed up the process of gaining facility and form the basis for a solid foundation upon which to build a more traditional theoretical knowledge.
Understanding the patterns, shapes, forms, locations and relationships in music will give you a powerful familiarity with the how and why of musical foundational structures and how to use them efficiently and effectively. Then, adding theoretical and literal knowledge will add richness and depth over time.