Music Theory Lesson: Intervals

Category: Music theory

Level: Beginner

In the last lesson, we talked about the musical alphabet, and how notes are named. We discussed that the distance between two adjacent notes is called a half-step, and that two half steps is called a whole-step. Very exciting, I'm sure.

The generic term for the distance between two notes - any two notes - is an interval. Turns out there are names for lots of intervals, not just the half-step and whole-step. And some of these intervals have more than one name. Remember how I said that much of music theory is giving fancy names to things you may already understand? Well, here is a perfect example. Intervals are something we get instinctively. It's when they get names like "diminished seventh" that people run for the hills. Don't. In this lesson, you can listen to them, hear them in context, and see where they are used in real life, and not just read about them abstractly.

The names are just names. You're probably not going to be sitting around with your friends talking about Eric Clapton's startling use of the augmented fifth, but it is amazingly useful to be able to recognize intervals by ear. This helps when learning a song, composing a song, soloing, and so on. The intervals have to be called something, so these names are as good as any other.

Here's a list of the first twelve intervals, along with some real life examples of their use. You can also click on the symbol to hear each interval. Bookmark this page so you can refer back to this table.

Number of half-steps 1
Names half-step, semitone, minor second
Real life example Joy to the World
Number of half-steps 2
Names whole-step, major second
Real life example Mary Had a Little Lamb
Number of half-steps 3
Names minor third
Real life example Greensleeves
Number of half-steps 4
Names major third
Real life example Blister in the Sun, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
Number of half-steps 5
Names perfect fourth
Real life example Amazing Grace
Number of half-steps 6
Names augmented fourth, diminished fifth
Real life example Maria from Westside Story, The Simpsons theme
Number of half-steps 7
Names perfect fifth
Real life example Chariots of Fire theme
Number of half-steps 8
Names augmented fifth, minor sixth
Real life example Third and fourth notes of The Entertainer
Number of half-steps 9
Names major sixth, diminished seventh
Real life example NBC chimes
Number of half-steps 10
Names minor seventh
Real life example West Side Story: "Somewhere." Specific lyrics: There's a Place for Us
Number of half-steps 11
Names major seventh
Real life example (This is a really ugly interval, and doesn't show up very often.)
Number of half-steps 12
Names octave
Real life example Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Here's a little quiz to test how well you've learned the definitions. Feel free to refer back to the above list and to the list of note names in the Musical Alphabet lesson.

How did you do? Once you think you have a grasp of the names, you can try your ear at the Ear Trainer (audio interval quiz) on this site. Start nice and easy, with just a few intervals included in the test, then slowly add some more until you get good at naming them. It's a fun little game, and will improve dramatically your ability to recognize and reproduce melodies.

Interesting facts

  • The tritone interval (six half-steps) was considered evil and was banned from use in churches during the Middle Ages.
  • The Greek mathematician/philosopher/cult leader Pythagorus considered the intervals of a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth to be sacred and cosmic. That's why they're called "perfect." He believed the celestial planets actually "sang" in perfect intervals as they orbited the Earth.
  • The perfect fourth shows up in a lot of Christmas songs and religious hymns. Coincidence?
  • Intervals greater than an octave have names, too. Can you guess what a major ninth would be?

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