Note interval

When you play 2 different notes at the same time or one after the other, you will have a lower and a higher note. This means there is a distance (in pitch) between the 2 notes. This distance is called the interval between the 2 notes, the note interval, or simply interval.

You can measure this intervals between notes in number of semitones, and this takes us directly to our first interval: the semitone.

The semitone

The easiest way to explain semitones is to look at the piano keyboard. A semitone is the interval from a key on the keyboard to the first note at the left or the right. So, for example, the interval from C to C# (or Db) in the next figure is a semitone.

Semitone interval

Or, for example from G# (or Ab) to A:

Semitone interval 2

It’s also possible to have a semitone between 2 white keys; this is the case between E and F and between B and C:

semitone interval 3

Notice that it’s not possible to have an interval of a semitone between 2 black keys on the piano.

Other names for a semitone are: half tone or half step.

The whole tone

The whole tone, or also called whole step, is an interval that consists of 2 semitones. Here are some examples of a whole tone:

From C to D:

whole tone interval

From F# (or Gb) to G# (or Ab):

whole tone interval 2

From E to F# (or Gb):

whole tone interval 3

From Bb (or A#) to C:

whole tone interval 4

The minor third

The minor third is an interval of 3 semitones, or a whole tone and a half tone (semitone).

Some examples:

From C to Eb:

minor third interval

From A to C:

minor third interval 2

From F# to A:

minor third interval 3

From Bb to Db:

minor third interval 4

The major third

The major third is an interval of 4 semitones, or 2 whole tones.

Examples:

From C to E:

major third interval

From Eb to G:

major third interval 1

From A to C#:

major third interval 2

From F# to A#:

major third interval 3

The perfect fourth

The perfect fourth (very often simply called fourth) is an interval of 5 semitones (or 2 whole tones and a semitone).

Examples:

From C to F:

perfect fourth interval

From F to Bb:

perfect fourth interval 2

From Eb to Ab:

perfect fourth interval 3

From A# to D#:

perfect fourth interval 4

The tritone

The tritone is an interval of 6 semitones or 3 whole tones (that’s why it’s called tritone, since ‘tri’ means three).

Examples:

From C to F#:

tritone interval

From Ab to D:

tritone interval 2

The perfect fifth

The perfect fifth (very often simply called fifth) is an interval of 7 semitones (or 3 whole tones and a semitone).

Examples:

From C to G:

perfect fifth interval

From A to E:

perfect fifth interval 2

From Eb to Bb:

perfect fifth interval 3

From F# to C#:

perfect fifth interval 4

The minor sixth

The minor sixth interval consists of 8 semitones, or 4 whole tones.

Examples:

From C to Ab:

minor sixth interval

From F# to D:

minor sixth interval 2

The major sixth

The major sixth interval consists of 9 semitones, or 4 whole tones and a half tone.

Examples:

From C to A:

major sixth interval

From Eb to C:

major sixth interval 2

The minor seventh

The minor seventh is an interval of 10 semitones, or 5 whole tones.

Examples:

From C to Bb:

minor seventh interval

From F# to E:

minor seventh interval 2

The major seventh

The major 7th is an interval of 11 semitones, or 5 whole tones and a half tone.

Example:

From C to B:

major seventh interval

From Gb to F:

major seventh interval 2

The perfect octave

The perfect octave (mostly just simply called octave) is an interval of 12 semitones, or 6 whole tones.

Since there are 12 different notes in Western music, this means that when you go up an octave, you arrive at the same note. Well, it’s of course not exactly the same note, since it’s higher in pitch: an octave higher.

For example, from C to C:

perfect octave

Or, from Ab to Ab:

perfect octave 2

The perfect unison

We haven’t mentioned yet the simplest of all intervals: the perfect unison, mostly simply called unison.

The unison is the interval between a note and itself, so 0 semitones. Now, that sounds a bit strange and it’s actually not really an interval in the real sense of the word.

When, for example, a piano and a trumpet play the same note at the same time, you can say that they play in unison. I don’t think I have to give an example on the piano keyboard 🙂

To resume

It might seem like a terrible task to memorize all the intervals with their names, but perhaps the next scheme based on the scale of C major might help to have a better overview of the intervals. The names of the intervals indicated above the keys of the keyboard are the intervals from the low C (indicated with the red 1) to that note.  Compare the name of the interval with the number of the note in the C major scale (in red, under the keyboard):

intervals in C major scale

Below a complete overview of all the intervals with even other alternative names (source: Wikipedia):

table with all intervals

Note names in a scale

A note in a scale is often named after the interval it makes with the root note.

What I mean is, for example when we are in the key of C, that the E is called the major 3rd, the Eb the minor 3rd, the F the 4th, the G the 5th, the A the 6th, the B the major 7th and the Bb the minor 7th.

The 2nd note (D in the case of the key of C) however, is not called after its intervals with the root. You could call the 2nd note just the 2nd. The Db would then be the minor 2nd. There is however another name for the 2nd, I will talk about that in another lesson.

There are still some more notes: the Gb is the flattened 5th (or short: the b5). F#, which is the same note, would be the sharpened 4th (#4).

The Ab is a flattened 6 (b6). The same note, the G# is the sharpened (or augmented) 5th (#5).

You will often see even other notes like the 9th, the 11th etcetera. I will treat those in another lesson.

 

It’s very practical to be able to quickly recognize intervals. For that reason, I advice to do the exercises below.

Which interval is played on the piano (from C)?

Which interval is played on the piano (from any note)?

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Martin Cohen
 

Martin Cohen is a science and piano teacher. He is also a jazz musician and composer.

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