Have you ever heard about intervals, but don't know what they are? Or have you ever heard of a third or a fifth, and want to know more about it? In this beginner's guide, I explain what intervals are and their names. You will learn which intervals are the most important and how they sound. I also give tips on how to practice writing and recognizing intervals.
What is an interval?
When you make music, you play tones with different pitches. Regardless of the instrument you play - whether you play notes in sequence or at the same time, you play tones of higher and lower pitch. The difference between a higher and a lower tone is called an interval.
An interval measures the distance between two notes. Therefore, intervals are always made up of 2 tones. For example, if you play 3 tones, that is not called an interval.
The easiest way to determine the distance between 2 tones is to count the white keys on the piano. Count from the lowest to the highest white key to determine the number of that distance. Note: the lowest key is '1' ! Below, you can see an example of an interval with a distance of 5.
The names of the 7 most important intervals
If you can count the distance between 2 tones, then you will know its name! The names of intervals are numbers.
There are 7 important common intervals. These are the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and octave. All these intervals have their own special sound. Do you want to get to know these intervals? Then read on!
Second: the 2-step interval
The second is an interval of 2 steps. On the piano, it is very easy to play a second. Play two white keys that are next to each other and you have a second. I often hear that people think a second sounds false, or speaking in musical terms, dissonant. Playing a second separately can give that impression.
The second plays an important role in music, especially in melodies and also in chords. In chords, the second, which can sound false when played separately, can suddenly sound very nice and rich in a chord. Much popular music makes use of this interval. The chords are often enriched by a second, which now sounds very beautiful. Listen to chords composed by Debussy, in which each chord has a second at the top:
Third: the 3-step interval
The third is an interval with 3 steps. You play a third on the piano when you play two keys with 1 white key in between. Thirds are used very often and everyone thinks they sound good.
The third is one of the most important intervals in music. Chords are made up of thirds. Thirds determine whether a scale or chord is major or minor. The third plays a prominent role in a great deal of music. In classical music as well as pop music, jazz, world or folk music. There are very famous pieces of music built on the interval third, just listen:
Fourth: the 4-step interval
The fourth is an interval with 4 steps. Do you want to know what a fourth sounds like? Then sing the 'Ding, ding, dong' of the chlidren's song Brother John (Frère Jacques).
The fourth is a somewhat odd interval. This can occur in different forms. From beautiful to "devilish", or false. There is a story that a certain type of fourth was banned in the Middle Ages, being associated with the devil. However, there is no evidence for this story. This type of fourth is the only interval that has its own name: the tritone. In etude no. 3 by Chopin, you can hear a lot of tritones:
Fifth: the 5-step interval
The fifth is an interval with 5 steps. Do you want to play a fifth on the piano? Then place 5 fingers neatly next to each other on 5 white keys and then play your thumb and little finger at the same time or in succession. A fifth sounds very nice! Or to speak in musical terms, consonant.
The fifth, like the third, is one of the most important intervals in music, especially for chords. Chords consist of a third and a fifth. In scales, this fifth tone, the fifth, even has its own name: the dominant. In this piece by Bartok, you only hear fifths in the accompaniment:
Sixth: the 6-step interval
The sixth is an interval with 6 steps. On the piano, we can find it one white key higher than the fifth. The distances are getting bigger! A sixth sounds nice and round, to speak in musical terms - consonant.
Due to the greater distance this interval occurs less often in melodies, but much more often in chords. The sixth is actually an inverted third. Carl Czerny composed a studie, where you hear only sixths in the melody, just listen:
Seventh: the 7-step interval
The seventh is an interval with 7 steps. Like the second, a seventh sounds dissonant when you play it separately. The seventh is quite difficult to sing.
The seventh plays a minor role in melodies, but is a very important interval when it comes to chords. If you learn about chords, you will soon come across the term seventh chord. These seventh chords occur mostly in classical music, jazz and pop music. The beautiful piano composition "Pavane pour une infante defunte" by Ravel, has a lot of sevenths. And used in this way, we do not experience it as a dissonant:
Octave: the 8-step interval
The octave is an interval with 8 steps. The octave is derived from Latin - numeral octavus - which means 'eighth'. On the piano, count up 8 white keys from any key and you will get a key with the same name. You are playing the same tone, but an octave higher. The octave always sounds very consonant - the same note 8 steps higher or lower makes for a pure sounding interval, the tones enrich each other.
The octave, like the third and the fifth, is one of the most important intervals in music. Very often, tones are doubled by playing an octave. This happens in melodies but especially with chords, making them sound richer. Listen and watch a sample of octave acrobatics.
Are there more intervals?
Most definitely! There is another special interval, the interval with a distance of 1, the unison. This interval is difficult to imagine on the piano. After all, you only play 1 key. And 1 tone is not an interval. However, if you imagine that two different instruments play the same tone, such as a violin and a flute, you have a unison interval.
If you count more notes further from the octave, you'll make intervals of 9, 10, 11 steps, and so on. These also have names - a ninth , a tenth, and so on. We can just keep on counting.
Practicing intervals: making your own intervals and learning to recognize intervals
You have now learned the basic theory of intervals. You have learned that an interval measures the distance between two notes. You've learned the names of the main intervals and heard how they sound. There is much more to tell - about major, minor, diminished and augmented intervals, for example. But, that is knowledge that can be learned after taking this beginners guide.
If you want to be able to apply what you have learned, you will have to practice. A good start is to learn how to make intervals and to learn to recognize them by ear. By training your musical hearing, you will improve your musical skills!
With a subscription to Music Theory you can do all of this. You will have access to many good exercises, learning to make and hear intervals with clear step-by-step ear training exercises.
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