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Intervals

The interval corresponds to the pitch difference between two notes.

Simple intervals: from unison to octave

Identify an interval

To find the interval between two notes, just count the number of notes separating them, including the two notes composing the interval.

How to find the interval between two notes

For example, from C to G, we find the following 5 notes: C D E F G. The interval between C and G is called a fifth. Other example: between D and F, we find the following 3 notes: D E F. The corresponding interval is called a third.

FIGURE 1 - Examples of intervals
From c to g, there are 5 notes Fifth From d to f,there are 3 notes Third

Piano

Audio of figure 1

Table of simple intervals

The following table gives you the names of intervals based on the distance between two notes.

Tableau - Distance between two notes and name of the corresponding interval
NameExampleDistance between notes
Unison

1
Second

2
Third

3
Fourth

4
Fifth

5
Sixth

6
Seventh

7
Octave

8

Note that the examples in the table do not have clefs, because you do not need to know the name of the notes to find the name of an interval. For example, in the table above, the third can be read in Treble clef (E-G) or Bass clef (G-B), but in all cases, it remains a third. The intervals can therefore be detected visually without reference to a note, but simply by identifying the number of lines and line spaces composing the interval.

Unison is a special case because it corresponds to an interval between a note and itself. It's a bit like zero in mathematics. But then, what is the interest of unison? It's simple: the same note can be played / sung by different instruments. We will say that they play or are "in unison".

The octave is a very important interval, because it separates a note from this same note, but immediately higher or lower.

Melodic and harmonic intervals

Melodic intervals

When the interval separates two notes played one after the other, the interval is melodic. Depending on the direction of the movement separating the two notes, the interval can be ascending or descending.

The intervals in Figure 1 are ascending.

Descending intervals

The intervals in the figure below are based on the same note names as those in Figure 1 (C-G and D-F). However, the position of the first note is higher, so the movement is changed. In figure 1, we had ascending intervals, here we have descending intervals. The interval C-G is no longer an ascending fifth, but a descending quarter. Similarly, D-F is no longer an ascending third, but a descending sixth.

FIGURE 2 - Examples of descending melodic intervals
Descending Fourth Descending Fifth

Piano

Audio of figure 2

Harmonic intervals

When the interval separates two notes played simultaneously, the interval is harmonic.

Fifth interval in all its forms
Here is a fifth (F-C) presented in ascending, descending and harmonic form. Note the vertical superposition of the two notes forming the harmonic interval, which indicates that both notes should be played simultaneously.

FIGURE 3 - Ascending, descending and harmonic fifth
Ascendingfifth Descendingfifth Harmonicfifth

Piano

Audio of figure 3

Through misuse of language, it sometimes happens that we speak of a chord when two notes are played simultaneously. Be careful, however, it takes a minimum of 3 simultaneous sounds to form an actual chord.

Compound intervals

Principle

An interval that exceeds the octave is called a compound interval. To name such an interval, we will use two different terminologies: ordinal numbers (ninth, tenth, etc.), or the simple interval followed by the adjective "compound". For example, a compound third is the equivalent of a tenth.

In general, we favor the first terminology (ordinal qualifiers), especially for odd intervals (ninth, eleventh, thirteenth), but it is important to know both.
Examples of compound intervals

The following figure represents an interval of ninth, that is to say a compound second. This interval is formed of an octave (from E, bottom of the staff, to E, top of the staff) and a second (from E, top of the staff, to F).

FIGURE 4 - Ninth interval
From e to f, there are 9 notes Octave Second Ninth

The following figure represents a thirteenth interval, that is, a compound sixth. This interval is formed of an octave (from D, bottom of the staff to D, top of the staff) and a sixth (from D, top of the staff to B).

FIGURE 5 - Thirteenth interval
From d to b, there are 13 notes Octave Sixth Thirteenth

When dealing with an interval larger than the octave, consider breaking this interval into octave + simple interval to simplify the problem. To obtain the simple interval from a compound interval, subtract 7 from the value of the interval. For example, an eleventh is a compound fourth (11 - 7 = 4).

Table of compound intervals

The following table shows the name and composition of the compound intervals.

Tableau - Compound intervals and terminologies
Name (ordinal)Name (compound)Composition
NinthCompound secondOctave + Second
TenthCompound thirdOctave + Third
EleventhCompound fourthOctave + Fourth
TwelfthCompound fifthOctave + Fifth
ThirteenthCompound sixthOctave + Sixth
FourteenthCompound seventhOctave + Seventh
FifteenthCompound octave or Double-octaveOctave + Octave

Ear training

The ear recognition of an interval is an indispensable element of the good training of a musician. To master this aspect allows, among other things, to facilitate the learning of a piece, to recognize the key, the harmony of a piece or a passage, to be able to quickly write down a melody, etc.

How to recognize an interval?

Listen to the two notes of the interval, several times if necessary, then try to mentally go all over the intermediate notes from the first to the second note, counting all of them. The number of notes gives you the name of the interval. Better, we advise you to sing aloud all notes. Singing allows one to feel the interval physically, which allows one to better assimilate them.

If you are new to interval recognition, always start with ascending melodic intervals, then progress to descending and harmonic intervals. Also prefer the "small intervals", until the fifth, before you start in the larger ones.

Intervals and accidentals

In this course, we have only been interested in interval names. However, you will soon find that the name of an interval is not enough to clearly define a difference in pitch. For example, how do you distinguish the C-E interval from the C-E interval? This is the subject of the course devoted to the interval qualification. You will learn how to qualify an interval as a major, a minor or a perfect one, for example.

However, before continuing, remember that, whatever the accidentals you may encounter, accidentals must never be taken into account to name an interval! The C-E, C-E, C-E intervals are all thirds, simply because from C to E, there are 3 notes: C, D and E.

Interval name and accidentals

The intervals in the following figure are all thirds. Accidentals modify the qualification of the interval, but do not alter the name of the interval. We will qualify it as major third, minor third, etc. (see course on interval qualification) but all remain thirds.

FIGURE 6 - Different thirds on C-E

Last update on 2018/12/03

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