Beginner Music Steps: Learn Intervals

LadyDpiano: Beginner Music Steps l Intervals

The most elemental part of music theory is understanding the relationship between single notes. The distance between those notes is an interval, which will serve as the foundation for practically every single concept throughout this book.

So an interval is defined as the distance from one note to another. Intervals are going to provide the basic framework for everything else in music. Not only is knowledge of intervals as a subject itself important, but intervals are used everywhere. Small intervals combine to form scales. Larger intervals combine to form chords. Intervals will aid you in voice leading, composition, and transposition. There are virtually no musical situations where intervals aren't used, and even in some dissonant music of the twentieth century, intervals are still the basis for most composition and analysis.

There are five different types of intervals:

  • Major Intervals
  • Minor Intervals
  • Perfect Intervals
  • Augmented Intervals
  • Diminished Intervals

      LadyDpiano: Learn Intervals
      Photo Credit: Keyseeker

      You've got to learn intervals! What are they? Well, an interval in music is the "distance in pitch between two notes." The interval is counted from the lower note to the higher one, with the lower counted as 1. All intervals (except for the unison and octave) are named by the number of the upper note: 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc.

      Now, if you're referring to the distance between notes played separately, they are called melodic intervals. If you are referring tot he distance between notes played together at the same time, they are called harmonic intervals.

      You can also use similar terminology to describe distances between chords by saying that you will want to play the major chord a fourth up from C. In this case, it would be F major because F is a fourth up from C. Regardless of whether you're referencing single notes (melodies), notes played together (chords) or distances between chords, intervals are intervals.

      For example, F will always be a fourth up from C. Bb will always be a third up from Gb and G will always be a fifth up from C. Briefly, I'll list the names of each interval here.

      In the Key of C Major:

      The interval between C and the same C is called: Perfect Unison.

      The interval between C and the next C on the piano (an 8th up) is called: Perfect Octave.

      The interval between C and D is called: Major Second.

      The interval between C and E is called: Major Third.

      The interval between C and F is called: Perfect Fourth.

      The interval between C and G is called: Perfect Fifth.

      The interval between C and A is called Major Sixth.

      The interval between C and B is called Major Seventh.

Notice that some names get a "major" put in front and some get a "perfect" put in front. This would be a big deal if you were taking a music theory test tomorrow, but for now, we just want to focus on the numbers.

As a reference:

Unison, octave (which, in C major would be "C") get to use "perfect" along with the fourth and fifth intervals.

So, 1, 4, 5, and 8 use the name "perfect."

Second, third, sixth, and seventh use the name "major."

For playing by ear, the importance is that you start mastering a major second sound or a major third sound both as melodic intervals (played as separate notes going from one to the other) and as harmonic intervals (played together).

If I played "C" on the piano and asked you to listen to it and then hum the main tone along with me, since you know that C is the reference point, you should be able to hum any interval from C.

* If you know the starting note, with relative pitch, this is all you need! *

For example, If I play "C" on the piano, you should be able to sing "D." From C, you might be able to sing E and from E, you probably can sing Eb because Eb is one-half step below E. Once you have Eb, try to sing Ab.


1. As you study intervals and build your ear skills, have someone play any first note and tell you what it is.

2. Then have them play the second note (start off easy and make sure it's a note from the same major scale). Start in the key of C major.

3. Make sure after the first initial note, they don't tell you what note they are playing.

4. Based on your understanding of intervals, attempt to guess what note is being played. If you get the note right, have them play another note from that note.

5. This will really get you to hear second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh intervals.

6. The easiest ones to guess are the fifth intervals. Think of C going to G and then back and forth...
 C-G-C-G-C-G. Does that sound like a tuba player in the orchestra warming up? Perhaps circus music or intro music for a clown.

7. Make a habit of doing exercises like this so that you are constantly testing yourself.

Two resources you may be interested in are:

Jazz, Rags & Blues, Bk 1: 10 Original Pieces for the Late Elementary to Early Intermediate Pianist, Book & CDand  PITCH Ear Training Software

I hope you'll leave me a note and let me know if this helps. How is your piano playing coming along?  I'm thinking about getting ready for back to school... not yet but it's a-coming real soon!

-- LadyD

"The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you." B.B.King

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