In this section, we’ll discuss what an interval is, and how to work them out. You’ll notice that I’ve grouped the intervals into what I’ve termed ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’. This is because they can get slightly confusing, and I think it’s easier to tackle them in groups. I’ll also make a list of songs that use these intervals so that you can hear them in context, and hopefully remember them easier.
What is an interval?
An interval is the distance between two notes. They can be played together, in which case they would be stacked one on top of the other on the stave, and in this case would be called a harmonic interval. A melodic interval is when one note is played after the other, and would also be written on a stave one after the other.
We describe intervals as a number with a description, for example a minor second or a perfect fifth. Sometimes they will be just be referred to as a number, such as a third or sixth, but this does is not very specific so where possible also add the description.
How to work out an interval
There is a simple way of working out the name of an interval. This applies to both basic and advanced intervals.
- Count from the bottom number up. Always use the bottom number as 1. This will giver you the number part of the interval name.
- Use the key of the root note to work out the description.
For example, if I want to know the interval between C and E, I would count up from C. So C is 1, D is 2 and E is three. Therefore this must be a third, but what kind of third; a major, minor or augmented third? Because there are no sharps or flats in the key of C major, C to E is a major third.
Just a quick note about the description part of an interval name before we get into it properly. The 4th, 5th and 8ve use slightly different terms to the other intervals, as you’ll see in the next sections.Use this diagram as a guideline when naming intervals:
Minor—(semitone down)— Major—(semitone up)—Augmented
Diminished—(semitone down)—Perfect—(semitone up)—Augmented
Here are seven intervals that occur within a major scale. In the example below I’ve used the intervals in C major because it has no sharps and flats, which makes it slightly easier to work out. However, these can be applied to any key.
It is useful to use songs to remember what the intervals sound like by associating them with something we already know. Here are some songs that use basic intervals:
Major 2nd: Happy Birthday
Major 3rd: Kum by Yah/ Blue Danube
Perfect 4th: Amazing Grace/ Away in a Manger
Perfect 5th: Twinkle Twinkle/ Star Wars
Major 6th: Dashing Through the Snow/ My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean/ Jingle Bells
Major 7th: Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Perfect 8ve: Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Both the major 7th and perfect 8ve are in Somewhere Over the Rainbow, so I have underlined which syllable contains the relevant interval.
I’ve included all intervals other than those listed above as advanced intervals. You can see that some are the same distance in semitones. This means that they will sound the same, but you should still learn them. This is because if you came across C to D♯ in a score you would never call it a minor third, you’d name it as an augmented 2nd!
Many of the chromatic intervals are enharmonic, which means that although they are written on the stave a different way, they sound the same. Therefore, we only need to know five songs:
Minor 2nd: Jaws
Minor 3rd: Greensleeves
Augmented 4th: Simpsons/ Maria (West Side Story)
Minor 6th: Love Story
Minor 7th: Winner Takes It All/ Star Trek
- Always work out an interval by counting from the bottom note up to find the number part of the interval name (e.g. 4th, 5th), then use the key of the bottom note to find the description (e.g. major, minor).
- Always use the bottom note as 1.
- Don’t use the term eighth or 8th, always use octave or 8ve.
- Always describe an interval in the key of the bottom note.
- 4th, 5th and 8ve use slightly different terms to the other intervals, as described above.