Musical Intervals Explained

What is an interval? Musical intervals are the distances between notes. They are the skips and leaps in a melody, create the pattern of a scale, and building blocks for chords.

The names of musical intervals are used to describe the distance in pitch between two notes or simply how wide the space is from one musical note to the next. 

It could be debated, but these distances are actually where single notes turn into music!


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Why Learn About Musical Intervals?

Musical Intervals

Learning about intervals will help you understand many concepts in music theory much better.

Learning to identify music intervals visually and aurally and sing or play intervals on your instrument will also improve your note reading skills.

For interval ear training, try this resource: Mastering Intervals

How to Identify Intervals

Melodic and Harmonic Intervals

There are two ways to write or play an interval:

Melodic and Harmonic Interval
  1. One is called a melodic interval, where each note is played/written one at a time successively, like in a melody.
  2. The other way is when the two notes are played/written simultaneously, creating harmony, called an harmonic interval.

The Smallest Intervals

Half Step or Semitone

The smallest interval commonly used today in the music of the western hemisphere is the half step or the semitone.

On a piano it's easy to see as the distance from one key to the very next.

This is also called an interval of a minor (=small) Second. 

Whole Step or Whole Tone

As with the semitone (above), the whole tone (or whole step) is one small but significant interval and one of the building blocks for all the common scales.

This is also called an interval of a major (=big) second.

Interval Number Names

Basic Intervals

What are the 8 intervals in music?

Basic intervals are numbered from unison (= one or prime interval) up to an octave (= eight).

You simply count a starting note as “1”, and then count each of the staff lines and spaces to the next note.  

Interval number names are:

1 = Unison/ Prime, 2 = Second, 3 = Third, 4=Fourth, 5=Fifth, 6 = Sixth, 7 = Seventh, 8 = Octave.

Interval Numbers

Compound Intervals

Compound intervals are musical intervals larger than an octave; 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th. 

Musical Interval Qualities

What are the 5 types of intervals?

Intervals are named after their number (as you saw above) but also what is called quality.

The qualities are explaining exactly how large or small each interval is.

Quality names are:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Perfect
  • Augmented
  • Diminished

So, each basic interval (if found on the white keys on the piano or using no sharps or flats) may have different qualities:

  • A unison and octave can only be perfect.
  • Fourths and fifths may be either perfect, diminished, or augmented.
  • Seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths may be either major or minor.

By using accidentals (sharps and flats), the intervals can also be changed to become even larger or smaller! Read more about the 5 types of intervals here.

Ear Training Intervals

It is a very good idea to practice to listen to and differentiate the different intervals in music examples.

This is especially useful when you want to write down a melody you hear, or to be able to imagine how a melody sounds only by reading the notes.

  • Start by learning how a scale sounds in step wise movement (seconds).
  • Then continue to practice how skipping a note sounds (thirds).
  • Then practice each basic interval separately, both melodic and harmonic, and try to associate each interval with a specific sound color or a specific song. Try this excellent free interval song chart generator.

Singing the intervals (even if it sounds terrible!) also helps your listening, or inner hearing, so, sing along! :)

You might like these

  • Identifying Musical Intervals with Numbers

    Learn a simple way to identify musical intervals and their number names. This will help you when reading music and when learning music theory. Easy!

  • What is a Whole Tone in Music?

    The whole tone and semitone are the two smallest intervals in western musical tradition. But small is not insignificant! Learn more about the whole tone here.

  • The Semitone or Halfstep

    A semitone, or a halfstep is the smallest interval used in the Western music tradition. This little tiny interval is actually rather powerful.