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What are "Intervals"?

They're the way we name the jumps that a melody takes as it progresses.

Ever listen to someone whistling a well-known tune?
Did they know what key the original was in, and what key they're whistling in? No!
Does it matter? No!

All that matters is whether the next note of the tune goes up or down, and by how much.
As long as you move around the piece by the correct amount relative to the previous note it doesn't matter what the starting note is.

Naming notes relative to other notes

There are two issues in describing a tune's next note relative to the previous note.

The two parts to an interval name

An interval is the gap (in pitch, not time) between 2 notes. There are two parts to an interval name:

  1. The first part says how many note names separate the 2 notes
    Note - we count both the notes as well as those in between, so C to E is a third
  2. The second part says whether the gap is large or small
    Example - A to C is a third, but is 3 frets. C to E is a third but is 4 frets
    We don't specify the actual number of frets of separation, we simply say whether it's a large gap or a small one

Types of interval

A table of interval names

Interval name Interval Name from low to high note
Sharps and flats do not affect the interval name
Unison C-C D-D E-E F-F G-G A-A B-B
2nd C-D D-E E-F F-G G-A A-B B-C
3rd C-E D-F E-G F-A G-B A-C B-D
4th C-F D-G E-A F-B G-C A-D B-E
5th C-G D-A E-B F-C G-D A-E B-F
6th C-A D-B* E-C F-D G-E A-F B-G
7th C-B D-C E-D F-E G-F A-G B-A
Octave C-C D-D E-E F-F G-G A-A B-B

* Example : The interval from the Open D string to the Open B string is found in the table on the row marked "6ths" - it's a 6th.

The next table shows how to work out if it's a Minor 6th or a Major 6th.
Note : When we name intervals, we include the notes at either end. When we count the gap, we count the frets in the normal way (eg C-D is 2 frets)

Note: An interval larger than an octave (such as a 9th) is also called a compound interval (a 9th is a compound 2nd)

A table of intervals

Interval vs no of frets 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Unison Uni Aug 1                      
2nd dim 2 min 2 Maj 2 Aug 2                  
3rd     dim 3 min 3 Maj 3 Aug 3              
4th         dim 4 Per 4 Aug 4            
5th             dim 5 Per 5 Aug 5        
6th               dim 6 min 6 Maj 6 Aug 6    
7th                   dim 7 min 7 Maj 7 Aug 7
Octave                       dim 8 8va
Key (larger intervals are capitalised)
dim = diminished, min = minor, Maj = major, Aug = augmented
Per = perfect, Uni = unison, 8va = Octave

* Example : The interval from the Open D string to the Open B string is 9 frets.
Combining this with the result from the previous table, we see the interval is a Major 6th.


These tables name the interval assuming that the lower note is first.

"Inverting an interval" means putting the lower note on top.

When we invert an interval, several things happen...

Example : D to B is a Major 6th. B to D is Minor 3rd

This "swapping over" is much like the "swapping over" that happens in the order sharps and flats get added to a Key Signature

Why bother understanding inversions?

Recognising intervals helps with recognising chords, and, like intervals, chords are frequently inverted too; feeling at ease with groups of notes on the score is a powerful step towards being at ease with them on the fingerboard.

See also my Key Signatures sheet.

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