Intervals in music are a measuring tool. They describe the distance between two notes. Interval recognition is a key component of ear training. It will help your distinguish the distance and depth of two sounds.
In this article we will describe how to identify the intervals within the octave of notes in our music system. A trick musicians use to identify intervals by ear is to use songs that are commonly known. By singing back the first two notes of the melody of the suggested song you will be able to identify the sound. Ear training does take time and persistence. Use this article to create a checklist of tunes. Understand the emotional response each interval creates. Most importantly use this knowledge in your music.
Unison – Intervals
This describes two notes of exactly the same pitch. This would be achieved by playing for example an A note and then playing the exact same note. This is the easiest interval to recognise.
Minor Second – Intervals
Distance – 1 semitone.
Suggested Recognition Song Ascending – Jaws Theme.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Fur Elise by Beethoven.
The minor second is one semitone apart. On a piano this means playing keys that are next to each other. On a guitar this can be played as notes that are one fret apart. The minor second is commonly heard in guitar riffs played in heavy metal. It is also a sound heard often in jazz solos as a “wrong” sounding note that needs to be resolved. The ominous sound was perfect for the theme music of the movie Jaws.
Major Second – Intervals
Distance – 2 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – Happy Birthday.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Mary Had a Little Lamb.
The major second is the first step in all major and minor scales. All major intervals are larger in semitones than their minor partners. One of the most commonly sung tunes using this interval is the first notes of Happy Birthday.
Minor Third – Intervals
Distance – 3 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song Ascending – Spiderman Theme.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Hey Jude by the Beatles.
Our music system is built on thirds. The minor and major third interval are used when stacking notes to create chords. I use the theme song from Spiderman to help identify this interval (or Spiderpig, Spiderpig for you Simpsons fans!). The Beatles biggest selling single also uses this interval to open the lyrics of Hey Jude.
Major Third – Intervals
Distance – 4 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – Rock Around the Clock.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
The major third interval supplies the two notes that begin a major chord. The verse melody of one of rock and roll’s first
Perfect Fourth – Intervals
Distance – 5 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – Here Comes the Bride.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Come O Ye Faithful.
When tuning a bass guitar the distance in sound between the strings is a perfect fourth. Most famously this interval has been featured at the moment a bride enters on her wedding day.
Tritone – Intervals
Distance – 6 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – The Simpsons Theme.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – YYZ by Rush.
The halfway point of the octave gives us one of the evil sounding intervals. Another favourite for heavy metal musicians. It was once forbidden to be used why composers because of its evil quality. This interval can also be called an Augmented 4th or Diminished 5th when the note name labels are visible.
Perfect Fifth – Intervals
Distance – 7 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – The Flintstones Theme.
The first harmonies were sung in perfect fifths by monks in Gregorian chant. You will find after an interval that is very harsh sounding like the tritone is an interval that resolves this tension. The perfect fifth is the smoothest sounding interval after the pureness of a unison or octave. It is now used commonly by rock guitarists when playing power chords.
Minor Sixth – Intervals
Distance – 8 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – Black Orpheus.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Love Story theme.
We are now getting into territory where the intervals are quite a large leap in pitch. Singers start to find it harder to make the leap as intervals get wider apart. The amount of songs that we have to recognise large intervals are limited. The film Black Orpheus used a Brazilian jazz standard “Mahna De Carnivale” which begins with this haunting interval. Remember that minor sounds have a sadder tone quality. Use this idea to identify all minor intervals. Does it have a sadder, darker sound. Another movie theme uses this interval when descending notes.
Major Sixth – Intervals
Distance – 9 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond.
Thankfully the first song The Beatles played on that gained public release was backing singing Tony Sheridan playing “My Bonnie”. Due to this I think I have a perfect record when picking the major sixth interval in tests! When descending think of the opening notes of the singalong Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline”.
Minor Seventh – Intervals
Distance – 10 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – The Winner Takes it All by ABBA.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock.
The distance between the notes is now very large. Use this as a tool to eliminate what intervals it could not be when doing ear training tests. Can you narrow down the possible answers by eliminating intervals smaller than a perfect fifth after hearing an interval of this size? The chorus of The Winner Takes it All by ABBA opens with this ascending interval use.
Major Seventh – Intervals
Distance – 11 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – Take on Me by A-ha.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – Hee Haw theme.
We are now at the largest interval between two notes of different name label. The sound is fairly distinct in that it feels unfinished. As we are one note way from completing the octave, our ears tend to hear the need to resolve up. As it is such a large interval it is not as commonly used in melodies as the closer intervals. The chorus of 80s pop classic Take on Me by A-Ha uses this interval to give dramatic tension.
Octave – Intervals
Distance – 12 semitones.
Suggested Recognition Song – Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Suggested Recognition Song Descending – There’s No Business Like Show Business.
The last of the intervals inside the complete set of notes in our music system. On a guitar you will often see two dots placed on the neck at the 12th fret. This indicates the octave, where all notes would have been played once on that string.
Intervals knowledge can really add a secret weapon to playing your instrument. Understanding the emotional effect each interval has can make you a better composer or soloist/improvisor. If you have more questions regarding intervals please contact us on the below form. We are happy to help you get the most out of this important area of music theory.