What Are Intervals On The Piano?

What Are Intervals On The Piano?

Today we will be learning about intervals and understanding their use in music. As a musician, whether you are a singer, pianist, horn player or even a drummer, it is important to understand how intervals are used and their relevance to the music you are playing.

An interval is the term used to describe the distance between any two notes. We use them to measure distance between pitches and the relationship of notes within music. Intervals are best practiced on the piano, where each black and white key clearly indicates a chromatic half-step movement, making the process much easier to visualize.

The intervals within one octave are as follows, demonstrating the distance between notes:

Minor 2nd, half-step, semitone (distance between C to Db)

2nd, Major 2nd, or full-step (distance between C to D)

Minor 3rd (C to Eb)

Major 3rd (C to E)

Perfect 4th (C to F)

Augmented 4th, or Tritone (C to F#)

Perfect 5th (C to G)

Augmented 5th (C to Ab)

Major 6th (C to A)

Minor 7th (C to Bb)

Major 7th (C to B)

Octave, or 8va (C to C)

Relationships Between Notes In Various Intervals

On the piano, the smallest interval is called a half-step, a semi-tone, or a minor 2nd. This is the difference between the notes of C to C#. The terms half-step and semitone have the exact same definition of one chromatic step, and can be used interchangeably, the former being the US term and the latter, the UK term.

The next interval is called a 2nd, or major 2nd, which we can visualize by moving between the notes C and D. While the half-step interval has a difference of one half-step between each note, the 2nd interval is formed of two half-step movements, making a whole step.

An augmented 4th (C to F#) and a diminished 5th (C to Gb) are the exact same chord, both to the ear and in the notes they are formed from. However, on a score the intervals are written differently based on how the score is read and the key of the music. The augmented 4th and diminished 5th is just one example of what we call an enharmonic equivalent – where the same interval can have two different names. Just as how the notes F# and Gb are played with the same piano key but interpreted differently on a score depending on its context, the distance between C and F# is an augmented 4th, while the distance between C to Gb is a diminished 5th, despite being the same chord overall.

Similarly, an augmented 5th (C to G#) is the same as a minor 6th (C to Ab) and, again, the chord will read differently on a score while sounding the same. Minor 7th intervals (C to Bb) can also be called augmented 6th intervals (C to A#), although you are much more likely to see it scored as a minor 7th.

The Octave and Intervals Beyond

An octave, often written as 8va, is two or more of the same note played at different pitches, for example, C3 and C4. As the intervals now progress above one octave, I’ll be using the numbers 3 and 4 to clearly show the difference between the octaves each note is being played in. For example, C3 is the middle C on a piano, and C4 is the C played in the next octave above middle C.

The common intervals above the octave are:

Minor 9th (C3 to Db4)

Major 9th (C3 to D4)

Augmented 9th (C3 to D#4 / sharp 9th)

Augmented 11th (C3 to F#4 / sharp 11th)

Minor 13th (C3 to Ab4)

Major 13th (C3 to A4)

The octave is the interval from C3 to C4, with eight whole-steps between the two notes. The next interval above the octave is a minor 9th (e.g. C3 to Db4). A minor 9th is never written as an augmented 8th, in reference to the enharmonic equivalents we looked at earlier. 

The following interval is a major 9th (C3 to D4). You will notice that a major 9th is almost identical to a major 2nd, both comprising of the notes C and D. The reasoning behind the term major 9th is that once you pass the octave (which is 8 whole steps above the original note C) you can keep counting upwards through 9, 10, 11.., without confusion between intervals formed of the same notes but played across different octaves. We do not usually go beyond a 13th interval unless talking about compound intervals, which is a more complex part of music theory.

Let’s have a deeper glance at the 9th interval as it is essential to those of you learning to play gospel and jazz tunes. As we covered before, the distance between C3 to D4 is a major 9th. If we lower it one half-step (C3 to Db4), we have a minor 9th. Also, if we raise it a half-step (C3 to D#4), we can form another interval: an augmented 9th, or sharp 9th.

Some higher intervals are not commonly mentioned, for example the 10th (C3 to E4) which is the same as the major 3rd (C to E). The 10th interval is hardly ever written as such; you are much more likely to see it written as a major 3rd.

The 11th interval (C3 to F4) is identical to the 4th interval but similarly an octave higher. You will find the 11th a lot throughout music, for example the chord C11 (formed of the notes C-E-G-Bb-D-F) where the F on top of the chord is the 11th, an octave away from the 4th. Like the 9th, by raising the 11th interval a half-step (C3 to F#4), we form an augmented 11th, or sharp 11th. 

The 12th interval (C3 to G4) is nearly identical to the 5th, and this is another interval you won’t see mentioned or associated with any chord symbol.

The 13th, however, you will see a lot. The major 13th (C3 to A4) is very similar to the major 6th (C to A). Taking it down a semitone (C3 to Ab4) you will form a minor 13th, which is also called a flat 13th (b13). Unlike the 9th and 11th, sharp 13th intervals (e.g. C3 to A#4) are much less common to find, although they do exist.

Earlier, I mentioned the more complex theory of compound intervals, which is a way of describing intervals that stretch beyond two octaves. The interval C3 to C5 would be called a compound octave, C3 to D5 a compound 9th (more commonly called a compound 2nd), C3 to Eb5 a compound minor 3rd, C3 to E5 a compound 10th and so on. At a practical level, this complex side of interval theory isn’t entirely relevant.

Practice the intervals and try getting used to the distinctive sound of each one. With enough practice in this, you will be able to identify intervals by ear in any song you listen to. Below you can download the Interval Recognition Sheet to help with the practicing how these intervals. 

Download The Interval Recognition Sheet PDF For FREE

With this PDF, you can quickly learn and memorize the different intervals.

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