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What are intervals in music?

General definition

Intervals are a fundamental part of musical structures, and therefore a central part of ear training. All harmonies or melodies can be considered as a sequence or layering of intervals. As a beginner you should therefore begin with Intervals and later continue with, for example, Melody dictation to identify a sequence of intervals, or Chord identification to identify harmonies with more than two tones.

An interval is the distance in pitch between two tones. It is labeled by its numerical value and its quality. The numerical value indicates the number of tones of the diatonic scale it includes.

diatonic scale      

In the staff above, the diatonic tones are shown (i.e. the white keys of the piano) and they are numbered after their position in the C-major scale. C=1, D=2, E=3 etc.

Examples of interval naming: The interval from C (1) to D (2) is a "Second" because it includes two tones, the interval from C (1) to E (3) and the interval from E (3) to G (5) are both a "Third" because they include three diatonic tones.

About interval qualities

The quality of an interval can be Perfect, Diminished, Augmented, Major, or Minor.

Unison, fourth, fifth and octave are called perfect intervals. Each of them can be diminished (one chromatic tone smaller) or augmented (one chromatic tone larger). The rest of the intervals within an octave are: second, third, sixth and seventh. Each of them can be major or minor.

Below is an example of a perfect fifth, diminished fifth and augmented fifth and a major and minor third.


Ear training with intervals

EarMaster includes hundreds of exercises that will help you identify, transcribe and play or sing intervals by ear. As soon as you master Interval Identification, Interval Comparison and Interval Singing, you will be able to move on to more comprehensive tasks such as Chord Identification, Scale Identification, melodic dictation or Melody singback. 

A very useful tip for beginners who may find it hard to get acquainted with the different intervals is to use well-known songs and melodies as references. You will find a beautiful and comprehensive list of famous songs and melodies that will help you memorize intervals more easily at www.earmaster.com/intervalsongs.