In this part of the course, we will discuss intervals – another building block of music. You will learn what are intervals, what kind of intervals exists, and how to count them on a midi grid. There are some useful MIDI files for this particular lesson (with a download link in the first article of this course) so be sure to check them out.

3. Intervals

An interval is the distance in pitch between two notes. This distance is the basis for building scales and chords. Intervals have different names and you need to learn these names and the distances they represent to be able to read other books on music and communicate with other people. For example, there is an interval called perfect fifth, and it is equal to seven semitones apart. You may read in some book that you need to place two notes a perfect fifth apart, and thus, by knowing intervals, you know exactly where to put these notes.

A musical scale is made of specific intervals, and chords are, too, made of specific intervals. Later on, all of this will become clear. For now, let’s learn the intervals.

Figure 3.1 shows an example of an interval.

Figure 3.1

Again, an interval is a distance between two notes. In case of figure 3.1, it’s the distance between notes C and G. Every interval has its specific name. Figure 3.1 shows a perfect fifth – the notes are seven semitones apart (with the next note placed on that seventh semitone – count the horizontal rows, starting with the very first row above the note C, that is the note C#).

Useful Tip

Every note is always a semitone apart from the next note – meaning that the distance between C and C# is a single semitone, C# to D is a single semitone and so on. Every horizontal row on a MIDI grid represents a single semitone, assigned either to a white or a black piano key. Counting these rows allows us to count the semitones.

Let’s take a look at these two notes, C and G, from figure 3.1.

The figure shows a melodic interval. If the two notes are not only apart from each other in pitch, but also in time, meaning that one is played after the other, we call this a melodic interval. And when the two notes are played at the very same time, we call this a harmonic interval, which you can see on figure 3.2. Figure 3.2 also shows a perfect fifth interval.

Figure 3.2

While melodic intervals are used for building melodies, the harmonic intervals are used to build harmonies and chords.

Useful Tip

Harmony, to put it simple, is two or more notes that sound together. A harmony is made of melody, bass line, countermelody and elements of musical texture. We build harmonies with chords.

One more thing: a perfect fifth is a name for an interval – the distance between two notes. We have a perfect fifth between notes C and G, but also between G and D, or E and B. Check it out in your DAW and try to count the semitones between these notes, or at least take a look at figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3 – Perfect fifths between different notes.

In the next section you will learn all the intervals.

Categorizing Intervals

A perfect fifth is just one of many intervals. We categorize them:

  • By their type:
  • Major intervals
  • Minor intervals
  • Perfect intervals
  • Augmented intervals
  • Diminished intervals
  • By their distance:
  • Primes/Unison
  • Seconds
  • Thirds
  • Fourths
  • Fifths
  • Sixths
  • Sevenths
  • Octaves
  • Compound intervals, that is intervals greater than an octave

Not very clear, is it?

Take a look at figure 3.4, and listen to the MIDI file.

Figure 3.4

Time for some explanation. The distance tells us the name of the interval (or, in other words, an interval is the name for the distance). Look at figure 3.4, where the distance between the notes gets bigger and bigger. This is what we call seconds, fourths or sevenths. Figure 3.4 shows pair of notes. From the left, we can see a prime, then two seconds, then two thirds and so on. Wait a minute! Why two seconds and two thirds? Because a second can be minor or major, and third can be minor or major – and so on. Some intervals can be minor, or major, or even perfect, or augmented or diminished.

This distance way of categorizing intervals will be discussed a bit later. FIrst, let’s discuss the type of an interval:

  • Major interval contains two semitones between the notes. Seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths can be major intervals.
  • Minor interval contains one semitone less than a major interval, or contains only a single semitone between the two notes. Seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths can be minor intervals.
  • Only primes, octaves, fourths and fifths can be perfect intervals.
  • Diminished interval contains one semitone less than a minor or perfect interval. Every interval, except a prime, can be diminished.
  • Augmented interval contains one semitone more than a minor or perfect interval. Every interval can be augmented.

Quite simple, isn’t it? Not really? The thing is that the best thing to do here is to memorize the intervals by learning how many semitones goes for which one, and leave understanding all of this for later.

The intervals – all these perfect fifths, or major thirds, is a collection of words that we use when talking about music to name the distance between the notes. We don’t say “play a note four semitones above C”, but we say “play a major third above C”. And every book or course or video uses these words and phrases, so it’s a good idea to learn how to use the intervals.

And we will learn this soon, after we memorize the number of semitones for each type of interval.

Listening to Intervals

Listen to all of the basic intervals, first in their melodic form, and then in their harmonic form. The correct MIDI file can be found in the package for this book.

Figure 3.5

This is a list of all the intervals you will listen to – notice that these intervals can also be enharmonic, that is why there are two names for the same interval:

  1. Perfect Prime / diminished second
  2. Augmented Prime / minor second
  3. Major second / diminished third
  4. Augmented second / minor third
  5. Major third / diminished fourth
  6. Perfect fourth / diminished third
  7. Augmented fourth / diminished fifth
  8. Perfect fifth / diminished sixth
  9. Augmented fifth / minor sixth
  10. Major sixth / diminished seventh
  11. Augmented sixth / minor seventh
  12. Major seventh / diminished octave
  13. Augmented seventh / perfect octave

These are the basic intervals.

Counting Intervals

Counting intervals is a bit different on a MIDI grid than on a traditional staff. But in both cases, we count the semitones.

How to count the intervals on a MIDI grid? We need to count the semitones – both the white and black keys and their respective rows, between the two sounds. We start counting with the very first row above the first note. For example, if we want to count the intervals above note C, the first semitone that we count is the C# row.

Here is a list of intervals and the number of semitones.

  1. Perfect Prime / diminished second – 0
  2. Augmented Prime / minor second – 1
  3. Major second / diminished third – 2
  4. Augmented second / minor third – 3
  5. Major third / diminished fourth – 4
  6. Perfect fourth / diminished third – 5
  7. Augmented fourth / diminished fifth – 6
  8. Perfect fifth / diminished sixth – 7
  9. Augmented fifth / minor sixth – 8
  10. Major sixth / diminished seventh – 9
  11. Augmented sixth / minor seventh – 10
  12. Major seventh / diminished octave – 11
  13. Augmented seventh / perfect octave – 12
  14. Augmented octave – 13

Let’s count the intervals to get some practice now. This may be quite boring, but it’s useful knowledge later. Count and call the intervals:

  • C to G
  • G to E
  • B to A
  • A to F
  • G to C
  • F to E
  • F to G#

To play a prime for E, we need to play the same note again, that is: note E.

To play a major third for B, we need to count for semitones up or down, and either play D# or G.

To play a major sixth for D, we need to count nine semitones up or down, and play either B or F.

Using the above list for counting intervals, you shouldn’t have any problems in the future with naming the intervals or understanding other books or courses.

Analysis of a Simple Melody

All right, let’s take a look at a simple melody now, pictured on figure 3.6, the one from earlier, but now let’s take a look at the intervals in this melody.

Figure 3.6

The melody starts with note C.

Next, we play a major third, the note E.

Then, we have a minor third, note G. At the same time, G is a perfect fifth to the very first note C.

After G we have a major second, A, and then a major second back down to G, and once more, a major second to A. Then, the melody jumps a minor third to C.

Then we go back a perfect fourth to G, and then a minor third to E, and a major third down to C.

Hopefully, now you know what intervals are and how they work in melodies. Later on, in another chapter, we will discuss intervals and chords.

For now the most important thing is that you should know that if you read in a book “play a perfect fifth above C”, you understand that you need to play G. By now you should already know that learning music theory is more about learning how to understand what everyone talks about, than about using all of this in actual composition :).

Consonant and Dissonant Intervals

There is one more way to categorize intervals – as consonant and dissonant intervals. This way of categorizing refers to how these intervals sound – either pleasant, or unpleasant – good or chaotic.

What’s the difference? Consonant intervals sound good together, they are pleasant to the ear. On the other hand, dissonant intervals sound unpleasant, like there’s something disharmonious in them. By listening to the intervals from the files for this book, you must have heard this – some intervals were “nice”, and other were “bad”. This is the consonance and dissonance.

These two terms are used not only for the intervals but for all the sounds, chords or instruments, that either sound good together, bad together, or somewhere in between. We add both consonance and dissonance to our music, and this is a part of composition, when we want to achieve specific goals with our music, for example specific emotions. Each of the intervals plays its unique role in music.

Some sounds can be perceived as harmonious, nice, pleasant. Other sounds can be perceived as chaotic, disharmonious, unpleasant.

Let’s listen to a simple example of some intervals and chords.

First, let’s start with the intervals shown on figure 3.7.

Figure 3.7

The first is the perfect fifth and it’s a consonant interval. It sounds nice, well, pleasant.

Next, we have a minor third and it doesn’t sound as good as the perfect fifth. It’s somewhere in between consonance and dissonance.

Third is an octave and it’s a good sounding consonant interval.

Fourth is a major second, and fifth is the minor second – both are dissonant intervals and they don’t sound very good.

Now, let’s take a look at the chords from figure 3.8.

Figure 3.8

First, we have a C Major chord – it sounds pleasant, harmonious.

The second one is C Minor chord – it still sounds good, but we hear it’s a bit less consonant.

The third one is C Augmented chord – it’s a bit more dissonant. In the same way, the fourth chord, C Diminished chord, is also dissonant.

In practice, we use consonants and dissonance to shape specific emotions through our music. For example, if we want for our music to be happier, we use mainly major chords and perfect consonant intervals. On the other hand, if we want for our music to be more tensed, like for a horror movie, we may use more diminished chords and dissonant intervals. This also leads us to one more subject: intervals and emotions.

Intervals and Emotions

We often associate emotions with the intervals. It’s quite subjective, because each person can have different emotional associations with given chords or intervals, but some things are quite common between people, so most music theory books mention some “emotional keywords” here and there.

Basically, consonant intervals are associated with more positive emotions, while dissonant intervals are associated with negative emotions. Major intervals are bright and strong, emotionally, while minor intervals are weaker emotionally.

Let’s take a look at a general list:

  • Prime, octave – peace, pleasure.
  • Minor second – hardness, melancholy, displeasure, darkness, feeling lost, pain, shock.
  • Major second – longing, sadness, tension.
  • Minor third – sadness, tragedy, regret, anger.
  • Major third – brightness, harmony, peace, joy.
  • Perfect fourth – excitement, success
  • Augmented fourth – violence, danger, diabolus in musica.
  • Perfect fifth – stability, joy, triumph, heroics, courage.
  • Minor sixth – hardness, feeling lost.
  • Major third – sweetness, pleasure.
  • Minor seventh – sadness, regret.
  • Major seventh – suspicion.

These are some of the common emotional keywords for the intervals, so it’s a good idea to remember them, play them and see if they work for you.

Soon you’ll learn that the scales and chords also have their emotional associations.

Finally, take a listen to the intervals again, but this time “going down”, just as an exercise.

Figure 3.9

Compound Intervals

Beside the basic intervals, up to an octave, there are also so called compound intervals, like ninths, for example. Compound intervals aren’t that difficult – they are the simple intervals, just an octave higher. For example, a ninth is just an octave plus a second. It’s the same note as an ordinary second, just an octave above normal.

Here’s a list of compound intervals and their semitones:

  • Minor ninth – 13 semitones
  • Major ninth – 14 semitones
  • Minor tenth – 15 semitones
  • Major tenth – 16 semitones
  • Perfect eleventh – 17 semitones
  • Perfect twelfth – 19 semitones
  • Minor thirteenth – 20 semitones
  • Major thirteenth – 21 semitones
  • Minor fourteenth – 22 semitones
  • Major fourteenth – 23 semitones
  • Perfect fifteenth – 24 semitones

Here’s a simple exercise – try to count the semitones starting with note C – first, for the major second, and then for major ninth. Notice that you hit the same note – D, in this case. So the ninth is the same note as a second, just an octave higher.


You’ve learned the intervals – the distances between the notes. With this knowledge you’ll be able to understand how we build chords and scales. First, we will learn the basic musical scales, the sets of notes that we can build melodies and harmonies with.

Don't forget to become a fan on Facebook and subscribe to new posts via RSS or via email.