• Do you spell “their” as “there?”

    in Theory

    exam-big.jpgLast night, we had an awesome radio show and I gave away a couple of prizes to deserving callers.

    One of the questions I asked dealt with intervals and I was looking for a very specific answer.

    For example, if I ask you what a major third up from E is, what would you say?

    Here’s a hint:

    Major thirds contain 4 half steps
    Minor thirds contain 3 half steps

    (And I’ll give you another hint with a poem I’ve always remembered… “half steps are from key to key with no keys in between… whole steps always skip a key with one key in between”).

    With that said, the answer is Ab right?


    The answer is not Ab. The answer is G# and there is a very specific reason for this.

    Here’s an analogy…

    Does “there” and “their” mean the same thing?

    What if I said, “hand me that remote control over their, will you?”

    That’d be flat out wrong! The correct word should be “there.”

    But if I said, “they left there pizza on the picnic table,” I’d also be wrong. This example should use the word “their” to show possession.

    I’m not hear… OOPS, I mean here, to give an English lesson though. :)

    In the same way people commonly make these errors, musicians make similar mistakes in calling out chords, intervals, and notes.

    Yes, if you played an “E” and “Ab,” it would produce the same sound just like “there” sounds the same as “their” and “hear” sounds the same as “here.” That’s why people make a lot less mistakes when they talk versus when they write because you can’t tell the difference in the way it sounds.

    Heck, you can play “E” and “Ab” (along with a “B” on top) and that’ll give you a chord that sounds just like the E major chord. Wait, you’re saying… “isn’t that the E major chord, though, Jermaine?”

    Well, it sounds the same just like “through” sounds the same as “threw” — but they aren’t the same thing.

    Ok, I think I’ve hammered that enough.

    Well, how can you correct this?


    Since you already know that a major third is 4 half steps and a minor third is 3 half steps, you’ll never have a problem playing the note and getting the correct sound of the chord, but knowing how many half steps isn’t enough to know whether you’re “spelling” it right.

    Of course, “here” and “hear” both have 4 letters. But that doesn’t help me to know which one to use!

    The same is true here.

    You need to know the “generic interval” test.

    It says that the number of alphabet letters encompassed IN the interval should be equal to the interval number.

    The interval number in this example is 3 or “third” since I asked you to tell me what a major third up from “E” was.

    So that means this interval should encompass 3 alphabet letters.

    I know you’re confused… that’s why I’m going to break it down even further really quickly.

    What you should do is forget about sharps and flats and just write out how many alphabet letters it takes to get from your starting note to your destination.

    Let’s take E and G#…

    E is the first alphabet letter.
    F is the second alphabet letter.
    G is the third and last alphabet letter.

    It took three alphabet letters to get from E to G (yes, I’m intentionally leaving out the sharp… no need to use sharps and flats when dealing with generic intervals. All that matters is how many alphabet letters are being used).

    Again, we could care less about sharps and flats at this point.

    And remember the rule, the number of alphabet letters contained is equal to the interval. So because we have three alphabet letters, this is a third.

    That is why G# is the correct answer and is indeed a major third.

    Note: The “major” part is taken care of by the 4 half steps and the “third” part in the interval “major third” is taken care of by the fact that three alphabet letters are contained in this interval.

    That’s why if you told me that Ab was the answer, even though it sounds like the answer and no one would know the difference if you played what you thought should be an “Ab,” it would have been WRONG! (It’s the enharmonic equivalent and sounds right on the money, but it’s not right).

    Well, just look at it…

    How many alphabet letters are in between E and A.

    E is one.
    F is two.
    G is three.
    A is four.

    That means that the interval between E and Ab is some kind of fourth. I’d have to write a whole new lesson to explain to you what kind of fourth it is but for now, write down “diminished fourth” and search for it here on my blog and you’ll find some past material on it.

    When you lower (or “diminish” or make smaller) a fourth, yes, it gives you the sound of a major third but it’s still recognized as a fourth. Just a “short” fourth.

    So, to recap:

    You can always know if you’re calling out the right notes in an interval if it passes the alphabet test.

    How does this help you?

    Well, if I gave you these formulas below, you should be able to figure out the notes and you should be able to spell them correctly.

    Major chord = major third plus a minor third

    Minor chord = minor third plus a major third

    Diminished chord = minor third plus a minor third

    Augmented = major third plus a major third

    This translates into:

    Major chord = major third (4 half steps and 3 alphabet letters) plus minor third (3 half steps and 3 alphabet letters)

    Minor chord = minor third (3 half steps and 3 alphabet letters) plus major third (4 half steps and 3 alphabet letters)

    Diminished chord = minor third (3 half steps and 3 alphabet letters) plus minor third (3 half steps and 3 alphabet letters)

    Augmented chord = major third (4 half steps and 3 alphabet letters) plus major third (4 half steps and 3 alphabet letters)

    Exercise (name each note of the chord):

    These will be tricky just to make sure you understand the rules!

    Ab minor chord

    ______ + ______ + _______

    F# major chord

    ______ + ______ + _______

    Cb major chord (yes, there’s such a thing!!!!!!!!!)

    ______ + ______ + _______



    Ab minor chord:

    Ab + Cb + Eb

    (You were probably tempted to put Ab + B + Eb but “Ab” and “B” only encompass 2 alphabet letters making it a second interval, not a third interval. So, yes, you have to use Cb, as confusing as it sounds when calling out an Ab minor chord or you’re spelling “there” as “their!”)


    F# major chord:

    F# + A# + C#

    (Maybe you were tempted to put F# + Bb + Db. That would have been wrong because the interval between F and B encompasses 4 alphabet letters… F G A B. That would make this a fourth, and we need a THIRD so you needed to use some kind of “A” here, not a “B.” Then on the last note, while it is correctly a minor third from Bb, since Bb is wrong, it makes the Db wrong… at least for the F# major chord).


    And the tricky one that some musicians may have never heard of…

    Cb major chord:

    Cb + Eb + Gb

    (On the piano, it would sound just like a “B major” chord. However, since I asked for a Cb major chord, you couldn’t use a D# as the next note because that would have only created a second interval between C and D and we need a third).

    Remember this: What you could have done with the Cb chord is recalled that the C major chord was C + E + G. Because we don’t deal with sharps and flats when talking about generic intervals, by definition, this C major chord has to use the same alphabet letters as a “C flat” major chord because we pretty much ignore sharps and flats.

    So as your starting point, you could have started with C, E, and G, and said to yourself “ok, what kind of C?” — “well, obviously a C flat because that’s what Jermaine is asking me to spell.”

    “Ok, what kind of E? Hmmm, I know this chord can’t use a regular E, it’s definitely an E flat.”

    “And lastly, what kind of G? Again, definitely not a G natural because I know it has to be a black key. G flat it is!” So you still end up with the correct alphabet letters and the major chord you want!

    Well, that’s it for today! Read this again until it clicks (if it hasn’t already)!

    Until next time!

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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    { 3 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Jermaine

    Was this one too deep? No comments… hmmmmmmm…


    2 George

    My question would be:
    How can you spell a major third above D#?
    Must be some kind of F but is G, so it’s correct name is F## (F double sharp)?


    3 Jermaine Griggs

    Yes, you’re absolutely right.

    D# major:
    D# – F## – A#

    Which is why you’d never want to play in the key of D# major. Or A# major for that matter.

    The enharmonic equivalent, Eb major, is so much easier:

    Eb – G – Bb


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