• Exposed: Six Characteristic Features of Intervals

    in Piano,Theory

    intervals

    The concept of intervals is one that a vast majority of musicians are yet to get acquainted with.

    If two books are kept side-by-side – one on intervals and another on chords, which would you go for?

    Experience tells me there aren’t very many people who would opt for the one on intervals. Most would prefer to go straight to chords. Heck, many years ago, I belonged to the league of musicians who knew very little, if anything, about intervals besides their definition as the distance [in pitch] between two notes… and the number of half steps each interval contained, etc.

    Long story short, I literally used intervals in the same way most would use a measuring tape. However, with exposure to traditional principles, I came to realize that they meant much more than this surface-level definition. I saw harmonic and melodic potentials, consonance and dissonance, and much more that I can’t wait to share with you.

    If you are where I used to be, I recommend you read this post very carefully because I’m exposing six characteristic features of intervals that will broaden your scope.

    But before we go any further, let’s break down the definition.

    Intervals – Defined

    An interval is the distance [in pitch] between two notes.

    Let’s break this down.

    #1 – An interval is the relationship between two notes.

    An interval does not contain more than two notes. The relationship between more than two notes yields chords.

    #2 – When two notes are sounded/heard, there’s distance between them.

    This distance is measured in pitch [level]. Considering that pitch is the level of lowness or highness, graveness (extreme lowness) or acuteness (extreme highness) of a music sound, the measurement of distance here basically has to do with the contrast in the level of lowness or highness between the two notes involved.

    When the distance between two notes is measured, it is in terms of lowness or highness. The first note when compared to the second may differ in terms of lowness or highness. When C and E are played on the piano/keyboard:

    …E (in contrast to C) will have a level of highness. This highness is because of the distance in pitch between them.

    When C and A are played on the piano/keyboard:

    …A (in contrast to C) will also have a level of highness. This highness is because of the distance in pitch between them.

    The level of highness of A above C will sound higher than that of E above C and this is because the distance from C to A is wider than that of C to E. The distance between the notes of an interval is called its width or height. Therefore, we can say that C-A is bigger than C-E in width.

    intervals

    Any two notes on the keyboard can form an interval.

    C to E

    E to G

    A♭ to B

    D to B♭

    C♯ to B♭

    Before we proceed, you must note the following:

    • One note CANNOT form an interval.
    • Two notes will yield an interval.
    • Three or more notes will form chords.

    Properties of Intervals

    Now that we know what intervals are, let’s round up by looking at their six features.

    #1 – Intervals are Ditonic

    An interval is the distance between two notes. Therefore, we can say that it is ditonic, meaning that it contains two notes.

    This should not be confused with diatonic – which means ‘progressing through the tones’ (having to do with scales). An interval should not be more or less than two notes.

    An interval can also be called a dyad by people who see it as a two-note chord. However, there are so many reasons why the interval should not be considered as a chord. Whichever school of thought you belong to, one thing is sure: intervals are the building blocks of chords.

    (We explored consonant intervals as building blocks of triads in a previous post. You will do well to read it.)

    #2 – Intervals can be Melodic or Harmonic

    The two main relationships between notes are melody and harmony. An interval may be melodic or harmonic depending on the relationship involved.

    Melodic Intervals are formed when the notes of an interval are played/heard ‘one after the other’. In the interval below:

    …if C is played/heard before E or vice versa, then the interval is said to be melodic.

    Harmonic Intervals are formed when the notes of an interval are played/heard ‘at the same time’. In the interval below:

    …if C and E are played/heard at the same time, then the interval is said to be harmonic.

    #3 – Intervals are calculated to the right

    When an interval is given or played, it is calculated to the right [ascending direction].

    The lower note in the interval is the first to be identified or played, before the upper note is.

    The lower note of this interval is C and the upper note is E, therefore, this interval is between C and E or C-E. Even though this interval contains an E and a C, it would be wrong for us to call it an E-C. The lower note is C and when we reckon to the right, we’ll have C-E.

    #4 – Intervals can be inverted

    Intervals can be inverted using the process of inversion. Inversion of intervals has to do with the rearrangement of the notes of an interval. This rearrangement reverses the position of the lower and upper note.

    C-E when inverted becomes E-C

    E-C is a rearrangement of C-E. Therefore, we can say that E-C is an inversion of C-E.

    *Note: Inverting an interval changes it. C-E is a different interval than E-C. They are, however, inversions of each other.

    #5 – Intervals can be Consonant or Dissonant

    The combination of two notes is not different from the combination of two colors. In the combination of two colors, the colors may agree or conflict.

    When an interval [the combination of two notes] sounds pleasant, the interval is said to be Consonant.

    When an interval [the combination of two notes] sounds unpleasant, the interval is said to be Dissonant.

    #6 – Intervals can be Simple or Compound

    As you know, an interval is simply the distance between two notes. This distance can be as short/close as a semitone or longer than an octave. Intervals can be simple or compound, and this largely depends on width.

    Simple Intervals

    When the width of an interval is within the compass of an octave, the interval is said to be a simple interval.

    C-D

    C-G

    C-B

    These are all simple intervals. Their widths are within the compass of an octave.

    Compound Intervals

    When the width of an interval is bigger than the compass of an octave, the interval is said to be a compound interval.

    C-E

    C-F

    C-A

    These are all compound intervals because their widths exceed the compass of an octave.

    Final Words

    The goal of this post was to revive your interest in intervals. These days, posts like this are rare because certain instructors jump right into chords from scales. But here, we believe that a thorough understanding of intervals will pay off in the study of chords.

    In fact, most features you find in chords are inherited from intervals:

    • Chords can be melodic (in respect to arpeggios and broken chords) or harmonic.
    • Chords are reckoned/determined to the right.
    • Chords can be inverted.
    • Chords can be consonant or dissonant.

    These six features should take you beyond the regular use of intervals to describe distances into a deeper understanding of the melodic and harmonic potentials of intervals.

    Interested in our upcoming course dedicated specifically to intervals? Click here to join the waiting list for Hear and Play 130 – All About Intervals.
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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 zino

    little things matters alot

    Reply

    2 Marvel

    About point number 2, what do we make of a descending melodic interval CE played as E to a lower C? Would it still be calculated to the right as a major 3rd adcending interval or an major 3rd descending interval?

    Reply

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