Easy guide to intervals for intermediate guitar players
by Dhanesh Sarangadharan
There are a number of questions that the majority of aspiring guitarists and musicians ask themselves, when they first come across the scary valley of "Intervals" on their musical journey.
Due to the interconnection of multiple elements of Music Theory like scales music, arpeggios, chords and intervals, it becomes challenging to figure out what to learn and in what order.
On top of that, most of the times, these things are taught in isolation which makes it even harder to understand and relate with.
The idea of learning so many different concepts becomes overwhelming, especially for Guitarists, who can generally get away with playing the instrument by learning Fretboard diagrams.
But the truth is, if you spend time on improving your understanding of intervals, and then try to relate it with the other Music Theory for guitar, your ability to understand other musical concepts becomes much easier.
Now comes the big question, “How do I learn, remember and apply the concept of Intervals in real time?”
So even if you are a beginner musician, struggling to get your head around intervals, this article will be a good starting place to not only understand Intervals, but also to learn, how it can be instantly applied to Guitar to understand other Musical Concepts.
1. What are Intervals?
It’s exactly what the name suggests, it’s an Interval or Gap or Distance or Space between two musical notes. E.g. The Distance from C to G or G to C.
I’m assuming here that you are already familiar with the concept of the Musical Notes that we can work with. (C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B) in different contexts.
2. How to name them?
Because of the number of different factors that affect the way an interval sounds, they have been classified into different types, categories and sub-categories.
We’ll use the easiest and most practical approach to understanding how to name Intervals.
To begin with, let’s look at the broader category of intervals first and we’ll later narrow it down to understand the naming conventions.
a. Based on articulation (How they are played)
Based on how intervals are articulated(played), they can be categorized as either a Harmonic interval or a Melodic Interval.
i. Harmonic Interval (Also known as a Vertical Interval)
When the notes are played simultaneously it’s called a Harmonic Interval.
So pick up your instrument and play any chord you know, Major, Minor, diminished, power chord, dyad, triad it doesn’t matter. If you played a chord where you hit multiple notes at the same time (Strumming) you just played a Harmonic Interval.
ii. Melodic Interval” (Also known as “Linear or Horizontal Interval”)
Now arpeggiate the same chord (Playing one note at a time).
Every time you hit two notes separately on the Guitar, you are playing a Melodic Interval.
Now that we have familiarity with the basic concept, let’s understand how the movement of musical notes affect the interval names.
b. Based on direction
i. Ascending Interval
I’m assuming you are using standard tuning for your Guitar. Play the 2nd string (B) on the Guitar followed by the 1st string (E). So you just went from a B which is lower in pitch to an E which is higher in pitch, making it an Ascending Interval.
E.g. Ascending Perfect 4th
ii. Descending Interval
You guessed it right, just play the previous exercise in reverse order and you get a descending Interval.
E.g. Descending Perfect 5th
c. Based on scales
i. Diatonic Interval
When you play two notes from a diatonic (Major) scale, you are playing a diatonic interval.
E.g. Let’s assume we are playing over a chord progression in the Key of C major.
Play the notes C followed by the note E on the guitar.
You have just played a Major 3rd diatonic interval to the Key of C Major.
ii. Chromatic Interval
When you play two notes from a Chromatic scale, you are playing a chromatic interval.
E.g. Let’s assume we are still playing over the same chord progression as in the previous example, but this time we play the note Eb instead of E. Eb is not a part of the 7 notes that make up the C Major scale, but it is a part of the C Chromatic scale. So now you have played a minor 3rd Chromatic Interval.
As good as all this sounds, this is not how intervals are generally referred to in the real world of a guitarist. We hardly come across anybody calling an interval as an Ascending Diatonic Harmonic Interval or a Descending Chromatic Melodic Interval.
We need to dive into the deeper categories to easily understand why intervals are called, what they are generally called.
For that, we need to reference a Major scale, and for everybody’s benefit we’ll stick to the easiest of them all, the “C Major” scale.
We’ve already learned that an interval of two notes which both form a part of a Diatonic scale is called a Diatonic Interval, let’s categorize these Diatonic Intervals further into some sub-categories.
3. Diatonic Interval Categories
There are 2 parts in the name of an interval, Part 1 is the quality of the interval (Major, Minor, Perfect, Augmented, Diminished) and the 2nd part is the number which corresponds to the degree that it takes in a particular scale or key e.g. 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and so on.
Diatonic intervals can be broadly classified into 2 categories, Major Intervals and Perfect Intervals.
a. Major Intervals
Major intervals include the distances of 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th from the diatonic scale.
b. Perfect Intervals
Perfect intervals include the distances of 4th, 5th and Octave(8th) from the diatonic scale.
4. Exercises for understanding Diatonic intervals
Let’s look at how the distance of every note of the C Major scale, from the note C would either be a Major Interval or a Perfect interval. This would also include the note C, and you’ll see how this works below.
Let's look at the notes of the C Major scale as numbers, based on their location in the scale.
C D E F G A B C
1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th(Octave)
The 2nd note of the C major scale as seen above is the note D, and 2nds fall in the category of Major Intervals. So if you want to name the interval (distance) between the note C and D, it would be called a Major 2nd interval.
Now pick up the guitar and play the notes C (1st Fret) and D(3rd Fret) on the 2nd (B) string.
Follow this up with playing the notes D and E.
I want you to observe the distance between both the intervals that you played, how much is it in terms of Frets?
That’s right, 2 Frets. So every time you play any 2 notes that are 2 Frets apart, ascending and on the same string, anywhere on the Guitar neck, you are playing a Major 2nd Interval.
Does that mean that the interval that you played between D and E is also a Major 2nd diatonic interval to the Key of C? No, although it’s a Major 2nd interval as you will see below, it’s not diatonic to the Key of C.
As we saw in our example between C to D, it’s the movement of the 1st note of the scale to any other note, that makes it diatonic to a particular Key.
So a Major 2nd Interval played ascending from D to E, is diatonic to the Key of D Major. Look at the D Major scale below.
D E F# G A B C# D
1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th Octave
It was only for practical application of understanding the interval in terms of distances on the Fretboard that I made you play D to E earlier.
The exercise we did right now tells us one thing, every time we try to name any interval (diatonic or chromatic) we need to relate it to the diatonic or chromatic scale starting from the 1st note that we play. That’s where the interval will get it’s commonly used name from.
Repeat the same exercise for the Major 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Major 6th and Major 7th intervals also.
5. Chromatic Interval Categories
This is where things start getting really confusing for many musicians, especially guitarists. The prime reason for this is that we are now talking about notes which are not part of the Major (Diatoni) scale.
However, most people struggle to understand that any note in the Chromatic scale, is either an extension or alteration of a note from its corresponding Major scale.
E.g. Db is a note that does not form a part of the C Major scale, and is found in the C chromatic scale. But if you alter (lower) the 2nd note (D) of the C Major scale by one half step, you end up with the note Db.
Look at the below C Chromatic scale with notes of the C Major scale highlighted.
C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
So if we extend (Raise by 1 half step) or alter (lower by 1 half step), any note of any major scale, we end up with a note from the corresponding chromatic scale.
What this does is, it makes any chromatic interval, either an extension or alteration of a diatonic interval.
Let’s look at the different types of Chromatic intervals and how the diatonic intervals get altered or extended to create the different types of chromatic intervals.
a. Minor Intervals
Minor intervals are formed when any Major interval is lowered by 1 half step.
So the major intervals that we have studied and understood are Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Major 6th and Major 7th.
When the notes which are at these distances from the root note of the corresponding Major scale are lowered by a half step, you end up with their corresponding Minor intervals. i.e. Minor 2nd, Minor 3rd, Minor 6th and Minor 7th.
b. Augmented Intervals
Augmented Intervals are formed when any diatonic interval is raised by 1 half step. These include both Major and Perfect intervals.
When the notes of any Major scale are raised by a half step, you end up with augmented intervals. E.g. Augmented 4th, Augmented 3rd, Augmented 5th, Augmented 2nd, Augmented Octave etc.
c. Diminished Intervals
Diminished Intervals are formed when any perfect interval is lowered by 1 half step. Pay attention to this, unlike augmented intervals, these DO NOT apply to Major intervals.
And as we saw earlier, when Major intervals are lowered they are termed as Minor Intervals.
Let’s find the distances between the intervals in terms of Frets, like we did for the Diatonic intervals.
d. Assignment 5
Let’s list down all the different chromatic intervals for all the Chromatic Keys, like we did for studying Diatonic intervals. The corresponding intervals for the Key of C is already listed for illustration.
You need to use the principles discussed above to find the chromatic intervals for the other keys.
6. Best Approach for Studying Intervals
Don’t be scared of them, just like everything else, your understanding of Intervals and their use in Music will get better as you get more experienced.
Perform the exercises mentioned in the guide, this itself will make your understanding of the theory part of it stronger.
Do the exercises multiple times, and you’ll start experiencing fluency in naming intervals.
The article looks bigger because of the exercises, don’t think it’s too much. Work on it little by little everyday, till you attain a little bit of fluency in naming and finding intervals, at least on paper.
The exercises mentioned here would help you find intervals horizontally on the Guitar, which is not enough. Spend some time in locating intervals vertically in one position. E.g. The interval between the open B string to the 1st Fret of the 1st String (F) is a Tritone, or the interval between the 3rd Fret of Low E string, (Note G) and the 3rd Fret of 5th String (Note C) is a Perfect 4th. Once you do this, analyze whether the same distances apply between different sets of adjacent strings. E.g. Is the distance between any note on the 6th String and the note on the same fret on the 5th string is a Perfect 4th always ? Does it change between strings 5 to 4, or 4 to 3, 3 to 2 and 2 to 1.
Stay patient with this information, you have just got access to a brilliant way to learn this information faster, use it well. Without this, it would have been way more difficult and exhausting than it looks now.
It’s more important to understand how every interval sounds, and how it can be used in Music so that’s where the study is going to advance further, especially to develop your Aural Skills.
You don’t have to become a Master at intervals in one day. Keep working on it and using it consistently, and you will eventually master the information to your liking.
About The Author:
Dhanesh Sarangadharan is a certified guitar teacher in Pune, Maharashtra India, who is passionate about helping students progress faster towards their guitar playing and musical ambitions.