Intervals: Perfect, Major, Minor, Diminished & Augmented

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Between two notes, there are a world of possibilities. Or, at least twelve. In this lesson, we'll examine intervals and see how the relationship between pitches can impact the sounds you hear.

Intervals

Hum a note aloud. Any note. Go for it. You just produced a pitch, a value of sound. Now hum a different note. Was that pitch higher or lower? What is the relationship between those pitches?

The foundation of music theory is based on questions like these. We are capable of producing pitches, but music is formed when we organize those pitches in ways that are aesthetically pleasing. In Western music, we've traditionally organized these pitches into a series of tones. The smallest increment of measurement in Western music is known as a semi-tone. This is the lowest degree of change between pitches that is recognized in this musical tradition. A semi-tone is also known as a half-step, indicating that it increases a pitch halfway to the next note. For example, moving from C to C# would constitute a half-step, or a move of one semitone. A move from C to D would use two semitones, or a whole step.

What we're dealing with here are intervals, the distances between pitches. We generally count intervals in terms of notes, so one interval would be the distance from one note to the next (for example, C to D). To count intervals, count every note you pass. In this case, there are two notes from C to D (C and D) so this is an interval of a second. From C to E would be a third, C to F would be a fourth, and so on.

What makes this interesting is that every interval creates a different kind of sound, what we call the interval quality. So, to start composing music, you need to become familiar with each kind of interval and the sound quality it produces.

Perfect Intervals

The foundations of all Western music are the perfect intervals, so named because early music theorists believed they created perfect consonance. Basically, moving from one pitch to a perfect interval creates a clear, satisfying, and harmonic sound that can resolve great musical tension.

An interval of a perfect fifth
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There are four perfect intervals in Western music. First is...first. This interval is usually called the unison. In the scale of C major, C would be the unison. The next two notes are the perfect fourth, which is pretty consonant, and the perfect fifth, which is held to be the most perfect interval in Western music. In C major, the perfect fourth is F, and the perfect fifth is G. The last perfect interval is the octave , or in this case upper C or eighth. So, if we number all eight notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), then I, IV, V, and VIII are perfect intervals.

Major and Minor Intervals

Our non-perfect intervals are a little different. Since there are two semitones between each note, we have two different ways to classify each one. For example, the second from C is D, but technically there is a C#/Db in between them. We call the pitch in-between notes (Db) the narrower of the two semitones, while the note itself (D) is the wider.

The narrower of the semitones is called the minor interval. Minor intervals tend to sound a little offsetting, dark, or suspenseful. The wider of the semitones is the major interval. Major intervals tend to sound bright, full, and happy. So, if we wanted to describe the relationship between C and Db, we'd call it a minor second. A semitone higher, from C to D is a major second. A lot of times, people also simply refer to major intervals by the number, so if you hear an interval and the major/minor isn't specified, assume it's major.

An interval of a minor second
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Augmented

But what if you want to increase something even further? If you add an additional semitone to a major or perfect interval, that interval becomes augmented (note that adding a semitone to a minor interval just makes it major). Augmented intervals tend to sound mysterious, open, and suspenseful and demand some form of resolution.

Augmented intervals are rarely used, except when dealing with perfect intervals. Augmenting a perfect interval takes what should be a moment of resolution and subverts it, adding more dissonance instead of consonance. Many composers have used this to play with audience expectations and build drama.

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