What are music interval

On we go to another fundamental part of music: intervals. So what are intervals? You may have heard the word "interval" used separately from music before. For example, you may have heard of "timing intervals" or "at regularly spaced intervals". So what does the word "interval" mean in these situations? It means "the space between two events". For example, someone pays you at regular intervals, there is an equal amount of time between each payment.

How does interval apply to Music?

Good question! How does this apply to music? If you recall, in What is Pitch? we talked about various pitches. We mentioned how only 12 distinct pitches are used in music. We also mentioned how these 12 pitches continue repeating infinitely in both the higher and the lower direction. Take for example any two pitches. The distance between these two pitches is called an interval.

So an interval is just the distance between any two notes. But it's a little more complicated than that. A musician needs to be able to say something and have other musicians understand what interval he or she is talking about.

Half Steps and Whole Steps

No, we're not going to teach you to dance in this section, but we are going to teach you a little bit about musical steps. So let's start with the most basic step: a half step. A half step is simply the distance between two notes that are as close as possible to each other. So if you have one note and another one that is just a tiny bit (on a piano, the next key) above or below it, these two notes are separated by a half step.

That seems pretty straightforward. So what's a whole step, then? A whole step is just one half step wider than a half step. In other words a whole step is two half steps put together. On a piano keyboard, a whole step would just be two keys apart. OK, that's pretty simple, too. So what's the big deal about half steps and whole steps then? These small little steps make up everything in music. Any notes you can play on any instrument (provided that they are actual notes!) are separated by a certain number of whole steps and half steps.

The real beauty of having these steps is that a musician can say "that note is a half step too low" or something like that, and someone else will immediately know how to fix the problem. If a musician said "that note is 50 cents too low", no one would know what he or she was talking about (and we wouldn't either!).


Still, there's more to intervals than just half steps and whole steps. It's OK to talk half steps and whole steps when a musician is just talking about a small interval. But what if the notes are 13 half steps apart? It would get a little bit cumbersome trying to calculate and figure out what interval the musician meant. For this reason, a slightly more complicated, yet easier to use method of intervals was developed.

The major scale actually plays a big role in this slightly more complex system of intervals. Basically, if a musician says some number as an interval, this interval will be the distance between the first note of the scale and whichever note the musician's number corresponds to. For example, if someone says, "play a 4th", that means to play the first note of the scale and then the fourth note of the scale. Since there are 8 notes in the major scale, these intervals including 2nds up to 8ths.

Now that you know a little bit about intervals, we can see what these intervals truly are. Like any pairs of notes, the intervals are still made up of whole and half steps. Let's take a look at the major scale in more depth on the following page.

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