Naming and Hearing Intervals in Music

An interval represents the distance between two pitches. When an interval is played, your ear compares the pitch of one note to the pitch of the other. We can measure this distance, not using inches or centimeters, but using units called half steps and whole steps.

Being able to hear two notes, know how far they are apart, and name that interval is one of the best ways to help you figure out how to play a melody that’s stuck in your head or recall all of the important chords in a song without memorizing each little variation.

Even if you don't know the names of notes, knowing the distance between two pitches will boost your ability to write music, figure out songs by ear, and jam with others.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take a music theory class to learn how to name all 12 intervals by ear. We have provided some videos demonstrating the intervals on guitar and keyboard along with popular examples that can help you recognize these intervals in the music you listen to everyday.

Burn these into your memory and find them on your own instrument. It's one of the best ways to spend time practicing when you don't have a song or exercise book in front of you.

Half Steps

The smallest distance between two notes on most Western instruments is the half step. There is no smaller measurable unit used in Western music (folk music in Asia and Africa sometimes includes smaller steps).

Half steps are most easily understood visualizing a piano. Each note on a piano is a half step from the one next to it, so F travels one half step to F#, F# travels one half step G, and so on.

On the guitar, each fret is a half step from the fret next to it. One fret equals one half step.

Whole Steps

A whole step consists of two half steps. On the piano, it can be seen from C to D, D to E, F# to G#, etc. On the guitar, the whole step is the distance between two frets. Remember to take into account the natural half steps: since E to F is a half step, then E to F# is a whole step. Once a whole step and its half step equivalents are understood, any interval can be figured out.

The Intervals

Every relationship between two notes, or interval, has a commonly known example, whether that's in pop music, lullabies, or classical music. Use the popular examples and videos below to memorize the intervals, and then practice identifying specific intervals in your favorite music.

[Note: The videos show the interval twice - once on keyboard in the key of C, and again on guitar in the key of D - allowing you to hear the same interval in two different keys. Also, the tab does necessarily match the video, but does still give an example of the interval.]

minor 2nd

The minor 2nd interval is equivalent to just one half step. This interval can have a haunting quality, like in the opening of “Für Elise,” or induce terror, such as in the Jaws theme.

Major 2nd

This interval spans one whole step (or two half steps). The Major 2nd lends a sing-songy quality as the first interval you hear in “Happy Birthday” and “Frere Jacques.” As out of tune as it may be, the Major 2nd is also sung in its descending form by Rebecca Black in the viral hit “Friday.”

minor 3rd

A minor 3rd is made up of one whole step and one half step. It provides a strong - sometimes even defiant - minor key sound, like when used in the opening riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” or the theme to Beverly Hills Cop, “Axel F.”

Major 3rd

The Major 3rd spans two whole steps. Considered an uplifting, even empowering, interval, a Major 3rd imparts jubilation as the first two notes of “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” by The Beatles.

Perfect 4th

The Perfect 4th is made up of two whole steps and one half step. It is considered a consonant interval because it is so pleasing to the ear. It is called a "perfect" interval because it is neither major nor minor. It makes the beginning of “Amazing Grace” immediately uplifting and lends “Here Comes the Bride” a regal air.

Tritone

The tritone is named for the three whole steps that constitute it. This is an uneasy interval that, during medieval times, was associated with the devil. For that reason, a lot of centuries-old music does not contain any tritone intervals in it. Today, we tend to associate it with the theme song for The Simpsons, which opens with the strange interval.

Perfect 5th

The Perfect 5th is made up of three whole steps and one half step. It is also considered a consonant interval. That victorious Perfect 5th that opens John Williams’s theme for Star Wars makes that opening scroll of text about the Republic the most compelling thing you’ve read in your life. The Perfect 5th has also helped “Twinkle, Twinkle” stand as an enduring lullaby.

minor 6th

The minor 6th travels four whole steps, and is considered dissonant because it is not particularly soothing to the ear. For this reason not many popular tunes that use the minor 6th, but it does lend a distinctive tonality to the first run of notes in Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” as the song’s third and fourth notes.

Major 6th

A Major 6th comprises four whole steps and a half step. Uplifting, especially compared to its minor cousin, the Major 6th can be prominently heard in the first two notes of the NBC jingle and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” in the jump from “is” to the first syllable of “crazy” during the chorus.

minor 7th

The minor 7th is made up of five whole steps. Like the minor 6th, this is not a prominently used interval, but it can be heard as the first two notes of the old Star Trek theme and turns the funky bass line for Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” into a hook.

Major 7th

The Major 7th travels five whole steps and one half step. It’s just short of jumping a full octave, illustrated by the colorful vocal leap into falsetto taken at the beginning of the chorus in “Take on Me” by A-ha.

Octave

The octave is made up of six whole steps, the distance between one note and its next highest iteration. There are 12 half steps between octaves. The classic examples at the vocal jumps at the beginning of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (from "some" to "where") and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

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