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Intervals On Guitar - The Building Blocks of Music

In the lesson on guitar interval basics, we were introduced to the primary building blocks of music - half steps and whole steps. These are the smallest intervals on guitar, and they give us the formula around which scales are constructed.

We're now going to look at larger intervals - groups of half and whole steps that create larger distances between two notes.

These larger intervals are referenced in both chords and scales, so understanding them will help you connect these two elements - important for improvisation and reducing the amount of unnecessary "trial and error" time spent creating meaningful music. Plus, as you'll discover, it'll help tremendously with learning music by ear.

Deriving Intervals From The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic scale consists of the twelve notes of the musical alphabet and the entire twelve notes on the guitar.

While these 12 notes can be given alphabetical names (e.g. A - G), as we learned in a previous part, they can also be assigned a numerical interval value, depending on their position in the scale.

Each interval represents a position, or degree in the chromatic scale, starting with 1. We can start the chromatic scale on any of the 12 alphabetical notes and the interval sequence continues from that note in a consecutive series of half steps (three starting note examples are given in the table below - C, D and E)...

Chromatic Scale Intervals

intervals table

Side Note: Don't worry about whether you use a sharp () or flat () on a given degree. This becomes clearer when you start to learn scales. Just be aware that, in the twelve-tone scale, we have seven "natural" degrees (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and five sharp/flat degrees (those in between the naturals).

So, this chromatic scale, no matter which note you start from, cycles through every note we will ever use on guitar. It's the countless combinations of these notes both in sequence (melody) and played together (harmony) that dictate how our music sounds.

Intervals are just a way of measuring and referencing the distance from one note to another, no matter where we start.

For example 1 - 3 is a smaller interval than 1 - 5.

1 - 6 is a larger interval than 1 - ♭2.

Chords or harmony (notes played together) can be seen as a bunch of intervals stacked on top of each other. For example, a major chord consists of the intervals 1 3 and 5 played together - a three-tone harmony.

Scales or melody (notes played separately, one after the other) can be seen as a sequence or line of intervals. For example, the intervals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 played in sequence creates a seven-note scale or melody.

Even chord changes can be thought of as moving in intervals. For example, the movement from C major to E minor can be heard as a major 3rd movement, because the bass notes of C - E are a major 3rd apart.

In the table below, you can use the audio players to hear how each interval sounds in relation to a C starting note, first as two cleanly separate notes, then together. This will help train your ear to the interval sounds.

As you go through them, listen to how the interval gets bigger with the distance between each note. The main aim, at this stage, is to be able to hear the difference between small intervals and larger intervals.

(No need to hear the "perfect unison" interval as the starting and target note are the same - there's no distance between 1 and 1! It's not strictly an interval in that sense.)

Interval Interval Name Half/Whole Step Space Hear It
1 Perfect Unison - -
♭2 Minor Second H
2 Major Second W
Augmented Second
Minor Third
W  H
3 Major Third W  W
4 Perfect Fourth W  W  H
Augmented Fourth
Diminished Fifth
W  W  W
5 Perfect Fifth W  W  W  H
Augmented Fifth
Minor Sixth
W  W  W  W
6 Major Sixth W  W  W  W  H
Augmented Sixth
Minor Seventh
W  W  W  W  W
7 Major Seventh W  W  W  W  W  H

Side Note: You'll notice some of the interval names are inconsistent. For example, there's no such thing as a "minor 5th". We instead call it a "diminished 5th". Don't worry about why this is for now. Just learn to associate the interval name with its symbol and sound.

You'll also notice that some degrees share the same interval formula. Namely ♯2/♭3, ♯4/♭5, ♯5/♭6 and ♯6/♭7. These are known as enharmonic pitches, meaning they produce the same sound. But they are given different names depending on how they fall in a scale or key, i.e. the context in which they're used.

Again, not something you need to concern yourself with right now! Just know that there are seven natural intervals and five sharp/flat intervals and internalise their sound.

For more in depth help with learning intervals by ear, let ear training experts Musical U guide you through this powerful process. Learn more here

Visualizing Intervals On The Guitar

While the above is useful for understanding intervals in a pure musical sense (regardless of instrument), we need to be able to transfer this knowledge on to the guitar fretboard.

The easiest way to do this is to start with a single string on your guitar. Let's start with the low E, 6th string.

So our starting note (1) will be E and each fret will represent a degree of the 12-tone chromatic scale, and therefore an interval in relation to that E root...

guitar intervals across the 6th string

So from the open string to 12th fret octave, we have the twelve intervals from earlier laid out in sequence on the fretboard.

We could do exactly the same starting from the open A, D, G, B or high e strings. The interval sequence would be exactly the same, but each interval would be voiced in relation to a different root (1) note.

In other words, intervals are relative to the root/starting note. This is known as relative pitch - an ear skill you will develop over time.

You can use this single string visualization to further aid your ear training exercises. Choose a random interval in your head and see if you can play it at the correct fret.

For example: 1 - ♭3,  1 - 3, 1 - ♯4, 1 - 6 etc.

The more you test yourself, the more you'll internalise this knowledge.

The benefits of being able to identify intervals by ear and fret will be fully realised when you start to learn chords and scales. Even chord progressions in a song can be thought of as moving in intervals. Aim to get to the stage where you can hear these relationships/movements in your head and you'll open the door to some powerful skills on guitar!

In the next part, we'll look at visualising intervals across more than one string - the logical next step towards seeing patterns across the entire fretboard.

Think of this as a head start that will make learning other elements (chords, scales, arpeggios) so much easier.

If you want more in depth help with unlocking the skill of recognising intervals by ear, I highly recommend Musical U's training program.

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