In music, there are two ways to label pitches - alphabetical notes (A -
G) and numerical intervals (1 - 7). Most guitarists take some time to
learn the notes of the musical alphabet and where each note lies on
string/fret. But while this is valuable, the benefits of knowing
intervals is often overlooked.
People often ask me about the numbers I use in many of my diagrams. If
you're not familiar with intervals, they can look a bit strange - e.g.
♭7, ♯4, ♭5 etc.
Before we learn more about what these labels mean, we first
need to understand why it's worth just as much, if not more of our time
intervals as it is notes.
In short, both labels serve different functions in terms of how they
Notes = Absolute Pitch
Each pitch we can create on guitar can be given an alphabetical label,
A through G. This is primarily useful for finding a chord or scale root.
For example, if you see C
major (or Cmaj) written down, you'd typically find C
on the neck first and build a major fingering shape around that root.
Similarly, if you wanted to play A
minor pentatonic, you would most likely find A
on the neck first and build the minor pentatonic scale pattern from
We could also work out the individual notes that make up a chord or
scale, above the root. For example, Cmaj contains the notes C,
E and G.
The A minor pentatonic scale contains the notes A,
C, D, E and G.
But as I'll get to in a moment, this isn't really necessary (and it's
very time consuming).
So these alphabetical note labels are best used to locate single,
specific pitches, known as absolute
Intervals = Relative Pitch
Intervals are a slightly different way of finding pitches on the neck
and have more to do with musical relationships.
Intervals occur between two pitches. They are a way of measuring the distance between notes.
Therefore intervals are about relative
pitch - the relationship between notes.
Intervals are, therefore, the true building blocks of music, since
made when two or more pitches either harmonise (play together) or form
a melody (move from one pitch to another).
For example, going back to our C major chord, its interval formula
would be 1,
3, 5 (don't worry if you don't know why we use 3 and 5,
that'll come later).
However, the 3 and 5 are relative to the root, so whichever root we use
etc., the formula of the major chord will always be 1, 3, 5,
regardless of how the note labels change.
"So How Is This Useful?"
Instead of having to learn the notes that make
up every single chord and scale, across all 12 roots,
intervals allow you to learn in movable
patterns and shapes.
And I'm not just talking about memorising a fingering. It's about being
able to identify each pitch within a chord or scale so you can
specific pitches on any
root or in any
key, without having to know its note labels.
If you're scratching your head (I don't blame you! Bear with me!), this
table may help to clarify why knowing intervals is like a "short cut"
to knowing chords and scales in every key...
So as you can see, every single major chord, no matter what its notes,
can be referenced using the interval formula 1 3 5. Even though they
all contain different notes, they can all be seen as part of the same interval family.
The only thing that changes is the root, and therefore the overall
pitch (higher/lower) of the chord. But the chord itself looks and even
sounds the same, once you learn to see and hear music in intervallic
In purely intervallic
terms, C major is the same as E major, F major, G major
In purely intervallic
terms, A minor pentatonic is the same as B minor
pentatonic, E minor pentatonic, G minor pentatonic etc.
Once you learn how an interval formula appears as a uniform, repeating
pattern on the guitar neck, all you need to do is move it to the
appropriate root or "starting position". The pattern never changes its
structure, its notes never change their relative position.
In fact, that's why we have movable scale patterns and chord shapes -
it's really just a bunch of related intervals that make the same sound
(hence why we use the same numbers), just higher or lower in pitch,
depending on the root we're using.
The movement/distance between 1 and 3 in interval terms is the same
whether we're playing C and E, D and F♯ or G and B.
All you really need to know in terms of notes is the root of the chord
or scale you're playing, a reference point for starting your pattern or
shape, and you'll already know this root because it's right there in
the chord name (Cmaj,
minor pentatonic). The rest is all relative interval patterns that you
only need to learn once
for each chord or scale "family".
But It's Not Just About Saving Time
Learn to see the fretboard like this and something quite amazing will
You'll start to see the entire neck as one big connected roadmap.
Chords, arpeggios and scales will merge into the same musical
expression. You'll see a connection between chords and their related
scales, and vice versa.
This connection will reveal itself in many ways as you progress in your
For example, knowing intervals allows you to see that 1, 3 and 5 of the
major chord exist in the following scales...
Major pentatonic - 1
Major scale - 1
Mixolydian - 1
Lydian - 1
Phrygian Dominant - 1
That's what makes these scales compatible with major chords.
It would be far more difficult to see this relationship if you learned
each scale purely by its notes, because the notes would be
different depending on the root you were playing the scale on.
The pattern would be hidden in the alphabet soup!
In short, intervals show you how different musical elements - melody
and harmony - are intrinsically related, no matter where you play them.
Intervals Are the Key To Unlocking Amazing Ear Skills
Intervals form on the guitar neck as movable patterns. But we can also
use intervals to help us with ear training.
musicians will never have the ability to name a pitch or group of
pitches they hear, without any other reference, purely by note, known
as absolute pitch
recognition. It's a very rare skill and not necessary to
But being able to identify intervals by ear, known as relative pitch recognition,
is something anyone can learn given a little practice. The value of
having this skill is that you'll be able to pick up music purely by ear.
if you can't find the exact key it's played in, you'll be able to hear
and replicate the movement, the relationship between notes - that's
what makes the music happen.
"So Will I Ever Need to Know The Notes of a Chord or Scale?"
It really isn't necessary. As I mentioned, the value in knowing the
notes on the neck is to be able to find a root, a single reference
point for a pattern or shape. The rest is all about interval formulas.
Relative pitch is far more valuable to master than absolute pitch, both
visually and auditorily. Intervals are what we use to turn notes into