Getting Started with Music Theory

Completely new to music theory? Lets get you started on intervals. No they’re not exciting, but we put the fun in FUNdamentals! (Bad pun, very bad pun) What is an interval? An interval is the distance between two notes. The term is also used to describe two notes played together (harmonic interval) or one after the other (melodic interval).

Try this. Play the following two notes together:


Interval Example 1

Write down a description of what you hear. Use any adjectives that apply, like: serene, peaceful, solid, military-like, ugly, sad, harsh, pretty, happy, etc. Whatever pops into your mind. It could also be a song name that pops into your head. You say “Hey, that’s the way Disco Inferno starts!” Write it down.

Repeat for the following two intervals:


Interval Example 2


Interval Example 3

What do you notice about the similarities and differences in your descriptions? Are any two the same? Would it surprise you to know that the first and third are the same interval? Every interval has its own sound. If you want a certain sound you can therefore use a specific interval to get that sound. For instance the second interval is usually described as tense and harsh. John Williams made use of this interval (a minor 2nd) in his theme from the movie Jaws. These intervals are useful things! Let’s get into the nuts and bolts.

Figuring Out Intervals

Half step equals one fret The smallest distance between two notes on the guitar is one fret. In music theory we call this a half step. Makes no sense, 1 fret = 1/2 step. (Welcome to music theory! Nothing makes sense.) No, really the reason this happens is that one fret is usually half way from one letter name to another. For instance first string first fret is F move up on fret and you get F#, you’re half way to G. (See our Guitar Notes Mini Course for a review on this) You could measure any interval in half steps take C to B, it is 11 half steps. But this is and not practical. There is a better and more useful way.

Naming by letters Instead of naming intervals by half steps we are going to measure them by letter distance. This is much easier. Lets take C to E. Count the number of letters from C to E, including C as one. C-1,D-2,E-3. Therefore C to E is a third. Much simpler. But wait, there is a problem there. What if we did the same thing for C to E-flat? There are still just three letters, so C to E-flat is also a third. Aha! That’s where all that major and minor nonsense you might have heard of comes in.

Did you ever study astronomy? Remember Ursa Major and Ursa Minor? Major was the big one and minor the small. Same thing is true in music. C to E is a Major 3rd and C to Eb is a Minor 3rd. The major label indicates its the bigger of the two.

Unfortunately naming intervals by just counting letter names as we did above only works out neatly when you start on the note C, when you start on other notes funny things start to happen that will only make sense after you learn about key signatures. But in order to learn about key signatures you first have to know intervals. (We have a real case of the chicken and the egg here don’t we). What to do? Name intervals according to the letter distance by counting half steps. An example will clarify.

D-E-FA major third is four half-steps (4 frets). Not a major 3rdIf I want to find a major 3rd above D I count 4 half-steps (4 frets) and get F#. Notice I didn't call the note Gb (eventhough F# and Gb refer to the same pitch) . Why? D to Gb has 4 letter names which would make you think its some kind of 4th! That's what I mean by name according to the letter name by count half steps. First you find the correct pitch by counting half steps. Then you make sure it's the correct name for the pitch (Sharp vs. Flat) by checking the number of letters. The following chart should help (Click on it to download a printable version). Look for the half steps next to the interval name.

You may have noticed a few intervals on the chart we have not talked about, perfect, augmented, and diminished intervals. The perfect intervals (4ths, 5ths, and 8th) don’t normally have a big or small version. Also, way back in the early days of harmony (think Middle Ages) these intervals where considered better sounding, while the others where though of as more dissonant (including the major 3rd!) A diminished interval is one half-step smaller than a minor or perfect, and the augmented isone half-step larger than a major or perfect interval.

Hey, you’re still awake! You are on your way to becoming a theory master! Learning intervals is the first step towards understanding scales, chords, keys, and a lot more. Develop your new found knowledge with the following activities:

  1. Fill out the Interval Worksheet. Simply play each example and write a description for each just as we did at the beginning of this guide.
  2. Play Ear Tester to further familiarize you ear with intervals.
  3. Play Super Scale Trainer with only intervals:
    • Go to Basic Mode
    • Choose
      1. Note Names
      2. Game Mode for the activity
      3. Octave for the area
      4. No songs
      5. Choose all intervals you want to work on (they’re all the way to the right)
      6. Hit "Start".
    • Want more intervals? Go to advanced mode for a whole bunch.
  4. When you are feeling up to it give Music Theory Blocks a try.