What Is A Musical Interval? – In Basic English!

Interval Means Distance!

I feel like there is a bit of distance in between us friend! If you and I were musical notes you might say it’s an interval! :). You are probably wondering why you need to know this nonsense about intervals, so I will tell you. Music can be described mathematically (as I am sure you know). This is not higher level calculus or anything but it is pretty cool to know.

A basic understanding of this concept can cement your musical understanding of notes, chords, songs and ultimately music! The concept of an interval is relatively simple, but it’s impacts are far-reaching in terms of music. “What is a musical interval?” Let us find out!

Intervals – What You Need To Know.

C Major Scale With Intervals Underneath

If you are wondering why there is a picture of a measuring tape above it is because an interval refers to the distance (I thought that was pretty clever,  right?). More specifically the interval refers to the physical distance between two notes. This distance is heard as a change in pitch.

The smallest unit of intervals on the guitar are called Semitones. On the guitar, every fret represents a semitone. Two Semitones make up a Tone. another name for Semitones if a half step and therefore two half steps make up a Whole Step (also know as a Tone).

We most commonly see intervals noted by its quality and scale degree, for example, Major 3rd or Diminished 7th. Quality can be Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished or Perfect. The Scale degree is the number taken from a diatonic scale. Different numbers of semitones between two notes result in a differing interval number.

Diatonic intervals are two notes from the diatonic scale (this scale has five tones and two semitones). Chromatic intervals are between  two notes of the chromatic scale (this scale has all the 12 of the tones and semitones of the musical alphabet.)

If two notes are played together the interval can be called vertical, if one follows the other it is called successive. It may help you to know that your guitar tuner probably measures pitch in cents which is basically a hundredth of the pitch of a semitone so divide the space between two frets into 100 and you have a cent!

Interval Background – The Reason For Intervals

Complete View Of A Guitar

When you play the guitar you change the notes that you play right? Have you ever thought about how it actually works though? I mean why does moving your finger along a string change the sound of the note? The answer is quite a simple one! If you take a look at any string on your guitar (let’s take the Low E string for example), and look at the entire string.

You can see that it effectively “ends” at the Nut (near the neck) and at the bridge (close to the pickups or soundhole). You can also see the “playable” area also know as the fretboard. The reason I am pointing all of this stuff out because now that you can see that both ends of the string are effectively held at two points you can understand what I will be saying next.

When you tune a Guitar String, you are increasing or decreasing the tension on the string to achieve a specific Pitch. When you turn the guitar Tuning keys you can actually see the string winding or unwinding which increases or decreases the tension respectively.

This Pitch is directly linked to the length, type of material and thickness (diameter) of the string. These factors combine to give you a certain pitch when the string achieves the correct amount of string tension (this is known as being in tune). We will focus on the string length in the next paragraph to really understand its importance.

String Length – Just Keeping My Word!

Oscillating Guitar Strings

The length of the string is one of the factors affecting the sound produced from it. The complicated version is that varying string lengths oscillate (or vibrate) to different degrees. What I mean by this (and you can actually see this happen on the thicker strings) is that when you pick, pluck or strum the strings it looks like one string turns into many strings right?

This is the string moving towards and away from rest position or for the more advanced people here, the crests and troughs created by the longitudinal wave  This wave vibrate through the body which disrupts the air around it and produces the sound that we hear.

I will stop there before I write a textbook on the science behind music, but all you need to know is that the sound you hear is directly related to the length of the guitar string.

Pulling It Together – Finally Getting To The Point!

Bringing It All Together

So why have been making you read all of this? Simple to blow your mind (or not, we’ll see)! Now that you know all of this, you can understand that when you fret a note, you are actually changing the length of the string! Crazy right? It would actually be more accurate to say that you are changing the vibrating length of the string.

What this means to you is that by shortening the vibrating length of the string ( all of the string after your fretting finger) you are actually raising the pitch. A fun fact for you, when you go to the 12th fret of any string fret it is exactly double the pitch of the open string (an octave).

If you guessed that the reason is that the 12th fret is exactly half the length of the playable string length, then you are right on the money!. All of this is to say that when you “simply” move your fingers along guitar fretboard, you are changing the distances. Intervals can definitely get more complex than this so I think this will suffice for today!

The Distance Is Closed – You Are Now Interval Intelligent!

Knowing what a musical interval is may not seem that important right now, however, the more you learn about music the more you will see intervals popping up. Understanding intervals also make it easier to spot patterns which can really help you learn a lot faster than without them.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts, opinions or topics below.

I will be seeing you in the next post, Farewell Friend!





14 Replies to “What Is A Musical Interval? – In Basic English!”

  1. Whoa, that’s in English? Haha, that was a lot. I had a hard time following, but it did come together at the end. I’ve never understood how guitars work. Knowing that it has to do with the change in string and how much of it can vibrate is interesting. It makes more sense now when I see guitarists having their fingers fly up and down the guitar strings. They’re changing the pitch!

    1. Hehe! Thanks for the comment Nichole. I guess I did get a bit carried away with my English. I am glad that you got the main point though at the end.

  2. I’m not really a fan of music and stuff. But my friend is really into this. I shared this article with my friend and he loved it. He told me that he gained a lot of information about music interval. I really wanted to thank you for writing this article and sharing it with us. I’m pretty sure it is also going to be very useful for all the music fans out there.

  3. Renton,

    Very interesting and informative. I don’t play the guitar but I couldn’t pull myself away from reading your article – in its entirety! Truth is, I tried to learn guitar with my son years ago, but multiple injuries to the ring finger of my left hand (I used to play basketball) made it very difficult for me to get the positioning down. I DO play the keyboard a bit, for my own enjoyment, so the lesson on intervals was a helpful reminder. At my age, reminders are welcome!

    1. Hi Rick! I am glad I could give you a helpful reminder! I think that you could find a way to get around using your ring finger. Keep it simple and just enjoy yourself. In fact you could probably even get one finger fast enough to play a descent solo!

  4. This is all very interesting to me.  i don’t play any type of musical instrument but thought I’d read this and maybe get a little educated, and educated I was!

    I should have figured out what a musical interval is to begin with based on the words, but I didn’t and your illustrations made it perfectly clear.

  5. Fantastic article. I myself am a newer guitarist so putting things into the format of simplicity really added a deep level of understanding for me!

    You are definitely correct when you convey that not everything comes to you instantly, but rather practice is the key to building yourself and your skill set(s). In my opinion, this is DEFINITELY something that all guitarists, no matter the level of experience, should keep in mind before giving up like so many new guitarists do before discovering their true potential (this is something that I, myself, have to remember as well).

    In my experience, all in all, I find learning to play the guitar is very challenging, yet highly rewarding. Just as the saying goes 😉 And it isn’t until you start getting good, or some might say mastering the art of something, that you truly discover your potential. Practice makes perfect, and reading little articles that provide such good information in a way that’s easy to understand like this can only improve your long-term game. 

    Anyways, thank you Renton!

    All the best,

     – William 

    1. Thank you for commenting William, I appreciate it! I am so glad that you have found value in this post. It truly makes it worth the effort. I think that you are on the right path and it sound like you will achieve mastery with the attitude you have.

      Patience is paramount when learning anything, especially guitar because many people rush to try and impress other people but actually shoot themselves in the foot. Learning guitar can be challenging but like you said it is well worth the effort.

      I have a feeling that you will be very successful in your musical pursuits. I wish you all the best!

      Also book mark this page (if you want to). I will be setting up my very own chord library so that should be really helpful, especially for beginners!

  6. wow! So this is how music is built. I thought I was a great fan of music but after reading this, I learnt that there is still a lot to learn. Of course I knew what a tone is, but never know anything about intervals and semitones.

    Thank you so much, I had a lot of takeaways from your article.

    1. Hi Ngonidzashe, thanks for the comment! I am glad that I could teach you something new! I think that there is a lot to learn in music and even masters have room to learn and grow because music is so vast. If you master western music you can try eastern music where they use microtones (smaller units than semitones). It is quite interesting.

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