What is an Interval?

Learn Intervals and Improve Pitch

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Perfect Intervals in C Major. Image courtesy of Hyacinth via Wikimedia commons

What are Intervals? Intervals are the space or lack thereof between two notes. You can have two notes that are in unison, meaning they are the exact same pitch, or two notes that are different. There are small intervals as when you sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and larger ones, such as the space heard when you sing the first two notes of “Bali Ha’i” from the musical South Pacific or the first interval heard when singing “America,” the national anthem for the United States.

For singers, understanding intervals is a useful tool in learning how to sing pitches accurately.

Harmonic Versus Melodic Intervals: Harmonic intervals are two notes sung together, as when singing in a choir. Singers who wish to sing harmony need to learn to hear harmonic intervals. The most common interval used to create harmonies is the major and minor third interval, so practice those first. If you have a piano, then play a note on it and sing a third up or down simultaneously. Afterwards, practice singing thirds with a friend. Melodic intervals are when two notes are sung separately, as you would when singing a normal tune. All singers should learn to sing melodic intervals, in order to master pitch.

Simple Intervals: Simple intervals are smaller than an octave, or eight spaces, and there are twelve of them. Intervals are referred to as numbers, such as unison, seconds, thirds, fourths, and etc., but also by a one word qualifier: perfect, minor, and major.

Count the lines or space between the two notes to calculate whether the interval is a second, third, or another number. For instance, the space between C to D is just one space and therefore it is a second. Two notes that are the same are unison, two notes that are one space apart are seconds, two spaces a part are thirds, and so on.

Once you get to eight spaces a part, you refer to that interval as an octave.

Perfect, Minor, and Major Intervals: Unison, fourths, fifths, and octaves are all called ‘perfect.’ Seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths can either be qualified by a major or minor before their numeric name. Everything in a major scale creates major or perfect intervals. If any major intervals are taken a half step lower, then the interval is a minor one. In other words, in the key of C-major, a C to a D is a major second interval. Put a flat before the D, and the interval is a minor second.

Diminished and Augmented Intervals: When raising a major or perfect interval one half step, the pitch is augmented. Lowering a minor or perfect interval by a half step makes an interval diminished. In sheet music, you might see a double sharp to indicate an augmented interval or a double flat to indicate a diminished interval. Sufficed to say, they do exist, but the beginning singer does not usually need to worry about them.

Vocal Exercise Books Emphasizing Intervals: G. Schirmer’s “Practical Method of Italian Singing,” by Vaccai is my favorite vocal exercise book that emphasizes intervals. Each page is a little tune with the original Italian text, as well as an English translation.

The first song is a rhythmic scale, practicing the interval of a second. The next six songs emphasize the other simple intervals: thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, and finally an octave. Each little exercise is a fun one-page tune that can be performed. I also recommend G. Schirmer’s “Thirty Daily Exercises,” by Concone. Intervals are practiced in the form of various scales starting with very few skips to an increasing number of them. The last few exercises work on developing a healthy vocal trill.