A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 2 extra: Intervals

There were a few concepts introduced in the 2nd video for Week 1 of Fundamentals of Music Theory that I wanted to expand on a little, for the sake of beginners who hear these words and don’t know what they mean. Some came from the video, and others from my own rambling about the video. As this is a bass-centric site, some of this information might be bass-specific. 


An interval is often described as the distance between two notes. Its not a physical count, like how many frets. piano keys or whatever your instrument uses you need to cross to arrive at the other note. Its a count based on the note’s distance in a scale. If a scale has 8 notes, and we call them 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, its based on the distance between the notes from just those 8 notes. The notes themselves count as well.

So, if we move from 1 to 2, its called a 2nd, because we count the 1 and the 2. If we move from 1 to 5, its called a 5th. They’re easy if you start on the 1. If you start somewhere else though, then you have to do some math. Moving from 3 to 5 is a 3rd because we count 3, 4 and 5. Moving from 2 to 7 is a 6th because we count 6 notes (2-3-4-5-6-7) to get to the 7.

Later on, some of those notes get qualities that make them major or minor – which is tied in to counting (adding or subtracting, or as they say raising or lowering) frets. Don’t worry about that stuff for now though.

The important thing about intervals is that they’re used in ear training. There’s this concept called relative pitch in which a person can hear two notes and be able to determine their distance from each other based on sound. You can somewhat get the idea if you sing Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do and listen to the way you move up in tone. Look at Do as 1, Re as 2, and so on. People who practice can identify this stuff by ear and can use it to figure out songs more quickly than those who don’t have much ear training.

1-2 intervals

Bass Guitar for Dummies offers the following information and advice about intervals on page 38:

An interval is the distance between two notes. For example, in the scale of C, the distance from the root C up to F is four notes (C, D, E, F), so the interval is called a 4th. When you identify an interval, you count the original note (C in this example) as well as the final note (F). 

Musicians communicate with interval terminology: “Hey, try a 4th instead of the 5th on the G chord,” which means: Play the G with a C (an interval of a 4th) instead of the G with a D (an interval of a 5th). So recognizing intervals clearly is important. The intervals always are in the same configuration; a 4th, for example, always looks and feels the same, regardless of what key it’s in.

The Idiot’s Guide actually has a lot about intervals, but much of it is related to scales and modes. Its definition is as follows: An interval is the space between two pitches. The smallest interval in Western music is a half step; intervals are typically measured in the number of half steps between the two notes.

Here’s some information that shouldn’t be overwhelming:

  1. Differences in pitch can be described in terms of intervals.
  2. The smallest interval in Western music is the half-step. (On a bass, its basically moving up or down one fret at a time. On a piano, its moving up or down one key at a time, including both black and white keys. Basically any two notes that are directly next to each other are a half-step away.)
  3. Two half-steps equal one whole step. (On a bass, this means two frets – so from fret 1 to fret 3 on any string, or fret 10 to fret 12, etc. This half-step, whole step thing becomes important when constructing scales. They each have their own pattern of steps. Musicians also use them to describe physical distance between notes.)

A lot of other stuff about intervals is about naming them – major, minor, augmented, diminished, perfect and compound. The important thing though is when you hear one, how far is it from the previous one you heard, or if you’ve figured out the root/key or a piece of music, how far is it from that. The ear training part is what lets you figure out songs by listening.

1-2 interval 2


2 responses

  1. Pingback: Coursera – Fundamentals of Music Theory Week 1 | Ugly Bass Face

  2. Shelby Stronger

    Once again, you’ve cleared something up for me without noticing you did it. When I went through this lesson, my guesses were always one short. I would think a 7th was a 6th, for example. The way you worded it here, I can see you’re counting the notes, not the space between them. Effectively, I was not counting the first note, so kept coming up one short. Now it makes sense.

    September 10, 2015 at 3:13 pm

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