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Music Theory for Singers - Intervals


Intervals are the distances between notes. Its simply the word for how far apart the notes are. If I was singing the song "happy birthday" and was asked how far away "happy" is away from "birth" in the song my answer would be "it is a 2nd apart." In the image I created above you can visually see what a 2nd looks like vertically and horizontally.

The number comes from the number of spaces/lines the notes are from each other. If two singers are singing the same note, we would say they are singing in unison. If you asked "how far away from each other are those two notes?" Strangely enough, while they aren't any distance away at all since they are the same note, the answer is "a 1st apart." After a 1st, every added line or space in distance adds to the distance becoming a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc until you reach an octave/8th. At this point, people often stop, but you can continue onto a 9th, or a 15th, or whatever number you wanted to if you kept going. People rarely talk about distances in that way though.

Another way to think about the distances, is by letter. I have the first note/bottom note in the image above always being the letter "E." If you go up a letter, you go up a number. Therefore "E" to "F" is a 2nd and "E" to "G" is a 3rd and so on. When people communicate about differences greater than an octave, they often speak in terms of letters instead of counting lines and spaces. A 9th (from "E" to a high "F") would therefore be a 2nd as well for ease of communication unless for some reason it is necessary to specify 9th.

Another often confusing part of intervals, is that the sound of the notes doesn't effect the number. An "E" to an "F" is a 2nd whether or not the "E" is sharp or the "F" is flat. If you're unsure of what sharp and flat mean I will talk about that in a future post. Essentially, if you modify the note "E" so much that it sounds like an "F" but you are still writing an "E," its a 2nd. It doesn't matter that it sounds like a 1st, if you write an "E" and an "F," its a 2nd.

As you can see in the image, it doesn't matter if the notes are played at the same time (on top of each other) or after each other, the vocabulary for intervals in music is the same. As a final note, if you are explaining an interval to someone, there is more to it than this as each interval has variations (major vs minor 3rd or perfect vs augmented 5th), but these will be addressed in the future.

Music theory can be intimidating, and I understand that saying things like "referring to a 9th like its a 2nd for ease" might sound like making things harder, but once you know how to speak about music, it will actually be an easier way of talking about things for larger intervals like 15ths (octave). This is also a solid first step in being able to read music, as you can recognize the distances and begin to teach yourself the differences. If you'd like additional help with music theory, sign up for lessons with me or leave a comment!

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