The interval is the distance between two consecutive tones (source and target tones).

Simple intervals

Interval pure major minor diminished augmented complementary level
half tone steps
First 0 -1 1 Eighth 1
Second 2 1 0 Seventh 2
Third 4 3 2 5 Sixth 3
Fourth 5 4 6 Fifth 4
Fifth 7 6 8 Fourth 5
Sixth 9 8 7 10 Third 6
Seventh 11 10 9 12 Second 7
Octave 12 11 13 First 8

Only the pure as well as the big and small intervals are diatonic (build with tones in the scale only); the diminished and augmented intervals are chromatic. Chromatic intervals regularly lead to enharmonic change.

First

First

  • A pure first is the repetition of the same source note.
  • A diminished first lies a chromatic half step below to the source note.
  • A augmented first lies a chromatic half step above to the source note.
Examples
  • C'–C' = pure first
  • C'–Cb = diminished first if B does not belong to the scale, e.g. in F major; else = second
  • C'–C# = augmented first if Db not does not belong to the scale, e.g. in C major; else = second
Famous Songs
  • pure first: Danke für diesen guten Morgen

Second

Second

Although the second is probably "the most common interval" of all, it is often considered to have a transitional rather than a harmonic function: It is perceived as dissonant and therefore should be quickly dissolved into another, consonant interval.

  • A minor second is a half step away from its source note.
  • A major second is two half steps away from its source note.
Examples
  • C'–H = minor second down
  • C'–D' = major second up
Famous Songs
  • minor second descending: Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • minor second ascending: Silent Night
  • major second descending: Joy to the World
  • major second ascending: Frère Jacques

Third

Third

Thirds play the main part in the harmonization of melodies. They define the most important chords plus the major and minor tonalites in Western harmonic theory. To accompany the melody in descending thirds is part of the musical standard repertoire.

  • A minor third is three half tone steps away from the source note. It is frequently unconsciously used in spoken language to call other people (“Mama!”, “Hello!”). The call of the cuckoo is also a minor third.
  • A major third is four half tone steps away from the source note.
Examples
  • C'–A = minor third down
  • C'–E' = major third up
Famous Songs
  • minor third descending: Hey Jude (The Beatles)
  • minor third ascending: Lullaby (Brahms)
  • major third descending: Swing Low Sweet Chariot
  • major third ascending: Oh, when the Saints

Fourth

Fourth

Technically the fourth belongs to the consonant (and thus “agreeable”) chords. Its effect on the listeners, however, makes a fourth either consonant if no other note of the chord comes between source and target notes (“close position”), or dissonant if they are more distant (“open position”).

  • A pure fourth is six half tone steps away from the source note.
Examples
  • C'–G = pure fourth down
  • C'–F'= pure fourth up
Famous Songs
  • descending: Halleluja (Händel)
  • ascending: Hochzeitsmarsch (Wagner)

Fifth

Fifth

In Middle Ages the fifth was considered a perfect interval, i.e., a melody could end on the fifth of its root note. This changed later decisively: The fifth frequently appears as semi cadence at the end of a period (= “opening fifth”), while the octave comes at the end of the melody (= perfect cadence). It is common to use fifths in a sequence with descending fifths.

  • A pure fifth is seven half tone steps away from the source note.
Examples
  • C'–G' = pure fifth up
  • C'–Fis = pure fifth down
  • C'–F = augmented fifth down
Famous Songs
  • descending: What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor
  • ascending: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Sixth

Sixth

The main function of the sixth is that it can be understood as the inversion of a third; third and sixth skips therefore alternate quite frequently. The minor sixth was considered markedly dissonant and sad-sorrowful until the 19th century.

  • A minor sixth is eight half tone steps away from the source note.
  • A major sixth is nine half tone steps away from the source note.
Examples
  • C'–E = minor sixth down
  • C'–A' = major sixth up
Famous Songs
  • minor sixth descending: Love Story Thema
  • minor sixth ascending: When Israel was in Egyptsland
  • major sixth descending: Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
  • major sixth ascending: My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean

Seventh

Seventh

  • A minor seventh is ten half tone steps away from the source note.
  • A major seventh is eleven half tone steps away from the source note.
Examples
  • C'–H = major seventh up
  • C'–D = minor seventh down
Famous Songs
  • minor seventh descending: An American in Paris (Gershwin)
  • minor seventh ascending: The Winner Takes It All (ABBA)
  • major seventh descending: I Love You (Cole Porter)
  • major seventh ascending: Take on Me (A-Ha)

Octave

Octave

  • A pure octave is twelve half tone steps away from the source note.
Examples
  • C'–C'' = pure octave up
  • C'–C = pure octave down
Famous Songs
  • descending: Acapulco 1922 (Herb Alpert)
  • ascending: Somewhere over the Rainbow

Complementary intervals

Complementary intervals

The complementary interval is the interval between the target tone of an interval and the next octave above the source tone. (The sum of the level of interval and inversion interval always gives 9: second = 2 + seventh = 7 = 9 etc.) Pure intervals have pure complement intervals, major ones have minor ones and vice versa, diminished ones have augmented ones and vice versa.

Intervals and complementary intervals in C major
Above: interval; below: complementary interval
* = major; ** = minor
- = diminished; + = augmented. Enharmonic change: E# = F, B# = C

Compound intervals

Any interval exceeding one octave is considered a compound interval. Its complementary interval corresponds to the complementary interval of the interval added to the octave.

Interval Interval added Complementary interval
Ninth Second Seventh
Tenth Third Sixth