Guide to universal interval names

FRIDAY, October 16, 2020 – 2:41 AM

My guide to “universal interval names” is HERE, so open this file to view…

(I you understand everything in the above pdf, you have everything I’m teaching, so everything that follows is just about how I put it all together.)

Measuring musical distance with intevals…

The word “interval” is about musical distance. It means describing that distance with some kind of name or numbers.

How should we do it?

Do we go by the number of keys from one note to the other? Or do we use letters? Do we use numbers? Some kind of description? A combination? What works best?

The traditional system…

For many centuries intervals have been named by lines and spaces, and that means by letters. C to F is a 4th because there are five letters. C to D is a 2nd because there are two letters. C to A is a 6th because there are six letters. It seems like a sane, easy system, at first. I call these “letter intervals”.

The letter system for intervals is very complicated…

It turns out that each note can use either two or three letters, so when we figure it all out there are 31 ways to write 12 notes in an octave, and ALL of them are used. When we started naming intervals using all those possibilities, we ended up with multiple names for the same distances, and that old system became very difficult. Most never learn it..

Sound intervals…

These are much easier. They are what  I call “wysiwyg” – “what you see is what you get”. That simply means that there is one simple name for each  distance. Common names are:

  • semitone
  • whole tone
  • tritone

When we use these terms we look at your hands and listen. We use these names for the way these intervals look in the hands, which means how they look, feel and sound when we play. They are universal names, names that never need to be changed. And they always work.

Why are letter intervals used? Why can’t we just use universal names all the time?

We can. They can be very precise in describing what we see in on the page. I do use them at time with other professional musicians. I also use them when writing music to tell Finale where to put things how to make things look on the page. But they are very difficult to remember.

Are there universal names for all intervals?

No, just for some. For instance, “tritone” means one half octave and means “three tones”. The whole world knows and uses this term. But the world does not know or use “bitone”, which just means “two tones”. So if we want to use universal names for all inversions, we have to invent some. So I did. I made up names for all the intervals that do not have universal names.

Are my names set in stone?

Absolutely not. They are meant to be easy, intuitive, descriptive, practical. I’m giving everyone several choices for these names. Over time different people will make different choices, so eventually I’ll know what is best for most people, but even then there will always be choices.

Here are the best descriptive choices, and remember you get to choose…

  • Unison – existing term: Even if you see one note written as two, or somehow those two notes look different on the page, it’s still a unison. It means “zero distance”.
  • Half Tone – existing term: Two notes, no space. Half tones form chromatic scales.
  • Tone – existing term: Two notes, and you skip exactly one key. Tones and half tones form all major scales, most minor scales and all modes.
  • Fat tone – my descriptive term: This is one and half tones. It’s wider than a tone, thus “fat”. You skip two keys.
  • Bitone – my descriptive term You are skipping three keys, It is two tones.
  • 4th – existing term: You’ve skipped four keys, but the important thing to realize is that you are getting bigger. It two and a half tones. You can find a tritone and shrink it by one key.
  • Tritone – existing term: You are half way to the octave. You will never need another name for this. It is three tones.
  • 5th – existing term: It’s one half tone bigger than a tritone. It’s hand-sized. It’s the interval that goes with major and minor chords in root position.
  • 4-tone – my descriptive term: It’s tone bigger than a tritone. It’s one key bigger than a 5th. It’s double the size of a bitone. It is the interval that fits an augmented chord.
  • Fat flip – my descriptive term: This is the hardest interval to name. It is three times the size of the fat tone. You will see it, hear it and feel it from your diminished chord. You can always get it by playing a fat tone and flipping it, like DF to F D.
  • Two short – my descriptive term: Two keys short of an octave. Playing an octave, then shrink that octave by two keys. It is also 5 whole tones, so you can call it 5 tones, 5 steps, 5 whole tones, 5 whole steps. Remember that this sound is right for any X7 chord.
  • Maj7 existing term: This is very close to a universal name because it’s almost never written any other way. It is one short, or one key shy of an octave. It’s very dissonant when played alone, but it sounds great in an Xmaj7 chord. So if you play Cmaj7 or Fmaj7, there is your maj7. It’s really easy to remember.
  • Octave existing term: There are other ways to write it, but those ways are so rare that you don’t have to worry. The whole world uses that term. It is universal.

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