The 12 standard intervals we hear

WEDNESDAY, October 9, 2019

This is more complicated, but it is used for listening, not reading…

Reading music and hearing music are two different worlds. There are people who can read anything in a score, and some of them are fine interpreters. But it does not guarantee that they will be able to play what they hear without the aid of a score.

There are also incredibly talented musicians who can play just about anything they hear but who can’t read music. I call them musically illiterate geniuses. Remember, “illiterate” means unable to read. It does not mean lacking talent, and in fact some of the most famous players in the world can’t read music. But all of them, without exception, regret not being able to read music.

Here is an overview of what you eventually need to be able to recognize as you are playing, without using a score, and what you need to be able to hear.

There are perfect intervals, and there are only four of them. These are rock solid intervals that you can “take to the bank”. They look on a page exactly as they should. There are four, and they are called:

Perfect intervals…

  • Perfect unison, which is just one note.
  • Octave, which is almost the same note in two different places, with always the same name.
  • Perfect 5th, the backbone of our most important chords.
  • Perfect 4th, which turns out to be a perfect 5th flipped over.

Next there is one incredibly important interval:


It lives right between the 5th and the 4th. It is bigger than a 4th and smaller than a 5th.

Major and minor…

Finally there are 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths.

For each of these there is a big one and a small one. The big ones are called major, and the small ones are called minor. I’ll get to how to determine which 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths are big and small, but that comes a bit later.

Augmented and diminished intervals…

This is nothing but a gigantic pain, and these are what I am going to call “alt” intervals. They are screw-ball names and they ONLY are used for written music. In all cases they sound like something else, and they look like something else when you play them. Eventually you do need them, sort of like advanced terms for experts who need specialize words for shop talk, but if you are just listening and watching your hands, you will never need them – EVER!



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