Harmony and theory bible (part 1) - Introduction to intervals and chromatic scale
Welcome to my Harmony and Theory bible series. These sets of articles will aim to teach you in fun and creative way how to approach harmony and theory. You will find everything from beginning areas like intervals, chords, scale construction and modes to more complex harmony analysis and soloing approaches. Whether you are total beginner or somebody looking to recap some knowledge, this is the right place for you!
The term harmony derives from the Greek ἁρμονία (harmonía), meaning "joint, agreement, concord", from the verb ἁρμόζω (harmozo), "to fit together, to join”. The term was often used for the whole field of music, while "music" referred to the arts in general. In music, harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them.
In today's article we are focusing on basics that help us construct and understand scales. Those things include: musical alphabet (letter names), chromatic scale, accidental signs and intervals. Let's address each of these things individually now.
Musical Alphabet - Letter Names
Just like every language has its own set of letters, in music we use alphabet that’s universal for all instruments. This alphabet is made out from the actual regular language alphabet except we only use 7 letters of the alphabet with some alterations!
Here is the list of letter names used in musical alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Strangely enough, our main scale to which we relate everything back to is C major scale that uses those same notes just starting from C note (C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C). Distance between those letter names is not always the same! To do so, we must use accidental signs (sharps # and/or flats b) to bring all the notes closer together. Here is a layout of all possible notes that exist in the music alphabet!
Notice how between E and F and B and C we did not have to use any accidental signs. These notes are already right next to each other! If you were looking at your guitar neck, the distance between all those notes would be one fret. Also notice how in the musical alphabet, we actually have 12 different notes. Everywhere on our instrument, those 12 notes appear in the same order. The musical alphabet listed above is also known as the chromatic scale. This scale uses all possible notes in music and the distance between all the notes is same (one fret on our guitar, half step or minor 2nd distance using scale and interval construction!)
Let me just explain what sharp (#) and flat (b) signs do. Sharp sign (#) is used to make the note sound higher by one fret/half step/minor 2nd. Flat sign (b) is used to make the note sound lower by one fret/half step/minor 2nd. Now we will move on to intervals and their importance.
Intervals – Relationship of any two notes in music
The Definition of an interval is the distance between any two notes in music. Since we have 12 different notes in the chromatic scale (which is the complete music alphabet), we also have 12 different intervals. We always count intervals from the lowest to the highest note. There are two ways of hearing and playing intervals: harmonic and melodic. A harmonic interval, is produced when two notes are played at the same time (chord manner). A melodic interval, is produced when we play notes one after another (solo manner). Intervals can be sorted into the following categories: major, minor, perfect, augmented and diminished. The smallest distance between any two notes is Unison, which is really the exact same note, just played in two different places (something that we, guitar players are experts at!). We will list in this article, all 12 possible intervals, from a Unison to an Octave, including their distance using “guitar language”. In music we use terms like half step and whole step, when talking about closer distances. A Half step, is actually the smallest distance between any two different notes, while a whole step equals two half steps. In guitar language, a half step equals one fret distance, while a whole step equals two frets.
Here is the list of all possible intervals, from Unison to Octave, analyzed using one string as reference.
- Unison (same note played in two different places – think 1st string open and 5th fret of B string, “Hey Joe” intro!)
- Minor 2nd (smallest distance between two different notes, half step or one fret away)
- Major 2nd (whole step distance or two frets away)
- Minor 3rd (whole step and a half step distance or three frets away)
- Major 3rd ( two whole steps distance or four frets away)
- Perfect 4th ( two whole steps and one half step distance or five frets away)
- Augmented 4th or Diminished 5th (three whole steps distance or six frets away)
- Perfect 5th (three whole steps and one half step distance or seven frets away)
- Minor 6th (four whole steps distance or eight frets away)
- Major 6th (four whole steps and one half step distance or nine frets away)
- Minor 7th (five whole steps distance or ten frets away)
- Major 7th (five whole steps and one half step distance or eleven frets away)
- Octave (six whole steps distance or twelve frets away – same as your starting note just higher or lower sounding!)
From all the mentioned intervals, we use minor and major 3rds, as well as perfect or diminished 5th’s, to build chords while we use mostly minor and major 2nd’s, to construct scales and modes!
Here are some more advanced and important things to know about intervals:
- When a major interval is raised by a half step, it becomes augmented.
- When a major interval is lowered by a half step, it becomes minor.
- When a major interval is lowered by two half steps, it becomes diminished.
- When a minor interval is raised by a half step, it becomes major.
- When a minor interval is raised by two half steps, it becomes augmented.
- When a minor interval is lowered by a half step, it becomes diminished.
- When a perfect interval is raised by a half step, it becomes augmented.
- When a perfect interval is lowered by a half step, it becomes diminished.
We can also have interval inversions, which are produced when two notes are placed upside down, in a different octave. Here are some important things to keep in mind when inverting intervals:
- Major becomes Minor
- Minor becomes Major
- Augmented becomes Diminished
- Diminished becomes Augmented
- Perfect stays Perfect
It is also, very important to keep number nine in mind, when inverting intervals, as they will always give you number nine in total.
- 2 becomes 7 (2nd becomes 7th)
- 3 becomes 6 (3rd becomes 6th)
- 4 becomes 5 (4th becomes 5th)
- 5 becomes 4 (5th becomes 4th)
- 6 becomes 3 (6th becomes 3rd)
- 7 becomes 2 (7th becomes 2nd)
With all this information, I will leave you to enjoy audio examples of the chromatic scale, intervals from Unison to Octave as well as interval inversions. Study those examples and start working intervals into your own playing/improvising/accompanying/composing.
Feel free to leave comments, ask any questions on forum or simply share your opinion regarding this article. I will be happy to respond and help everybody!
Have fun studying this material and I will see you in part 2 where we will focus on chords, scale structure and roman numerals!