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On how musical intervals are built


1-1237298976uSyO smallMusical Intervals - basics includes the number of semitones in simple intervals. Now it is time to learn how they are built. As we have recently explained, the semitone is the smallest interval. Being the smallest, it is used as reference point for other intervals. However, while building an interval usually it is much more convenient to use whole tones. On a piano keyboard, the whole tone can be found between those of white keys that are separated by a black key. The whole tone is made of two semitones. In the picture below, the whole tone can be found between the green and the blue key:)

piano tone

What do we need the whole tones for? While building musical intervals, the easiest way it is to use the C-major scale. To put it simple, the C-major scale is a group of subsequent white keyboard keys between the sounds C and C. Such a scale consists mostly of whole tones, with two semitones.

Interesting is that interval names do not refer to their semitone number. Neither do they refer to whole tones. What they pertain to is the degree (i.e. the sound’s “number”) of the natural major scale. Therefore, names of intervals built between the first and all the following sounds (degrees) of a scale create a sequence of (major and perfect ;)) intervals.

The intervals are as follows:

between the scale’s first and… the first sound: the perfect unison

between the first and the second sound: the major second

between the first and the third sound: the major third

between the first and the fourth sound: the perfect fourth

between the first and the fifth sound: the perfect fifth

between the first and the sixth sound: the major sixth

between the first and the seventh sound: the major seventh

between the first and the eighth sound: the perfect octave

Lowering the underlined sounds we can create other intervals: majors become minors, perfect become diminished. By raising a sound we create augmented intervals. It should not be forgotten that interval names – be it a second or a third – depends on whether we have lowered or raised the original sound. This phenomenon will be discussed in details together with enharmonic.

Since none of us likes limitations, the mankind WANTS to create intervals starting from different sounds, which means to use various sounds as the initial degree. For this simple reason something seemingly more complicated must be done, namely the extraction of an interval from a scale. Before doing this, however, we must realize that our scale besides whole tones contains also semitones. A natural major scale contains two semitones that are quite significant as far as distance counting in defining intervals is concerned. Please take a closer look at the table below. A green line has been drawn between sounds building natural semitones of the C major scale. Arrows show several intervals. We can clearly see the whole tone and the semitone number of each of the intervals. To make it understandable I am first using white keys: if there is a black line between two white keys it means they build a whole tone. If the line between keys is green, it means they build a semitone. There we go:

 examples semitones

The blue arrow has one black and one green line. It means, it contains one whole tone and one halftone. Such a “distance” between sounds is called minor third. The violet arrow contains one green and four black lines, that is, the interval it shows has one semitone and four whole tones and is called triton. Semitone and whole tone number in basic intervals can be found in the table below:

Interval name


Whole tone (w) and semitone (s) number

Second sound of the interval
as counted in the major scale

 Perfect unison


0w + 0s


 Minor second



lowered 2

 Major second




 Minor third


1w + 1s

lowered 3

 Major third




 Perfect fourth


2w +1s




3w   or   2w + 2s

 raised 4 or lowered 5

 Perfect fifth


3w + 1s


 Minor sixth


3w + 2s

lowered 6

 Major sixth


4w + 1s


 Minor seventh


4w + 2s

lowered 7

 Major seventh


 5w + 1s


 Perfect octave


6w + 2s


The ability to build a semitone and a whole tone and the fact that we know how many semitones and whole tones a given interval has means that we are familiar with all the basic intervals! You can choose any method to build intervals: you can use either semitone number or scale degrees. Essential is, however, to really know them well, to be able to recognize any interval and to sing it from any sound. Those interested in practical training might like to visit our INTERVALS section.




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