Drastically Cut Learning Time With Intervals (2)


The main goal of this article is to provide you with a set of visual shapes (interval shapes formed by your fingers, and seeable in your mind’s eye) to add to your guitar toolbox. These shapes help you reinforce your knowledge of chords and scales, and they generally help you navigate the fretboard without too much pain.

Hi guys, this is my second article on intervals (this follows on from Drastically Cut Learning Time With Intervals)

The interval is the basic “word” in the language of music. Stringing these “words” together gives small pieces of melody or chords. And so it builds into the bigger structure of a tune, a verse, a chorus, and so on to the final composition or improvisation.

The ultimate goal of learning intervals is that they are one of the musical tools that allow you to manipulate the emotional responses of your listeners, lifting them up, dropping them down. When combined with strong phrasing, and feel, you have a lot of power at your finger tips, literally. In the next article, I’ll explore some of these aspects. Pitch names are unnecessary for the majority of this discussion (today and later), which is a big hint to how widely useful a knowledge of intervals is, when applied.

So today we use intervals for the purpose of speeding up the process of gaining familiarity with the guitar neck. The main goal of this article is to provide you with a set of visual shapes (interval shapes formed by your fingers, and seeable in your mind’s eye) to add to your guitar toolbox. These shapes help you reinforce your knowledge of chords and scales, and they generally help you navigate the fretboard without too much pain. Their sounds can be recognised with ear training, but this is not needed initially.

So, with the background set, let’s get going…

Pitch, Octave, Semitone

To give a reasonable understanding of what an interval is we have to take a short detour through the world of pitch, octave, and semitone.

Any pitch has a particular (fundamental) frequency of sound. The higher the frequency value, the higher the pitch we hear (recording engineers talk about bass, low-mid, high-mid, high (treble) frequency ranges. The instrument build and the way we play cause other frequencies to get added in, creating the sound of a “guitar” or “violin” playing the same particular fundamental. When you dampen the string (or when you change the tone control, volume…), these additional frequencies get changed, but the fundamental is still the main frequency we perceive.

Guitar is constructed so that the fundamental frequency of a pitch at some (any) fret (and think of the open string as fret 0, where fret 0 is the nut), and of the pitch produced at its adjacent fret on the SAME string are always related by a mathematical formula… the higher pitch is always 1.059 times the frequency of the lower pitch, and the (frequencies of) two pitches are said to be “a SEMITONE” apart. With pitches three semitones apart, the upper pitch is 1.059 * 1.059 * 1.059 * lower pitch. If two pitches are 12 semitones apart, the upper pitch is 1.059 * 1.059 * 1.059 * … (12 occurrences of 1.059 multiplied together), which equals 2. When one pitch is double the other, the upper pitch is said to be an octave above the lower pitch, or they are an octave apart.

Forget the maths!

The maths/physics doesn’t matter to us as musicians, but we’ve grabbed the term SEMITONE to talk about the relationship between two pitches, and we say stuff like “these two pitches are 3 semitones apart”, or “these two pitches are zero semitones apart (identical).”

The interval

Lastly, musicians also use the term INTERVAL as a synonym, meaning two pitches some number of semitones apart. We may say “play an interval of 3 semitones, starting off the pitch E,” or “play an interval of 3 semitones anywhere” … so here you’d randomly choose a fret, and then play either 3 frets higher or 3 frets lower on that same string. If we said “play an interval of 3 semitones above an arbitrary pitch,” then you’d randomly choose a fret, and then play 3 frets higher.

Notice that an interval always involves TWO pitches, no more, no less.

Interval names

But then the theory boys thought “Nah … this is to easy; let’s confuse everyone.” So, they invented terms like “minor third,” “diminished fifth.” So, for example, “diminished fifth” is Chinese for “6 semitones,” and “minor third” is Swahili for “3 semitones.” In general, we then have this vocabulary of INTERVAL NAMES. However, since there are only a handful of these names, its no big deal to learn them. I’ll come back to this.

The brain’s perception of intervals

Now to the crux of the matter. The brain, via the ear, isn’t fooled or interested by these strange names, or by pitch names (E, F# etc) … instead it literally detects the frequency relationship between pitches.

If we have two intervals that differ in the number of semitones involved, we say they are different intervals … the brain perceives these have different sound character, regardless which pitches are involved. Whereas if we have two intervals both with the same number of semitones, they have the same sound character, regardless of which pitches are involved. So, the brain perceives the specific character of 4 semitones, its flavour of sound, if I played fret 1 followed by fret 5, or fret 7 followed by fret 11, and so on.

Finally, as noted above, because of the way the guitar is tuned, there are a few possibilities (not many) for how to physically create the SAME interval, by playing both pitches on one string, or by using two strings (not necessarily adjacent). The limitation comes down to hand stretch.

With this background out the way, here are the mosty important shapes … they are incredibly easy to learn. You’ll immediately start seeing them in scale and chord shapes you know.

All of these shapes can be slid horizontally along the neck.  But when moved vertically across the neck (parallel to the frets), the shapes may change.  This is pointed out below.

Minor 3rd

The minor 3rd occurs in every scale type belonging to the minor family, and in every type of minor chord.  The first shape can be positioned on any pair of adjacent strings to create a minor 3rd (3 semitones), apart from on the 2nd and 3rd strings (the G and B strings).  The second shape creates a minor 3rd only on the 2nd and 3rd strings.  They both show how to trivially create a minor 3rd when both pitches are on the same string.

Major 3rd

The major 3rd occurs in every scale type belonging to the major family, and in every type of major chord.  As you can see, this is a simple adjustment to the minor 3rd shape, to increase the interval from 3 to 4 semitones.

Perfect 5th

The perfect 5th occurs is a large number of scale types (all the commonly used types) and in the major and minor chord families.  The shapes are show below.


I hope this gets you going. Practice these by choosing one or two intervals, draw their shapes on paper, then have guitar in hand and form the shapes and look at your fingers. Shut your eyes, and feel that shape in your hand. Then try moving the shape (slide it). Then try playing it, take your hand off, and put it down somewhere else (all with eyes shut). Watch out for how the shape changes when on the G and B string pair. I’d only do 5 – 10 minutes on the guitar. Come back to it again 30 minutes later. Then a few hours later. You’ll learn these very quickly.

As importantly, listen to the sound quality, and get a mate to practice with you, if you can, or use an ear training program. If you’ve recognised the sound quality, you then know the interval shape to apply from that start note.  emuso/Studio comes with two built in interactive ear trainers, one for melody, one for chords.

Next time

In the final starter blog on intervals, you’ll read about why intervals are a critical tool in your mental musical toolbox, and then I’ll give you a few aide-memoires to reinforce your knowledge.