by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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In music theory, an interval is the difference between two pitches. An interval may be described as horizontal, linear, or melodic if it refers to successively sounding tones, such as two adjacent pitches in a melody, and vertical or harmonic if it pertains to simultaneously sounding tones, such as in a chord.

In Western music, intervals are most commonly differences between notes of a diatonic scale. The smallest of these intervals is a semitone.

Playing an interval on guitar

Intervals smaller than a semitone are called microtones. They can be formed using the notes of various kinds of non-diatonic scales.

Some of the very smallest ones are called commas, and describe small discrepancies, observed in some tuning systems, between enharmonically equivalent notes such as C and D.

Intervals can be arbitrarily small, and even imperceptible to the human ear. In physical terms, an interval is the ratio between two sonic frequencies.

For example, any two notes an octave apart have a frequency ratio of 2:1.

This means that successive increments of pitch by the same interval result in an exponential increase of frequency, even though the human ear perceives this as a linear increase in pitch.

For this reason, intervals are often measured in cents, a unit derived from the logarithm of the frequency ratio.

In Western music theory, the most common naming scheme for intervals describes two properties of the interval: the quality (perfect, major, minor, augmented, diminished) and number (unison, second, third, etc.).

Examples include the minor third or perfect fifth. These names describe not only the difference in semitones between the upper and lower notes, but also how the interval is spelled.

The importance of spelling stems from the historical practice of differentiating the frequency ratios of enharmonic intervals such as G-G and G-A.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

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