What is a music note interval?
A music note interval is simply the difference in pitch between two separate music notes.
This difference in pitch, or in other words ‘sound’, is measured in ‘frets’ on your bass guitar fretboard.
The smallest interval of sound between two notes is obviously one fret. This interval distance, called a ‘minor second’, is commonly referred to as a ‘semi-tone’ or ‘half step’.
The largest music note interval on a bass guitar is when you play the open E string (i.e. the thickest string) and then quickly jump all the way up to play the very last fret on the G string (i.e. thinnest string) right near your bass guitar pickup. The specific note interval for this massive jump will ultimately be determined by the total amount of frets on your bass guitar neck.
Music note intervals are like ‘building blocks’ of sound that you can piece together to create different music scales, ‘arpeggio’ chords and song chord progressions.
Why are music note intervals important?
Understanding music note intervals is extremely important as it allows you to:
- systematically train your ear to identify specific music notes being played in songs by other musicians
- understand how chords are constructed and why they are given specific names
- understand how the greatest songs of all time were written and why they sound so amazing
- become a significantly better songwriter by providing ideas on what is possible and how specific genres of music are created e,g, ‘the blues’, rock, funk, gospel, metal, jazz
- it allows you to learn cover songs a lot faster because you can more easily identify patterns within a song and realise how different parts of a song relate to one another
- quickly react in spontaneous jam sessions with friends and play those dreaded unfamiliar song requests during live gigs
- be a professional musician who can more easily communicate ideas with other like-minded musicians.
Music Note Intervals
The following information teaches the first 12 music note intervals on a bass guitar starting from the ‘A’ note located on the 5th fret of the E string.
Why did I choose this ‘A’ note as the starting point to teach music note intervals, and not some other note like the ‘C’ note used by many music theory textbooks? Because using the ‘A’ note as a starting point to measure music note intervals from:
- is one of the easiest and most common locations on the bass guitar fretboard to play a lot of common songs
- is a common sounding region of the bass guitar fretboard allowing you to more quickly become familiarise your ear with each interval’s unique sound
- is a great position to start learning ’12 Bar Blues’ from, which many other musicians know how to play, and which 6 string guitarists love soloing over. You can literally jam 12 bar blues in the key of ‘A’ for hours with musicians you have only just met.
So let’s get into it and learn the first 12 music note intervals.
1. What is the ‘Root’?
The ‘Root’ note, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Tonic’ or ‘Fundamental’ note, is the:
- reference point that all the other music note intervals refer to
- very first note in a music scale which is commonly referred to as ‘The Key’
- first note that all the other notes in a chord refer to
Our interval lesson assumes your bass guitar has standard open string tuning of E, A, D and G, where E is the thickest string, and G is the thinnest string.
The above image shows that the red dot representing the root note is the ‘A’ note on the 5th fret of E string.
The root note can be located anywhere on the bass guitar fretboard you want it to be. It does note have to be on the E string’s 5th fret. If you change the root note to another location on the fretboard all of its associated note intervals will move with it. This will make more sense once you read this article.
2. What is a ‘minor Second’?
A minor 2nd is one fret away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a minor 2nd interval is an “A# or Bb’ note.
A famous example of using a minor 2nd interval is the theme music in the classic movie ‘Jaws’, where alternate playing between the root and minor 2nd notes, creates a sense of ‘darkness’ and ‘suspense’ just before the shark attacks its human victims.
The minor second is also commonly used in darker, more evil sounding metal music.
3. What is a ‘Major Second’?
A major 2nd is two frets away from the root note.
Becase the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a major 2nd interval is the ‘B’ note.
Moving two frets up from the tonic to the major second note is generally referred to as moving up a ‘whole tone’ in sound.
4. What is a ‘minor Third’?
A minor 3rd is three frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a minor 3rd interval is the ‘C’ note.
Two common locations where you can play a minor 3rd interval from our ‘A’ root note are:
- the 8th fret on the E string; and
- the 3rd fret on the A string
Which specific minor 3rd interval you play is up to you as they are both the same ‘C’ note. The one you actually choose will likely be determined by what you have to play after you play your minor 3rd note.
A minor 3rd interval is used to play a minor ‘arpeggio’ chord comprising:
- Root – A note
- minor 3rd – C note
- Perfect 5th – E note
The minor 3rd is generally thought to give this ‘arpeggio’ chord a ‘sadder’ or more ‘melancholy’ sound.
5. What is a ‘Major Third’?
A major 3rd is four frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a major 3rd interval is a “C#’ note.
A major 3rd interval is used to play a major ‘arpeggio’ chord comprising:
- Root – A note
- Major 3rd – C# note
- Perfect 5th – E note
A major 3rd interval is generally thought to provide this ‘arpeggio’ chord a ‘happier’ or more ‘joyous’ sound.
6. What is a ‘Perfect Fourth’?
A perfect 4th is five frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a perfect 4th interval is a “D’ note.
Therefore when you jump across strings on the same fret to a higher note, you are ‘moving up a perfect 4th’ in terms of sound. Your bass guitar’s E, A, D and G strings are purposely tuned so that each string above the next is a perfect 4th interval.
A perfect 4th is a critical part of the famous ’12 Bar 1, 4, 5 blues chord progression. We will learn all about 12 bar blues later, but first, you need to understand music note intervals.
7. What is an ‘Augmented Fourth’ or ‘diminished Fifth’?
An augmented 4th, also called a diminished 5th, is five frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, an augmented 4th or diminished 5th interval is a ‘D#’ or ‘Eb’ note.
This note interval is commonly called the ‘Blue Note’ when playing the blues or jazz because it is used to introduce a sadder sound into a music scale.
8. What is a ‘Perfect Fifth’?
A perfect 5th note is seven frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a perfect 5th interval is an ‘E’ note.
The root and perfect 5th notes are commonly strummed together to create the famous power chord used in rock music. It may only be two notes played together, but with some distortion added via an effect pedal, it’s real ear candy.
A good example of playing a bass guitar power chord is Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers playing the intro to their song ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic’. The actual song is track 10 on the album also titled ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic’ so make sure you listen to the actual song and not just play the beginning of the whole album on Youtube.
9. What is a ‘minor Sixth’?
The minor 6th note is eight frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a minor 6th interval is a ‘F’ note.
Two common locations where you can play a minor 6th interval from an ‘A’ root note are:
- the 8th fret on the A string; and
- the 3rd fret on the D string
Which specific minor 6th interval note you play is up to you as they are both the same ‘F’ note. The one you choose will likely be determined by what you have to play after the minor 6th note is played.
10. What is a ‘Major Sixth’?
The major 6th note is nine frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a major 6th interval is a ‘F#’ note.
11. What is a ‘minor Seventh’?
The minor 7th note is ten frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a minor 7th interval is a ‘G’ note.
Note that a minor 7th interval from the root note is located exactly two strings across on the exact same fret.
12. What is a ‘Major Seventh’?
The major 7th note is eleven notes away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a major 7th interval is a “G#’ note.
13. What is a ‘Perfect Octave’?
A perfect octave is twelve frets away from the root note.
Because the root note in our example is the ‘A’ note, a perfect octave interval is another ‘A’ note but with a higher pitch. In fact, when comparing the two sounds:
- the lower ‘A’ root note vibrates at 440 times per second (i.e. hertz) with a sound wave 78.4 centimetres long; while
- the higher ‘A’ octave note vibrates twice as fast at 880 hertz with a sound wave half the length at 39.2 centimetres
This pure mathematical relationship where the root note sound wave is perfectly divisible by its higher octave sound wave is very pleasing to hear.
A great example of playing a root and perfect octave note combination on bass guitar is Prescot Niles from ‘The Knack’ playing the song intro to ‘My Sharona’. Prescott’s root and perfect octave are actually ‘G’ notes though, and not ‘A’ notes that we are learning in our example. If you listen carefully, Prescot actually quickly slides into the low ‘G’ root to then play the higher ‘G’ perfect octave, to then continue alternating between the two notes.
14. All Note Intervals Together
This is what all the music note intervals look like combined when the root note is ‘A’ on the 5th fret of the E string.
Learn and remember all of them so they become second nature. Practise jumping from the root to each interval on your fretboard with your eyes closed. Try to remember the name and sound of each note interval when playing them. It won’t take long to learn them all resulting in your playing and music theory knowledge gaining a significant boost.
|1||minor 2nd||A# / Bb|
|6||Aug 4th / dim 5th||D# / Eb|
|11||Major 7th||G# / Ab|
15. What Happens If I Move The Root Note? What Happens To All Of Its Intervals?
Easy! All the music note intervals move in exact same proportion to the root note changing so their relative position to the new root note position stay the same.
For example, the following shows what happens when the root note, that was initially the ‘A’ note on the 5th fret of the E string, moves up two frets to be located on the 7th fret of the E string as a new ‘B’ root note. You will notice that all the note intervals moved up with the root note by two frets.
The following table shows that when the root note changed from the ‘A’ note to the ‘B’ note, the number of frets and interval names stay the same. It is just the actual individual music notes for each interval that change. For example, a perfect 4th was previously a ‘D’ note, but after also moving two frets during the root note change, it has now become an ‘E’ note.
Therefore, moving the root note and its intervals up two frets has basically resulted in an ‘A’ to ‘B’ key change. This is essentially how ‘arpeggio’ chord changes work to create chord progressions.
|2||Major 2nd||C# / Db|
|4||Major 3rd||D# / Eb|
|6||Aug 4th / dim 5th||F|
|9||Major 6th||G# / Ab|
|11||Major 7th||A# / Bb|
This concludes our lesson on music note intervals. Test yourself with the following free quiz to see how much you have learnt.