Let’s look at piano intervals, as these will be the building blocks for different piano chords.
Here’s how we define an interval:
Intervals are distances between notes, counted from low to high, labeled by the number of the upper note.
For example, a C to a D is an interval of a second, because a C to a D is a distance of two notes alphabetically. We label the interval a “second” because we label it by the number of the upper note. A C to an E is an interval of a third, and a C to an F is an interval of a fourth.
(If you’re wondering whether we should count the black keys when we count intervals, great question! We’ll look at that in a minute.)
There are five types of intervals:
Each type can be played two ways:
Piano Intervals Printable
Learn piano intervals and use them to build 17 different types of piano chords with this 33-page PDF!
Let’s Take a Look
Above is a picture of a C major scale (the white keys only). If you’re not sure how to build a major scale, you can learn that here. But to summarize, a major scale is built using a pattern of whole and half-steps (W – W – H – W – W – W – H).
So what do these letter/number labels mean? Well, let’s define the five types of piano intervals.
We’ll start with perfect intervals. Perfect intervals are the intervals between the keynote of a major scale and the first, fourth, fifth and eighth notes of the scale.
If we look at the graphic, we can see the keynote C (the starting note of the scale) has a “P1” on it. That “P1” stands for a “Perfect 1st” interval, also known as a “Unison”. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the first note of the scale — the same note.
The fourth note on the graphic has a “P4” on it. This stands for a “Perfect 4th” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the fourth note of the scale.
The fifth note has a “P5” on it. This stands for a “Perfect 5th” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the fifth note of the scale.
The eighth note has a “P8” on it. This stands for a “Perfect 8th” interval, also known as an “Octave”. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the eighth/final note of the scale.
Now let’s look at major intervals. Major intervals are the intervals between the keynote of a major scale and the second, third, sixth and seventh notes of the scale.
If we look at the graphic, we see”M2″ on the second note of the scale. This stands for a “Major Second” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the second note of the scale.
The third note of the scale has an “M3” on it. This stands for a “Major Third” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the third note of the scale.
The sixth note of the scale has an “M6” on it. This stands for a “Major Sixth” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the sixth note of the scale.
The seventh note of the scale has an “M7” on it. This stands for a “Major Seventh” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the seventh note of the scale.
Now let’s look at minor intervals. Minor intervals are major intervals lowered by a half-step. Learn about half-steps and whole-steps here.
You’ll notice on the graphic there are some black keys with lower-case “m’s” and numbers on them. These represent minor intervals, one half-step below major intervals.
The label “m2” on the first black key represents a “minor second” interval. It’s the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the second note of the scale, but lowered one-half step.
The label “m3” on the second black key represents a “minor third” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the third note of the scale, but lowered one-half step.
The label “m6” on another black key represents a “minor sixth” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the sixth note of the scale, but lowered one-half step.
The label “m7” on another black key represents a “minor seventh” interval. This interval is the distance between the keynote of a major scale and the seventh note of the scale, but lowered one-half step.
Augmented and Diminished Intervals
Most of the chords you’ll build will use perfect, major and minor piano intervals to build the chords. But there will be times you’ll use augmented and diminished intervals too. They’re just less common.
Augmented intervals are perfect or major intervals raised by one-half step. They’re often labeled with “aug” and the number of the interval. (The chart shows “a4” as an augmented fourth, indicating a C to an F♯.)
Diminished intervals are perfect or minor intervals lowered by one-half step. They’re often labeled with “dim” and the number of the interval. (The chart shows “d5” as a diminished fifth, indicating a C to a G♭.)
Melodic and Harmonic Intervals
Remember when I said there are two ways to play these five types of piano intervals? We can play them as “melodic” intervals, or as “harmonic” intervals. Here’s what that means:
Melodic intervals are when the notes are played separately (as in, one-at-a-time).
Harmonic intervals are when the notes are played together (as in, at the same time).
If we look at all the intervals of a C major scale, we find:
P1 = C, C
M2 = C, D
M3 = C, E
P4 = C, F
P5 = C, G
M6 = C, A
M7 = C, B
P8 = C, C
When C is our starting note, the minor intervals are:
m2 = C, D♭
m3 = C, E♭
m6 = C, A♭
m7 = C, B♭
The Pattern Holds
The neat thing is, we can apply this pattern using any major scale to build intervals. We can count from the keynote of that major scale, up through the notes of that major scale, to determine our intervals.
Make it Happen
The best way to practice piano intervals is to start with a C major scale, and then practice finding the perfect, major and minor intervals of that scale. Then move on to G major, D major, A major, and E major scales and do the same.
Intervals can seem kind of confusing at first, so don’t worry if you feel a little overwhelmed. The knowledge will sink in with time and practice. You’ll be so glad you took the time to understand piano intervals when you can look at seemingly complex chord symbols, and understand exactly how to build the chords they represent!
I never knew how all those chords were formed. You explained it very well, though I’m sure it would take lots of practice for it to come naturally. I did get out our little electronic keyboard to practice the C chords. It is pretty cool to see the pattern. You are a good teacher!
I’m so glad to hear that!
Hi Julie! 😊 I’m so glad that I came across your post on Pinterest. I just began learning to play piano. My husband is teaching me. And I’m thankful for the resources you made available. You explain it in a way that is so easy to understand.
I’m very interested in the theory as I really want to understand music and ultimately be able to play it well. I always loved music and I also get these random and beautiful melodies coming to me, I believe by the Holy Spirit. So I want to be able to play what I hear.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge and making it so easy to understand. I certainly appreciate that.
💓🤗 God bless you and your work.
Thank you so much for your encouraging words, Octavia! Your message really blessed me. I’m so glad these resources are helping you learn the piano! And I love that you want to find a way to play the melodies the Holy Spirit is giving you. You can do it!
I am starting back on piano after many years away. I’ve seen countless YouTube videos but these explanations by you make everything easier to understand. I hope to be able to convert what you have been showing and explaining into practice. Many thanks for all the help.
Wonderful, that’s so good to hear! Thank you so much, and enjoy the music!
Love your explanations.
I’m glad they’re helpful!
Waw great explanation love it
I’m so glad it’s helpful!
Hope you are well and keeping safe.
You analysis and explanations on how notes and sounds work has been really useful as a self taught guitar player for over 50 years who now wants to learn piano. Oh my how i wish i had
started to learn piano in my teens as my knowledge on the guitar would of been tons easier.
Anyway you have kindly shown the relationship from notes and intervals based on the major keys starting with C major. I ask, are the patterns the same if it starts on C minor, ie. does it figure that the 2nd would then be D major, then E major then F minor, G minor etc.
Thanks in anticipation and love your work.
Thanks so much David, I’m glad this is helpful! If we build a natural minor scale off any note, the intervals would be: P1, M2, m3, P4, P5, m6, m7, P8 (using the abbreviations from the post). So for a C natural minor scale, the intervals are P1: C – C, M2: C – D, m3: C – E♭, P4: C – F, P5: C – G, m6: C – A♭, m7: C – B♭, P8: C – C. If we build a chord off each note of a natural minor scale, using the notes of the scale to build the chords, the chord types would be: minor, diminished, major, minor, minor, major, major, minor. So for the key of C natural minor, the chords would be Cm, Dº, E♭, Fm, Gm, A♭, B♭, Cm. I hope that helps!
This is a really good resource for self-taught folks like me who have some knowledge gaps in music theory.
Is there a reason, or explanation why the 4th and 5th are designated as “Perfect” intervals?
Is it because of the way they sound together with the root note, that perhaps they aren’t “Major” or “Minor” sounding? Or maybe they sound more stable or “neutral” with the root?
Otherwise, I would’ve expected these intervals to be called the Major or Minor 4th/5th like everything else that’s not the First or 8th.
Yes, that’s a good question! I think the best answer is that for perfect intervals, such as a perfect fourth (C – F), F is the fourth of a C major scale, and C is the fifth of an F major scale. For a perfect fifth (C – G), G is the fifth of a C major scale, and C is the fourth of a G major scale.
Just a quick question to your very helpful article. The topic of intervals hinges on the concept of distance so commonly we say the distance is 6 inch or 3.2 miles. Even time and frequency are distances with units of seconds or Hz. But as you talk about intervals, you never mention the unit of scale distance. Is it steps, or tones, or beats per second or ??? In otherworldly a perfect 5th is an interval of what? The “distance” between C and C is zero, which you call one. In other words, what are the units of the music scale?
Yes, this is a good question. It’s kind of tricky because in music, the units of measurement can be called steps. So the distance from one note to the very next is 1/2 step, and the distance from one note to two away is one whole step. However, intervals are counted in terms of their alphabet names. This is why a C – C is called a “first/unison” even though it isn’t any steps away from itself, and a C – D is called an interval of a “second”, even though a C to a D in terms of steps is one whole step. So a fifth will always be five alphabet names apart on the piano, but the number of steps between the two notes will vary based on the type of fifth it is. A perfect fifth will always be 3 1/2 steps apart (the distance between the root note of a major scale and the fifth note of the scale), while a diminished fifth will always be three whole steps apart. I hope that helps!
When C. is the starting note in smaller intervals..
If you practice then… (C,Db) (C,Eb) (C,Ab) (C,Bb) Only these two notes at a time. ?
Moving on to G major. is it (G,Ab) G,Bb)(G,Db)(G,Eb)(G,Eb) ?
D major. (D,Eb)(D,Ab)(D,Bb)(D,b) ? I can’t see the pattern at all the way you’ve set it up. And as you have answered in the comment d.25 July 2021.KL.18.19.. Can’t separate it, how to practice the piano.
Yes, intervals can be confusing! It can help to think of intervals in relationship to their major scale. So when we consider the intervals that start with a C, we want to think of them in relation to the C major scale. The intervals for a major scale will always be P1, M2, M3, P4, P5, M6, M7, P8, using the abbreviations from this post. So when we look at other intervals not in the major scale, such as C – Db, C – Eb, etc., we’re comparing them to the intervals for the C major scale. So a C – Db will be a m2 (minor second), a C – Eb will be a m3. This is because C – D is a Major second, and C – E is a Major third., and when a major interval is lowered by 1/2 step, it becomes a minor interval. We can practice intervals even if they aren’t in the scale, as they can still be used to build chords. For example, a Cm chord (C – Eb – G) is built with a P1, m3, and P5. I hope that helps!