From Here to There: Life of an Interval

Intervals up the StairsIntervals? What’s an interval? Good question. Have you ever played on the stairs? My kids did – even when they weren’t supposed to. You know, how many stairs can you skip on the way down? How stairs can you jump on the way down? How many stairs can you skip on the way up? Think about that for a minute. That’s going to help you learn about intervals.



What is an interval?

An interval is a way of measuring the distance in pitch from one note to another. Intervals help us figure out if we must hop to a note, skip to a note, or jump to the next note. Kind of like playing on the stairs. Do you just step up to the next stair, skip a stair, or jump down the last 4 stairs.

Why should I learn intervals? What’s in it for me?

Learning to read music by intervals will help you be better at sight reading. (Reading music without practicing it lots of times first.) Reading intervals also helps you transpose music in your head better and faster. If you are a non-piano player, learning about intervals and how they sound will help you hear if you are playing the right note. (Or, if you are playing in tune!)

From Here to There: Life of Interval

Recognizing Intervals

Because we are talking about distance, intervals are named with numbers. The numbers represent how many notes (or steps) are included in the interval. Bottom note + top note + notes in between = interval. We write intervals with the notes one after the other or with the notes “stacked” on top of each other. Like part of a chord. Intervals can go up from a note, or down from a note.

Interval of a 2nd

2nds are notes that are one step apart. You might say they are next-door-neighbor notes. Or like going from one step on the stairs to the next one. When we write them on the lines and spaces of a staff one note will be on a line, and the other note will be on a space, either higher or lower than the first note. Here are examples of how 2nds look when they are written on a staff, and when they are played on a keyboard.


Interval 2nds staff

Interval 2nds Keyboard


Interval of a 3rd

3rds are a little further apart than 2nds. 3rds skip over a note. Like standing on the bottom step, skipping over the next one, and going to the 3rd step. When we write 3rds on a staff either both notes are on lines, or both notes are on spaces. We go from line to the very next line, or from space to the very next space. On a keyboard, one note sits in between the top and bottom notes of a 3rd.

Interval 3rds

Interval 3rds Keyboard



Interval of a 4th

Guess what! 4ths are just a bit further apart than 3rds. Like going up stairs and trying to skip over two steps.  Or jumping down the stairs over the last two steps. If one note of a 4th is on a line, the other note is on a space. If you look at a 4th on a keyboard you will see that two empty notes are between the bottom not and the top note.

Interval 4th

Interval 4ths Keyboard



Interval of a 5th

By the time we look at a 5th we are jumping from one note to the next. I do not recommend trying 5ths on the stairs! 5ths are intervals whose notes are either both line notes or both space notes. Either the notes go from line to line with an empty line in between or from space to space with an empty space in between. Take all the fingers of one hand and place them on consecutive notes on a keyboard. Then play the note under your thumb, and the note under your little finger, and you have played a 5th. Now, if you play the 3rd finger, you just played a 3rd from the bottom of the 5th, and a 3rd from the top of the 5th.  Very convenient to play – 5ths fit right under your fingers.

Interval 5ths KeyboardInterval 5ths



Interval of a 6th

On to a bigger jump! Definitely do NOT do this on your stairs!! 6ths are more line-space intervals. If one note is on a line, the other note must be on a space – with two empty lines and two empty spaces between the top and bottom notes. Remember how you put your hands on the keyboard for a 5th? Do the same thing, except make your last finger stretch out to one extra note. You just played a 6th.   Interval 6ths Keyboard

Interval 6ths



Interval of a 7th

7ths are really big jumps! A 7th is another interval that goes from line note to line note, or space note to space note. Line to line with 2 empty line between or space to space with 2 empty spaces between.

Intervals 7ths KeyboardIntervals 7ths




Octaves are intervals of an 8th. They get their own special name. Octaves are special, because both the top note and the bottom note have the same letter names. From A to A makes an octave. Or from F to F. Or from D# to D#. We write one note on a line and the other on a space. The two notes sound the same – one is just higher than the other one.  Intervals Octave Keyboard

Intervals Octave




Interval Table





So, learn your intervals! And make your musical life easier!

What’s All This Extra Stuff on my Music?

Accidentals and Key SignaturesSo, you’ve been working on your note reading skills and your rhythm, and then your teacher hands you a piece of music with all sorts of strange marks on it. What’s up with that? What’s all that extra stuff on your music? Today I’m going to tell you about some of that extra stuff.

Whole Steps and Half Steps

Before we can get to some of that extra stuff you have to know about whole steps and half steps. A half step is the distance from one note to the very next closest note, either up or down. If you look at a piano keyboard, a half step often  goes from a white key to a black key, or a black key to the next white key. But sometimes two white keys are right next to each other. Then they are a half step apart. Look at the graphic below. I marked some half steps in purple. See how they go from one note to the very next note? Now, look at the green markings. Those represent whole steps. See how whole steps are two half steps put together? Often a whole step goes from one white key to the next white key, or from one black key to the next black key. But sometimes a whole step goes from a white key to a black key, or a black key to a white key. That is where accidentals come in.

Whole Steps and Half Steps


Some of the extra things on your music are accidentals. Sharp signs, flat signs, and natural signs are accidentals. In music we write  these signs  before the note they apply to. (You see the sign before you see the note.) A sharp sign raises a note by a half step. A flat sign lowers a note by a half step. And a natural sign will cancel out earlier sharp and flat signs. Important thing to remember: when one of these signs is written in front of your note, the sign applies to every note that of that same name in the measure, but ONLY in that measure. So, if you have the note F with a sharp sign in front of it, instead of playing a regular F you play the note that is one half step higher than F – F sharp.

Sharp, Flat, Natural Signs

Key Signatures

If a composer wrote every sharp and flat sign in front of the notes in the music, your music would be very sloppy and cluttered! Someone came up with a better system. What if a composer wanted every F in his music to be played as an F sharp? He could write a sharp sign at the beginning of the music that would tell all the musicians to play every F as an F sharp. This is called a key signature.You find a key signature at the beginning of your music – right after the treble or bass clef sign. Key signatures always follow specific orders and patterns. This letter sequence you will tell you the order of all the sharps and flats in a key signature:

B – E – A – D – G – C – F

That is the order of flats in key signatures. Now, if you turn that sequence around you get the order of sharps:

F – C – G – D – A – E – B

The next graphic shows you what all the key signatures look like. Don’t worry – it will probably be a while before you play music with 5 or 6 sharps or flats in the key signature!

Key Signatures

Be sure to come back next week when we learn about intervals!



How to Read Music

After you learn some of the basics of music notation at some point you must learn how to read music. When we say read music we mean to look at the notes on the lines and spaces and understand what they mean. They are your instructions for what to play.

Learn to Read Music

Note Placement

Notes are placed on the lines and spaces of a staff – a group of five lines and four spaces. The higher the note is on the staff the higher sound it will make. The lower the note is on the staff, the lower the sound. How to tell if a note is on a line or a space? Look at the note and see what goes right through the middle of it. It a line goes right through the middle of a note, then it is on a line. If a space goes right through the middle of the note, then it is a space note. Every line and space of a staff corresponds with a letter of the alphabet. Treble clef notes are not the same as bass clef notes.

Treble Clef Line Notes
Line Notes for Treble Clef
Treble Clef Space Notes
Space Notes for Treble Clef




Bass Clef Line Notes
Line Notes for Bass Clef
Bass Clef Space Notes
Space Notes for Bass Clef

Note Mnemonics

Sometimes we use little phrases or words to help us remember things. Here are some to help you remember the names of the lines and spaces.

Treble Clef Lines (from bottom to top): Every Good Boy Does Fine

Treble Clef Spaces (from bottom to top): F A C E

Bass Clef Lines (from bottom to top): Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always

Bass Clef Spaces (from bottom to top): All Cows Eat Grass

Ledger Lines

Problem – that is only 18 notes. Surely my instrument will play more than 18 notes! What about the rest of them? If we wrote a line/space for every note that we could play, we would have a mess! Can you imagine looking at a staff of 15 lines and trying to figure out exactly which line your note is on? That would be crazy! So, we have a solution. When we come to a note that is not on the staff, whether it is above the staff or below it, we just write a short line for that note. We call that a ledger line. We read up to or down to the note on the ledger line just like we do the notes on our staff lines and spaces. Alphabetical, A – G, starting over at A, until we get to the note on the ledger line. Look at these examples and see if you can figure them out. Reminder – lines go through the middle of a note.

Treble Clef Ledger Lines
Treble Clef Ledger Lines
Bass Clef Ledger Lines
Bass Clef Ledger Lines


A Couple More Suggestions

  • Read your notes from left to right – just like you read a book.
  • Learn to look ahead to see what note comes next. Does the note go up or down? Is it on a line or a space? At first you will read just one note at a time, but practice looking ahead.
  • Eventually, learn to read groups of notes at a time. Just like reading a book – when you first learn to read you make the sound of the letter, make the next sound, and the next sound, and then put the sounds together into a word. Pretty soon it is easy to read a word at a time, and you start to put sentences together. Music is just like that. Read a note at a time, then start to read groups of notes together. Pretty soon you will be able to see patterns in your music and you won’t even have to think of the note names when you play.

Now, get out there, read some music, and have a great time!