What Are Musical Intervals and Scales?

by Barry Hunn

When talking about music, you might have heard the terms intervals and scales. For the total beginner to playing music, these terms can seem daunting, but do not worry - I will guide you through the meaning of these terms so you can have a firm foundation in basic music theory.

Music is crafted sound. Music notation and music theory are merely ways to document and describe crafted sound.

You don’t need to know music theory to play the banjo any more than you need to know the traffic laws to drive a car. But, in a musical ensemble, you might get along better knowing a little bit of theory like you might get along with your neighbors a little better if you don’t drive 80 miles an hour in a 25 mile an hour zone.

What Is a Musical Interval?

An interval is nothing more than the distance between two notes.

Intervals are labeled by distance. The distance between the notes is measured in whole steps and half steps. The number of whole steps and half steps between the notes has names like - a second, a third, a fourth, an octave, etc.

For example:

  • If you play your first string open, then play your first string fretted at the first fret, you have raised the note 1 halfstep.
  • If you play your first string open, then play your first string fretted at the second fret, you have raised the note 1 whole step.

On your banjo, moving one fret is always a halfstep whether going up or down in pitch. Moving two frets is always a whole step whether going up or down in pitch.

Before we talk more about intervals, let’s take a quick look at scales.

What Is a Musical Scale?

A scale is a series of notes with a set amount of intervals between each note. When playing a musical scale on an instrument, we talk about going up a scale (starting at the lowest note and moving sequentially through all of the notes to the highest note) or going down a scale (the opposite of going up - starting at the highest note and moving sequentially through all of the notes to the lowest note).

For this particular exercise, we are going to deal only with the chromatic scale and major scale.

The Chromatic Scale

A chromatic scale is a very simple concept. It is basically playing every note for 12 consecutive notes. On the banjo, this would be equivalent to playing any string open then fretting every fret all the way to the 12th fret. That’s all a chromatic scale is. It doesn’t matter what note you start on, just play every note that is adjacent to the one you just played for 12 notes, and you have played a chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is always 12 consecutive notes.

Now, here is a chromatic scale beginning on the third string of your banjo and we will start by playing the third string open. That is, without fretting the first note:

G, G# (the number or pound sign means sharp - sharp means one half step higher in pitch), A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G.

Notice, there are 12 notes before the G repeats itself. If you think about this in intervals, a chromatic scale is a half step between each note of the scale.

The Major Scale

A major scale, regardless of what note you start is this combination of intervals:

The beginning note (the root note or the tonic) and then whole step, whole step, halfstep, whole step, whole step, whole step, halfstep.

On the banjo, this translates to: The beginning note (or root note or tonic) and then… two frets, two frets, one fret, two frets, two frets, two frets, one fret.

This pattern, to make a major scale, never changes. Learn this pattern, and you can play any major scale.

The major scale is always eight notes . The “interval” of the first note to the 8th note is “one octave”.

The Sound of a Major Scale

If you’ve ever seen the movie “the sound of music” the star, Julie Andrews, sings a song about the major scale. It starts off something like “doe, a deer, a female deer…ray, a drop of golden sun…me, a name, I call myself… fa a long, long way to run…..etc”  You can hear the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k33ZQ4I4p24

At the end of the song she sings a complete scale doe, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee, doe. If you keep this song in mind you will always remember what the major scale is supposed to sound like.

Identifying Intervals

The sound of 3 commonly used intervals are easily identified with popular songs.

The interval of a “fourth” is heard in the first notes of Here Comes the Bride.

“Here”… is the root note or the first note of the scale.  “… Comes the bride” is the fourth note of the scale.

To hear what a fourth sounds like on your banjo, fret the third string open and then fret the third string at the fifth fret. That “sound” is a fourth interval or an interval of a fourth.

The interval of a “fifth” is heard in the main theme song to the movie Star Wars. On your banjo, pluck the third string open and then pluck that same third string at the seventh fret. That sound is the beginning and the main ingredient to the Star Wars soundtrack.

The interval of an octave is heard in the first word of the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow. “Some” is the root note and “where” is the same note one octave higher.

On your banjo this would translate to plucking the third string open and then fretting the third string at the 12th fret and plucking. This is why most banjos that have side dots on the neck have two of them at the 12th fret. The two dots clearly show where the octave is on your banjo when corresponding to the open string.

What the Interval Numbers Mean

Since a major scale has eight notes, the first note of the scale or the root note is number one. Each note above the root is numbered two through eight.

Remember, we’re talking about the notes of the major scale. Not just eight notes randomly selected above the root. As a result of this, the notes of the scale doe, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee, doe each have a number designation.

It is simply 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.

If I play note number one and then play note number four, I have played a fourth interval. In the same exact fashion, if I play note number one and then play note number five, I have now played a fifth interval.

This is not meant to be an involved presentation about music theory. There are many books and online sources that delve into music theory deeply. This is just meant as a very rough introduction and now I would like to relate it to the banjo and the beginning banjo player.

Read Part 2 Of This Article That Explains What Musical Keys Are


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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