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I probably described that poorly in the title, and I'm not even sure there is a word for what I'm thinking.

Lets say you're playing on just the white keys on a keyboard. C E G is C major, and D F A is D minor, the next chord after that. The number of steps between the notes in each chord is different, but they're the same number of notes within the scale apart.

Is there a word that describes the number of notes apart within a scale like that?

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Sure is! These are called Intervals. It has to do with the number of "Scale Degrees" that separate two notes - basically, the number of notes you have to move through the scale from the first note to reach the second note (including the note you started on). These are worded "Second", "Third", "Fourth", "Fifth", "Sixth", "Seventh", "Octave" (Octave indicates an 8 note separation)

So, in your example:

  • C to E is a third (because you have to go from C (1) -> D (2) -> E (3))
  • E to G would also be a third (E -> F -> G)
  • C to G is a fifth (C -> D -> E -> F -> G)

You get a bit more complicated if you consider more unusual notes. For instance, C to Eb would be a minor third, because it's only three half steps. A more exhaustive list of Interval names is located here, but these are the basics.

I hope this helps. Disregard if I've misunderstood your question =)

EDIT: Just to be more clear / complete here (in case wikipedia ever disappears ;)):

Number of half steps    Interval Name
0                       Perfect unison
1                       Minor second
2                       Major second
3                       Minor third
4                       Major third
5                       Perfect fourth
6                       Diminished fifth, or augmented fourth
7                       Perfect fifth
8                       Minor sixth
9                       Major sixth
10                      Minor seventh
11                      Major seventh
12                      Perfect octave
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CEG and DFA both have the same interval then, despite being a major and a minor chord, is that correct? –  Alex Aug 25 '11 at 14:44
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I've updated the answer with a bit more detail, I should have included that in the first place! –  jadarnel27 Aug 25 '11 at 14:55
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E -> G is a minor third. A chord that spans a fifth (like all of the ones discussed so far) contains one minor third and one major third. In CEG the major is first; in DFA it's second. If you have two major thirds, your overall interval is a tritone, not a fifth. –  Monica Cellio Aug 25 '11 at 15:23
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@Monica +1 Good catch! I can't believe I actually typed that E -> G was a major third haha. –  jadarnel27 Aug 25 '11 at 15:27
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@Monica: A tritone consists of three tones, which would be about two minor thirds (except for comma's). Two major thirds amounts to an augmented fifth or a minor sixth. –  Raskolnikov Aug 25 '11 at 20:20

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