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In my study of intervals I learned that two notes separated by one semitone is a minor 2nd interval. This feels quite intuitive to me and I readily accepted this fact a long time ago.

Just recently, though, I re-visited the subject of scales and along the way one little sentence threw me. This sentence stated that ALL the intervals on a major scale are major intervals!

I took this to mean that all consecutive intervals on a particular scale are major, so I applied this thought to the C Major scale. C to D is 2 semitones and major. D to E is 2 semitones and major. But E to F is only a semitone and therefore minor.

I feel sure that there are no errors in what I've been told because I've looked in several places, all confirming that all the intervals on a major scale are major.

So, somewhere along the line I've got my wires crossed, perhaps relating semitones to intervals.

Could anyone please enlighten me.

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    Where did you learn that "ALL the intervals on a major scale are major intervals"?
    – ojs
    Feb 1 at 11:11
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    Man, it would be great to know the source that so misled you!
    – nuggethead
    Feb 2 at 0:18
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    "two notes separated by one semitone is a minor 2nd interval" could also be an augmented unison like idk c and c#
    – haxor789
    Feb 4 at 14:54
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    @haxor789 or a doubly diminished third, like B sharp and D flat. Unlikely, to be sure.
    – phoog
    Feb 6 at 14:01

5 Answers 5

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This somewhat confusing pedagogical device may be stated more precisely thus: every degree of the major scale (excluding the fourth, fifth, and octave, because these are perfect intervals) is a major interval above the root of the scale. Taking C major as the inevitable example, D is a major second above C, E a major third, A a major sixth, and B a major seventh.

As you have noticed, it does not apply to intervals between two steps of the major scale when the lower isn't the root. So the fact that E to F is a minor second, which it most certainly is, is not inconsistent with the pedagogical device when it is stated with sufficient precision.

It is to be noted that many people misconstrue the relationship between major and minor intervals and the major and minor scales. The intervals aren't called as they are because they are taken from the respective scales; rather, the scales are named after the third degree, which is a major third in the case of the major scale and a minor third in the case of the minor scale.

The intervals, in turn, were named because when you look at all the possible diatonic seconds (or thirds, sixths, sevenths, etc.), there are two possibilities for the number of semitones spanning the interval, one being a semitone greater than the other. Thus one was called "bigger" and the other "smaller," which in Latin are major (or, if you must, maior) and minor.

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    @jonel So if you want a clearer (if wordy) version of the sentence it's "In a major scale, the interval between the root and each scale member is either major or perfect." Feb 1 at 13:11
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    @jonel And it's just sort of a coincidence, and of limited mnemonic value. All the intervals between the root and other scale members in a Phrygian scale are either minor or perfect; so what? And all such intervals in a whole tone scale are either major or augmented, unless you count the unison and the octave. These would be cumbersome mnemonics for remembering what each scale is like, or for understanding the differences in interval quality. I say throw away this bit of trivia to make room for more useful musical knowledge. Feb 1 at 13:18
  • @AndyBonner also unless you spell your whole-tone scale as e.g. C, D, E, G flat, A flat, B flat, C.
    – phoog
    Feb 5 at 9:15
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All the notes of a major scale are a major interval above the tonic. (Except that we call 'major' 4ths, 5ths and octaves 'Perfect' rather than 'Major'.) C to D is a major 2nd, C to E is a major 3rd etc. That's kind of the basic definition of a 'major' interval.

Intervals BETWEEN adjacent notes of a major scale are a mix of major and minor 2nds. D to E is a major 2nd. E to F is a minor 2nd. etc.

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    We don't call the major fourth perfect. There is no major fourth - major compared to what, the minor fourth? Doesn't exist. The distinction between major and minor doesn't make any sense there. Hence, neither major nor minor, but simply the one and only, perfect fourth.
    – Divizna
    Feb 1 at 23:46
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The statement that "ALL the intervals on a major scale are major intervals" is indeed confusing and not true. As you mentioned, the 3rd to 4th is a half step (minor 2nd) and 7 to root is also a half step.

I encourage you to not get caught up in music theory semantics like this. Be critical of the source of information, but in the end, playing and writing music is about creativity and exploration. Whether you decide to call an interval major or minor doesn't have much of an impact on the end result. Hope this helps!

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Strangely enough, there are also minor 3rd intervals in a major scale! In key C for example, ^3>^5 (E>G) is a m3. So is A>C.

You have been sold misinformation, or have translated it wrongly, sorry!

I imagine what the writer meant was that all intervals from the root (here, C), are major. But even that's not correct. As stated in other answers, ^1>^4, and ^1>^5 are called perfect, not major nor minor. Reasons don't matter here.

EDIT - reading OP's q and a leaves me thinking they think intervals are only measured (and named) using semitones as the criteria. Not so. Nearly every interval has two names (minimum) with the same number of semitones between the two notes concerned. OP is correct that each standard diatonic scale must have one of each letter name for its notes, so combining those two facts should make things more clear.

But, bear in mind also that the interval's sound can have at least a couple of names, depending on what the actual note names are. for example, an interval of say, 2 semitones may be M2, but it could just as well be dim3. Not only dependant on the key involved, but more often the note names themselves. Just to add to the confusion..!

If you stick with this site, you'll find the best, most accurate information on intervals (and pretty well everything else!) rather than rely on folk who post what they think is true, but often isn't. Or, they're misinformed too.

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  • Oh, you'll find plenty of misinformation on this site too! Though it tends to get voted down.
    – Laurence
    Feb 2 at 12:34
  • @Laurence - and here's me trying to big up the site! You're right of course, but sometimes good info. still gets dvd, as you probably are aware, from my many comments, with no good reasoning supplied. So in those cases, no-one knows if the info. is good or bad.
    – Tim
    Feb 2 at 12:44
  • Yup. This site takes itself far too seriously sometimes! All the rules about keeping information pure, insistence on definitive answers rather than discussion, but still some batshit crazy (or at least, misinformed) stuff manages to get through.
    – Laurence
    Feb 2 at 12:51
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Thank you everbody for your contribution to answering my question.It seemed to me that this topic does throw up confusion in others as well. So I decided to go back and read a bit more and now I think I've got it. So I will write down what I now feel about this and pehaps allow somebody else to put me straight if necessary.

It seems to me that intervals based on the tonic of a scale are, by definition, simply based natural notes on the lines of the staff for the particular key I am in.

Using the ubiquitous C Major scale, with C as the tonic, all the natural notes belong to actual lines on the staff. The interval number is simply the count from the tonic. The interval quality for D, E, A, and B are 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th respectively are major (simply by definition) whilst F and G, 4th and 5th are both perfect. As long as no accidentals are involved then no other interval qualities can occur.

For a minor scale this would be slightly different. For example the C harmonic minor scale has notes:

C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, B

So, in this case accidentals qualifying the notes on lines A and B are one semitone less than the natural, so these are minor 3rd and minor 6th respectively.

So, I can really forget about all this busness of adding up semitones. All I have to do is write out the scale and the accidentals will reveal the interval qualitities easily.

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  • How do you figure a minor second through this technique? Alternatively, what do you do if the "key you're in" is A minor or any other minor key? Why does this answer discuss the C harmonic minor scale when this is only one of three or more scales that can be employed in the key of C minor?
    – phoog
    Feb 4 at 8:36
  • The C minor harmonic scale was an example of a minor scale that exhibited the property the I was after. A minor second will not be found in as an actually interval where the two notes are actually in the minor scale under consideration.
    – jonel
    Feb 6 at 9:05
  • Sorry, I don't quite understand; probably my fault for making too many points in one comment. Which property were you after? The property that a minor interval is one semitone smaller than the corresponding major interval? That property is independent of scales.
    – phoog
    Feb 6 at 14:05
  • No, the property that all intervals in the major scale scale are either major, perfect or octave. The natural minor scale, being a relative of a major svcale would be the same. The harmonic minor would have one note that was not in the key signature of it's relative major, being a minor interval in fact.
    – jonel
    Feb 7 at 15:20
  • You've got that backward, perhaps because you said "relative" when you meant to say "parallel": the relative minor of C major is A minor, and the note that has an accidental in the A harmonic minor scale is G sharp, a major seventh above A. But the same is true of the parallel minor: the key signature of C minor has three flats, corresponding to the third, sixth, and seventh degrees of the scale, but the seventh must be raised with an accidental to obtain the harmonic minor scale.
    – phoog
    Feb 7 at 15:28

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