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People always say stuff like minor sixth, and I get that they mean the sixth note from the root but how do you know if that note is minor or major exactly?

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  • I wonder if this is less confusing in languages where intervals have their own separate words that are different from regular numbers, and with alternative words for major/minor, for example in German, "Dur-Terz", "Moll-Terz". May 11, 2020 at 22:26
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica why would moll and dur be less confusing than major or minor?
    – phoog
    May 11, 2020 at 22:42
  • @phoog Because the words have different connotations, particularly not "smaller" and "larger"? May 12, 2020 at 6:21
  • A note isn't minor or major, but an interval is. Please rephrase your question.
    – user207421
    May 12, 2020 at 9:58
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    @user207421 the misunderstanding you're complaining about is the very basis for the question. Rephrasing the question as you suggest would make the answers meaningless.
    – phoog
    May 12, 2020 at 14:11

6 Answers 6

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You have probably mixed up several different meanings and contexts for the words. When someone says "major sixth", they're not necessarily talking about chords at all, so there might not be any "root" to begin with.

A note is not minor or major, but the interval between a note and some other note can be minor or major. (or a few other things as well)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interval_(music)

People use intervals when they talk about e.g. melodies or chords. For example in a melody with notes C - E - G - A, first there's a major third jump from C to E, then there's a minor third jump from E to G, and then a major second from G to A. But if there's a jump from C to A, it's a major sixth. The A note isn't anything by itself, the interval is formed when you compare it to some other note. An interval is the distance between two pitches.

In chord names, the intervals in question are from the root to other chord tones. The most important interval and chord tone is the third, and that's where a chord's primary name comes from. The chord symbol "C" means "C major" (notes C - E - G) - and "major" there means that the chord's third is a major third, and that interval is between root C and E. Some other examples: in a chord called "C maj7" there's an added B note, giving C - E - G - B as the chord tones, and the interval between the root C and the B is a major seventh, "maj7". But in a chord called "C7" the seventh is a minor seventh, giving chord tones C - E - G - B♭.

You have to pay attention to the context where these numbers are used - someone might say for example that a chord's second note is its third, and you can add a seventh as the fourth note. ;) In the second inversion the fifth is the first note. "Got that?!" The same words have been re-used for many different meanings, but you'll learn to identify the different contexts by making music and talking about it with people. It takes more than a second though.

Ok, so when is an interval major or minor?

Your actual question might be "how to know whether the interval between two notes is major or minor (or perfect, augmented or diminished)". Or since you talk about a root, maybe you mean the specific interval between a chord's root note and a chord tone. Anyway:

Referring to intervals like "fourth" or "sixth" etc. assumes the existence of a scale (and more precisely, a diatonic scale) that's used as reference for counting steps. In the following we use the C major scale, which is conveniently represented by the white keys of the piano:

piano keyboard and intervals on white keys

There are two different kinds of thirds, which are intervals spanning three scale notes (i.e. white keys). The one between C and E is a major third, because it is a bigger jump than the one from D to F, which is a minor third. How is it bigger? From C to E the distance is four semitones or four half-steps, because there's a black key between C and D, and between D and E. From C to E the half-step jumps are: C(0), C#(1), D(2), D#(3), E(4). But there is no black key between E and F, so that's only three semitones: D(0), D#(1), E(2), F(3).

Similarly for the sixths. The jump from E up to C (spanning six white keys, thus a sixth) is 8 semitones, but the jump from F up to D is 9 semitones. That's why E-C is a minor 6th, but F-D is a major 6th. The major 6th is a bigger jump in pitch, even though it's equally many white keys i.e. scale notes.

However, fourths and fifths are not called major or minor, they're either perfect, augmented or diminished. More on that subject elsewhere.

For other scales and keys, you can't use the piano's white keys as directly as with C major (or A minor), but the principle is the same, you just have to imagine the scale notes and whether the scale steps are whole-steps or half-steps.

For example in the D major scale, the scale notes are just distributed a bit differently between the black and white ... or should I say, wider and narrower piano keys.

D major scale on piano keyboard

Talking about a "third" etc. implicitly assumes the existence of such a diatonic scale.

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  • 3
    The minor 7th is not called a dominant 7th. The dominant 7th is a major chord with a minor 7th that's naturally built of the dominant scale degree.
    – Dom
    May 9, 2020 at 21:54
  • a major triad chord with an added minor seventh, is called a dominant seventh chord May 9, 2020 at 23:09
  • @Dom - That dominant chord has also been called major minor seventh, as opposed to a different chord minor major seventh. Which, actually, sums it up quite well. But most of us just call it dominant.
    – Tim
    May 10, 2020 at 7:29
  • Intervals don't have to be calculated from the 'root'. Just from the lower note - which may or may not be the 'root'. A chord's name doesn't always reflect the interval found within it. Consider Cm6.
    – Tim
    May 10, 2020 at 9:04
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    @LaurencePayne Ah ok, yes, it's important to understand that all of this is really only conventions used in a particular culture with a long history. People coming from outside the culture seem to expect some kind of a consistent, designed set of rules. May 10, 2020 at 13:37
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First off, no note can be major or minor in itself. In context, of course, but not in isolation.

It's intervals that can be called major and/or minor. An interval is the space between two specific notes. Well that's half the story! To specify any interval also needs the names of those notes.

'Major' and 'minor' in these circumstances refer to larger (major) and smaller (minor).

There are some intervals which are neither major nor minor. Namely the perfect intervals - P4, P5 and P8.Which will become diminished if smaller and augmented if larger (by a semitone). But they're still never m or M.

The others - 2, 3, 6, and 7 can be either major or minor. Or augmented or diminished - but that's for another day.

Major 2 (M2) consists of consecutive letter names, and a space of 2 semitones between them. C>D. changing that to C>D♭, it becomes m2.

Major 3 (M3) consists of notes with a letter name between them missing, and a space of 4 semitones. C>E. changing that to C>E♭, it becomes m3.

Major 6 (M6) consists of notes 6 letters away, and a space of 9 semitones - C>A. changing that to C>A♭, it becomes m6.

Major 7 (M7) has notes 7 steps away, and a space of 11 semitones. C>B. changing that to C>B♭, it becomes m7.

I hoped this would be an easy , uncomplicated answer - not so. Returning to M3: just having two letter names with a single letter between them missing. Like D>F. O.k., missing E. BUT - there's not 4 semitones. So, it's already m3. To become M3, either the D goes down to D♭, or the F goes up to F♯.

It's easier counting up from a lower note, and from what's here, the number of semitones counted is important. As John states, each interval has its own inverse. The 'rule of nine' applies. Maj become min, dim become aug, and vice versa. E.g. C>E =M3. E>C =m6. C>B = M7. B>C = m2.

Warning: any interval is reliant on what the notes are actually called - or what key they reside in. C>E♭ is m3. C>D♯ is augmented 2 (aug2, +2). They may well sound the same, and be played identically on a piano, but they are NOT the same in name!

Also note that notes named in intervals do not necessarily reflect their key status. Stupid, but true (sometimes). M2 (from the root) is found in both major and minor keys! M6 and M7 (from the root) can also be found in minor keys!

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  • The fourth and fifth paragraphs taken together imply that fourths, fifths, and octaves cannot be diminished or augmented, which (as I am fairly sure you know) is not correct.
    – phoog
    May 10, 2020 at 18:11
  • @phoog 4th para clarified, 5th is as is. Thanks. Hope that's good now. I'm more pedantic than...most.
    – Tim
    May 10, 2020 at 18:16
  • Yes. It's hard to find the right balance. Covering all the bases can result in answers that are too dense with information to be useful.
    – phoog
    May 10, 2020 at 18:33
  • This should be the correct answer. Major and minor only have meaning in relation to context (other notes). Perhaps just a personal preference, but I treat notes as a form of stream input/output. As a result of this (highly computerized) interpretation, I don't even use major or minor scales while composing - since everything's an input or output stream with individual "bytes" (notes). Aug 17, 2020 at 19:58
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@piiperi_Reinstate_Monica has provided you a good answer and resources. I would like to add a bit of information that hopefully you will find useful as well.

Because you mentioned “from the root”, in your question I want to point out that an interval is simply the distance between ANY two notes, not necessarily a root and a chord or scale tone. Intervals are units of measurement, just like lines on a ruler. Think of each line on a ruler as one half step and 12 lines or half steps equals one octave. The system of naming intervals is different than simple counting because intervals are named based on 7 scale tones and not on 12 half steps and is as so:

number of half steps/basic interval name

1=m2

2=M2

3=m3

4=M3

5=P4

6= aug4/dim5

7=P5

8=m6

9=M6

10=m7

11=M7

12=P8

Regarding your example question of 6ths, a minor 6th (m6) is 8 half steps, (say C up to Ab) and a major 6th (M6) is 9 half steps (C up to A).

Intervals can be measured either upward or downward so a 5th up, (say C up to G) is different from a 5th down (C down to F). Lastly every interval has its inverse to get to the same note in the opposite direction. For example to go from C up to B is a M7 but C down to B is a m2. every other interval has its own equivalent, i.e. M2/m7, m3/M6, etc.

My intention for this answer is to help you conceptualize the concept of intervals a little better, I hope it’s useful to you. A good first step is to memorize and learn the sounds of all the intervals within an octave and be able to play them on your instrument starting on different notes and in different directions.

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  • The analogy 'just like lines on a ruler' isn't sitting too well! Unless it's a ruler with inches and millimetres! All intervals have at least two names, and by merely listening to any interval, it's imossible to state what it is. Dim 5 or aug 4? Who knows? Can't come up with a better analogy though, sorry!
    – Tim
    May 10, 2020 at 7:34
  • @Tim my analogy was simply to help show what an interval is at its most basic level, the distance between two notes. Of course you are right that they can have more than one name but the naming of the intervals depends on the context. And for the record I’m a big fan of those rulers with both inches and millimeters! May 10, 2020 at 9:40
  • The analogy is useful, although imperfect as noted by @Tim. Another problem with the analogy is that counting works a bit differently with intervals, so the results are off by one: the ruler starts at zero, but the unison corresponds to 1. The distance between the marks 4 and 6 on a ruler is 2, but the distance between a fourth and a sixth is a third. I am not sure how much this answer would be improved by mentioning these specifics, but it should perhaps at least contain a disclaimer that people learning about the interval system shouldn't try to pursue the analogy too strictly.
    – phoog
    May 10, 2020 at 18:16
  • How about numbering people in a queue? A familiar, time occupying concept at the moment! 1st in queue is number 1. (Although the other day, I was told on the phone, waiting in the queue for the doctor's receptionist, that I was zero in the queue...and still waited). Crazy times!
    – Tim
    May 10, 2020 at 18:25
  • @Tim I suppose the queuing software was written by one of those pretentious computer programmers who believes that counting a set from zero is somehow useful. If there are three people in such a queue, they would be counted as numbers zero, one, and two. The size of the queue is calculated by adding one to the number associated with its last member. I'm a computer programmer, too, and I find this baffling and vexing.
    – phoog
    May 10, 2020 at 18:30
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How to name an interval. Listen carefully. This isn't about WHY, just about HOW.

  • Count letter names for the basic interval - 2nd, 3rd, 4th whatever.

    • Then imagine a major scale starting on the lower note. If the upper note is in that scale, it's a major interval. (Except Unisons, 4ths and 5ths which are called Perfect.)

    • Example: D♭ to A♭. Five letters, D, E, F, G, A so it's a 5th. Fifth note of D♭ major scale is A♭. Good, it's a major 5th. Hold on - its a 5th, so call it a Perfect 5th.

    • If the upper note is a semitone too low to fit, it's a minor
      interval. (Except Unisons, 4ths and 5ths which are called
      Diminished.)

    • Example: G♯ to B. Three letters, G, A, B so it's a 3rd. Third note of G♯ major scale is B♯. Whoops, our B is a semitone under that, so it's minor.

[I'll leave Augmented intervals, and a full discussion of Diminished intervals for now.]

For some reason, this simple, time-honoured textbook method will be attacked. I really don't understand why. It fits well with the (excellent) 'first know your scales' mantra of both classical and jazz harmony. It doesn't suggest in any way that all the intervals in a minor scale are minor, or suggest anything else misleading. It's just a simple, foolproof method of naming intervals. Remember, intervals are independent of harmonic context - F♯ to A is a minor 3rd whether it's part of the tonic chord of F♯ minor, the tonic chord of D major, the dominant 7th of E major, a D♯ diminished triad, a Gmaj9 chord... Or it might be a linear melodic interval, not part of a chord at all. Imagine having to rote-learn all of those as separate instances!

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  • 3
    +1 for perseverance! :D But I find this method slightly unintuitive, because harmonically I should be thinking about the actual scale I'm using, not some unrelated major scale. For example if I'm thinking about stuff over D major scale, what's F# - A ... thinking about an F# major scale doesn't help. Instead, I should know that both notes are on my diatonic scale, and it's a minor third between scale notes 3 and 5. I don't say your method isn't useful, I just can't imagine a situation where I'd have to give scale-based interval names for arbitrary note pairs without having a scale context. May 11, 2020 at 16:28
  • If you REALLY know your scales, it's such an easy method! And surely the point is that F# to A is a minor 3rd, whatever the harmonic context.
    – Laurence
    May 11, 2020 at 21:48
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A note all by itself has no particular character, it is just a frequency. The term minor 6th, as you pointed out in your own question, is really describing an interval, the distance in frequency between two notes.

There are some basic naming conventions that go back a long way historically. To understand the names you need to know that they are made in reference to the major scale. This is the starting point for our vocabulary.

Relative to the root not, Do, of the major scale every other note defines an interval.

Do --> Do is called a Unison (not much of an interval)

Do --> Re is a Major Second

Do --> Mi is a Major Third

Do --> Fa is a Perfect Fourth

Do --> Sol is a Perfect Fifth

Do --> La is a Major Sixth

Do --> Ti is a Major Seventh

Do --> Do is an Octave

Notice that the 4th and 5th are referred to as perfect whereas the others are "major". In this context is might seem like the individual notes are being called "major" but it is really the interval from Do that has this designation. Without reference to a key it makes no sense to call A and major or minor note. Only relative to C is it the Major 6th. Relative to G it is a Major second. It is the relationship between a pair of notes that distinguishes major from minor.

Traditionally, the naming convention for intervals uses the lower pitch not as a reference. So the interval describes an increase in frequency. Not all people follow this convention today but this is the way it's taught in classical theory texts. So we sometimes say that A is the major sixth of C, or the interval from C to A is a major 6th. If you started on A and walked up to C we would have a minor third!

When the a major interval is made flat by a half step it is called minor. When a perfect is flattened it is called diminished. So you will never hear of a minor 5th, but a diminished 5th. Augmenting an interval refers to making the top note sharp by a half step. You can also diminish a minor interval.

That being said, one way to tell if a given note is "major" or "minor" relative to another is to ask if the note in question is on the major scale of the note it is being compared to. If so then it's major (or perfect) otherwise ask if it is flat or sharp. There are other naming conventions. Specifically the intervals follow a strict pattern using the alphabet. A B C D E F G A B C... etc. For example F is the 4th of C and an the note pair {C, Fb} would be a diminished fourth even though the Fb is enharmonic to E (in 12TET) which is the Major third of C. The note pair {C, E} is a major third while the pair {C, Fb} is strictly speaking a diminished 4th. You need to respect this naming convention when figuring out the proper interval name of a note pair.

In modern 12TET tuning we have the chromatic scale which divides the octave into 12 half steps. We typically think of intervals in terms of the number of half steps separating the two notes. This is very convenient as it eliminates the need to have a reference key, which is unnecessary. In this context the intervals and the number of half steps are as follows.

Minor 2nd = 1 half step

Major 2nd = 2 half steps

Minor 3rd = 3 half steps = augmented 2nd

Major 3nd = 4 half steps

Perfect 4th = 5 half steps

Diminished 5th = 6 half steps = augmented 4th

Perfect 5nd = 7 half steps

Minor 6th = 8 half steps = augmented 5th

Major 6th = 9 half steps

Minor 7th = 10 half steps = augmented 6th

Major 7th = 11 half steps

Octave = 12 half steps

These are all distances between a pair of notes and in this case the bottom note would be the unison. This convention makes it easy to identify intervals between any pair of notes. For example from B to D there are 3 half steps so this is either a minor third or an augmented 2nd. Since the letter names indicate a third (i.e. C is skipped) it would be a minor 3rd. In the key of B major the 3rd is D#, flattening this would give you a D natural. You get the same result. But using the half steps it doesn't really matter if this is Ti to Re in the key of C or La to Do in the key of D. They are the same interval regardless.

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A note itself can't be "major" or "minor" or "diminished" or etc. Those terms are relative, meaning that they must be in comparison to something else. No note is intrinsically any of the aforementioned qualities.

Now, if you know what the relative note is, then it becomes much more simple and formulaic. A minor interval is simply a half step down from its respective major interval, which are the following.

M2 = 2 Half Steps (HS)

M3 = 4 HS

P4 = 5 HS

P5 = 7 HS

M6 = 9 HS

M7 = 11HS

P8 = 12 HS (Octave)

Seeing this, all we have to do is take away a half step to get the relative minor interval. There are a few exceptions, being that in the cases of the intervals with a "P", meaning "perfect", they don't have minor intervals. When you move a perfect interval a half step down, they become diminished.

For example, a minor second would be 1 half step, while a minor seventh would be 10 half steps. Keep in mind that the names of the notes are very important. From C sharp to E double sharp tallies up to 5 half steps, which may appear to be a P4 interval, but is supposed to be an A3 interval, since C and E are three whole steps apart (According to the bureaucrats at the MTAC, anyways).

As a disclaimer, my knowledge of music theory is rather provincial so I'd take my answer with a few grains of salt.

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