- In atonal music, intervals are usually measured in , rather than using tonal interval names.
- There are four types of interval: , , , and (unordered pitch class intervals).
- Ordered pitch intervals are as specific as possible: they measure specific pitches (in specific octaves) and represent the directionality of the interval.
- Interval classes are the most abstract type of interval: they represent the smallest possible distance between two pitch classes.
In tonal music, because intervals are dependent upon the pitches that create them, the consonance and dissonance of intervals is determined by tonality itself. Imagine the interval create by G and B♭, a minor third. In the context of G minor, this is a consonant interval. Respelled as G and A♯, perhaps in the context of B minor, it creates a dissonant augmented second. From a tonal perspective, the two intervals are different even though they are the same in isolation (Example 1).
Contrast this with atonal music. Because atonal music has no tonality, the distinction between B♭ and A♯ no longer matters. For us, the intervals G–B♭ and G–A♯ are the same. For this reason, we will not use tonal interval names like “minor third.” Instead, we will measure the intervals by the number of semitones between the pitches or pitch classes.
We can describe intervals according to two types of information: pitches vs. pitch classes, and ordered vs. unordered intervals. Combined, this makes four types of intervals, summarized in Example 2. Each of these interval types is explained below.
|pitch intervals (pi)||pitch class intervals|
|ordered intervals||ordered pitch intervals||ordered pitch class intervals|
|unordered intervals||unordered pitch intervals||unordered pitch class intervals / interval classes (IC)|
Pitch intervals are the distance between as measured in half steps, which is to say that octave is taken into consideration. Thus, the interval C4–E4 is 4: four half steps are between these notes. But if that E is moved up an octave (C4–E5), the interval becomes 16: four half steps between C and E, plus an octave (twelve half steps) between the lower E and the higher E.
Within pitch intervals, there are ordered and unordered variants. To create an , simply add a plus or minus sign, to indicate whether the interval is ascending or descending. , by contrast, do not indicate which direction the pitches move in—they are thus more suitable for harmonic intervals. The differences between ordered and unordered pitch intervals are summarized in Example 3.
Pitch-class intervals are the distance between as measured in semitones. Returning to our C4–E5 interval, we are now interested just in the pitch classes C and E. To go from C to E in pitch-class terms, we just have to move up 4.
measure the distance between pitch classes, always ascending. This is visualized most easily by picturing the twelve tones around a clock face, and measuring the interval by going around the “clock” in clockwise fashion. Thus, from C to E = 4, but E to C = 8 (Example 4).
Unordered pitch-class intervals are usually called interval classes. is the smallest possible distance between two pitch classes. On the clock face, this means traveling either clockwise or counter-clockwise, whichever is shortest. Interval class is a useful concept because it relates intervals, their inversions, and any compound versions of those intervals. You should be able to connect this concept to the concept of pitch vs. pitch class: a pitch class is a pitch, its enharmonic respelling(s), and any octave displacements of those spellings.
This means that there are only six interval classes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. If you reach the pitch class interval of 7, it becomes shorter to move counter-clockwise, and 7 becomes 5. For the same reason, 8 becomes 4, 9 becomes 3, and so on. Both C–E and E–C are interval class 4 (Example 5).
Using various combinations of pitch interval, pitch-class interval, ordered, and unordered, we arrive at four different conceptions of interval.To wrap your mind around each of these and begin to understand their various analytical uses, think of them on a sliding scale of most concrete — the ordered pitch interval — to most abstract — the unordered pitch-class interval. You can find this related to other concepts in the Set Theory Quick Reference Sheet.
As you analyze atonal music, you will find that different types of interval are useful for describing different types of phenomena. This is exactly like how, in tonal music, it’s useful to distinguish between a 13th and a 6th in some situations, but not others.
- Straus, Joseph Nathan. 2016. Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Set Theory Quick Reference Sheet: summarizes the definitions of pitch vs. pitch class, intervals vs. interval classes, and sets vs. set classes.
- Ordered vs unordered pitch interval © Bryn Hughes adapted by Megan Lavengood is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Ordered pitch class intervals © Bryn Hughes adapted by Megan Lavengood is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Pitch classes © Bryn Hughes adapted by Megan Lavengood is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
Generally considered to be smallest interval in Western musical notation
The distance between two pitches measured in semitones, with a plus or minus symbol to indicate ascending or descending, respectively. For example: C4 to E5 would be an ordered pitch interval of +16.
The distance between two pitches, measured in semitones. C4 to E5 would be an unordered pitch interval of 16.
The distance between pitch classes from lowest to highest. In other words, pitch class intervals are measured on the clockface, always going clockwise.
The smallest possible distance between two pitch classes. The largest interval class is 6, because if order is disregarded, the tritone is the largest possible interval. A P5 can be inverted to a smaller P4, m6 to M3, and so on.
Discrete tones with individual frequencies
All pitches that are equivalent enharmonically and which exhibit octave equivalence