Using Intervals for Emotion - Part 1

We've looked at the visualisation side of intervals (shapes) and moving them around. Now we move on to the fun stuff, the creative stuff. Now we're looking at how to use intervals creatively, at their impact on the listener emotionally.

Ultimate Guitar
We've looked at the visualisation side of intervals (shapes) and moving them around. Now we move on to the fun stuff, the creative stuff. Now we're looking at how to use intervals creatively, at their impact on the listener emotionally. This is a small, but still vital part of the overall tools at our disposal to achieve this. Phrasing and rhythm have a huge part here, which I'll be going into over the next few articles. Instrument choice (guitar for us) and instrument sound clearly affect this (like mega-distortion versus clean). Ultimately we want to create music that connects with our audience, and music structure is really important here. It's impossible to do all this justice even in a short set of articles, let alone in one article, but I'll try to get the gist across as simply as possible, so you can experiment. Today, I introduce music structure to give some context to the next few lessons, and then we take an initial dive into different responses produced by different intervals. I'm doing this in the context of current rock-based music. 

Is there such a thing as a wrong note?

Before we get started I want to impart two bits of advice to you, for this day and age.

Firstly, you can play any note against other (combination of) notes. Put another way, you can play any interval against any chord backing. The issue is awareness of which ones can stir up a hornet's nest in the audience, and knowing how to back off this: where to move to next, note wise, should you want to back off (you may not want to). It helps to adopt the mind-set right from the start that any combination is possible, and can be used to great effect.

Secondly, as (or if) you progress into music theory, remember this: theory is a really bad misnomer; what it actually teaches are approaches used in common across the great composers over the ages as they have gone about their business. A load of theory books have been written discussing the 18th and 19th centuries, where arguably a more puritanical, restrictive approach was used. Since then, a great deal has happened in reaction to the shackles of the past, and musical freedom these days is your right. So, watch out for your own possible reaction "theory doesn't allow that... so I mustn't play that note in this key..." etc. It's a fact of life that a huge amount of tricks get played that "violate" theoretical guidelines, all for musical effect. 

So... no, there is no wrong note (just poorly carried out application of it in context). 

Music and structure

Let me see if I can justify to you why it's worth expending effort on appreciating how to structure music, and using this structure to your advantage.

Have you listened to a new tune in your car while you're concentrating on driving. A bit later on you may start humming parts of it. Maybe you're even anticipating where the tune is going as it is playing. You recognise it has an intro, verses, repeated chorus, and so on. Yet you weren't really concentrating on the music.

By contrast, try remembering some random bunch of characters on first glance, like this "Vlp+Q! Z^yT*." No matter how hard you concentrate, as that character string gets longer, it quickly becomes impossible to remember.

Folk have even more problems with something more abstract, like an unbroken stream of random notes of equal duration. There's nothing to latch on to there. A song connects emotionally (for good or bad). Random music doesn't.

How about this? Imagine you have just heard a great guitar solo for the first time, which really fires you up. It's connecting with you emotionally. Can you recall every note, every nuance, after that first listening? Probably not, but it's connected with you at some level. As a guitarist you may think "That's amazing... I've got to learn that solo, note for note." How do you do this?

It's almost guaranteed you break it down into small chunks and practice repeating a chunk at a time until it sinks in. Often that solo is made up of various chunks with silence between them, and so you can work on each of these as a unit. Even this may be unmanageable, and you may have to chop one of these chunks up to even smaller pieces for memorising. Then you put these pieces back together, and so on. You built a structured representation in your brain to draw on and play back. 

My point is this: the majority of us connect with music when there is some level of structure to it, so as a musician it makes a lot of sense to work on ways of achieving this. We connect best when there is content playing our emotions. Hopefully the above scenarios resonate with you.

Tools for structuring music

There are a few fundamental tools at our disposal for creating structure that is imparted to the listener, and for triggering emotional responses from them. I'll discuss these over the next few articles.

Right now, we'll at look at something that's as much physical as it is emotional … the different sounds created by different interval types, and their impact on the listener. These can help structure by virtue of the fact they can be used to make parts of the music stand out (in conjunction with tools like phrasing and rhythm).

Interval sounds from innocuous to extreme edginess

At a given point in time, there may be silence, or one, or several pitches sounding together (from one or more instruments). Playing several pitches at once is known as playing harmonically, whereas sounding one pitch first, finishing that, and then sounding another, is known as playing melodically

When playing harmonically, different sonic effects happen, ranging from an overall sound that's innocuous, or edgy, to downright clashing. This is true even when we're simply listening to one interval, and gets compounded when we play several intervals harmonically (remember, even with several instruments each playing a single note, collectively we have a harmonic situation)

Conversely, a single clashy interval played harmonically can become a lot less obtrusive to the ears when played melodically.

Let's think about how different interval types create different effects in the ear. Refer back to the last article for the shapes if needed. 

First, play the 5th harmonically (both pitches at once) and listen … do you feel any need (other than maybe boredom) for it to stop sounding. Can you sense that the bottom pitch stands out more? Where would rock and metal be without this guy chugging along?

Now play the b2 harmonically. Ouch... this is a very different beast. It's bordering on physically unpleasant. In fact, in the bass region, it is physically unpleasant. Our ears very quickly want the sound to go away, to be replaced by something else. One or both of those pitches need changing to get rid of the sound of this one semitone interval. Its upper pitch in particular seems to stand out, and we don't like it. Do you agree? 

Because it induces this sensation, this can be used to create a want, a demand even, for the music to move on somewhere else, anywhere else! It's definitely not a pleasant sound to stick on, and if we want to cause a reaction in the listener, a sense of expectation that something else has to come, this is an effective way of doing so. If you hold fire and don't move on as quickly as (s)he'd like to something less grinding, or maybe move to another (maybe less) clashy interval, you can create even more of a reaction. You're messing with emotions. 

Health warning: In a dodgy club situation, you may be messing with your health as a result! (Think beer bottles, "Blues Brothers" film).

Ranking intervals for edginess

The intervals are usually ranked as follow, from the most stable, innocuous sound on the far left, to the least stable, most clashy-sound on the far right. The tipping point from innocuous to edgy sounds starts at the 2nd.

5, 4, 3, b6/#5, b3, 6, 2, b7, b2, 7, b5/#4

In a very real sense, these are you part of your armoury for the manipulation of emotional response. Use these knowingly, and you've a lot of power there. Next article I'll go into ideas for how to do this. For now, I want to give a hint at what's possible, without really exploiting the other areas of structuring to really bring out responses. So, here's a very short example I wrote for this article.

I'm not thinking about scales, or chords or melodies per-se. I'm just thinking about how to use the sonic effect of intervals. I've written it out using a bare-bones approach, but imagine using chugging instead, with a band behind it. Check it out.

Listen for the way if creates expectations, and satisfies them (not necessarily immediately). For example, the third bar's b2nd moves on to the fourth bar's 2nd, which is still pretty clashy, before that calms down on the fifth bar's b3rd.

As a parting thought, consider a major triad (1, 3, 5) or minor triad (1, b3, 5). Using the ranking above, you can see that the combination all falls on the left hand side of the ranking, so, stable, pleasant, and not clashy. But what happens if we add another pitch a semitone above or below any of the pitches in the triad. For example, if we add a 3 to the minor triad, then some weird stuff happens. On the one hand, we've now got (1, b3, 3, 5)... all ranked on the left. On the other, we've also got an interval of a b2 (one semitone), between the b3 and the 3, and it definitely makes itself heard. But it doesn't destroy the impression that 1 is the root of the chord. If we then replace the 3 by a b3, all is calm again. Interesting!

I hope I've piqued your interest? More next time.

Cheers, Jerry

26 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Excellent! Really dig the reframing of theory as something to paint sounds with rather than as something that's limiting.
    That's exactly the point. I'm mostly fairly put off by theory lessons to be honest as they seem limiting and it feels like they're forcing you to sound predictable. This article, on the other hand, is practical but most importantly I'd say: musical. Looking forward to part 2. (Also I have a slight obsession with minor sixth, it's absolutely wonderful for dramatic-sounding stuff even with heavy distortion)
    Thanks! I'm a firm believer in encouraging the exploration of (aspects of) theory in the context of the sounds and alternatives it can open up musically, rather than "do this", "do that". There is unfortunately a big disconnect between theory as it exemplified ages ago (of course, still massively important for studying classical music, and voice leading etc), and what is applicable to today's non-classical musicians. cheers, Jerry
    You've got the right idea. This is how music should be taught. "theory doesn't allow that... so I mustn't play that note in this key..." Exactly my faulty mindset when I started learning theory. I've been breaking out of that recently, though. You've got a very nice lesson here, and even though I'm still not too big on chromaticism (there are only a few techniques I really dig, like the V7/IV, the V/vi, and the neapolitan chord) I think I can learn alot from you. Can't wait for part 2.
    Someone with enough knowledge in theory knows more than just scales. They have knowledge of the intervals of every sound that can be explained by theory. Without that level of knowledge, there still wouldn't have been Stravinsky, Brower, or any of the atonal composers, who happens to do things that the standard musicians who use the relatively limited knowledge of theory know.
    You're right. I'm definitely not bashing theory, if that's how it seems. I'm kind of a theory nerd to be honest. All I was saying is that with the study of theory, one can acquire a limiting mindset, especially when you're learning with the wrong teacher (or without a teacher at all, in the case of my early years). As I said I still don't love most chromaticism, but it's my mindset that's changed. It went from "I'm not allowed to play that note" to "I don't really like the way that note sounds, so I'm not gonna play it." And I didn't have to abandon music theory for my mindset to change, I've actually been studying more and more. So I'm definitely in favor of studying theory, I'm just not too thrilled about the way it usually seems to be taught. Hence my praise for Jerry and his lesson
    Hey MadMan ... Thanks a lot for the kind words. I too had that same mindset when I first started getting into theory (and out of it again). Eventually saw the light, courtesy of a great teacher (Shaun Baxter) cheers, Jerry
    This works nicely with plain old power chords too, if you get stuck for somewhere fresh to go after a couple of chords. Even going up a major third can sound farly heavy.
    I think that the work of John Frusciante in PBX Funicular and in Letu-Lefr really exemplifies the search for expression in a disonant way that ends up becoming a whole new feeling. Thanks for the lesson, it really adds to the chain of thoughts I was having.
    I never heard of John Frusciante. Just listened to "Ratiug" and see what you mean. Like it. He's not afraid (or rather the band aren't) of dipping in and out of some serious clashes, and he does a lot of changing the harmony away from what's expected (especially where the ears are anticipating major, and he goes to minor or diminished). Also, the song is well structured.
    If you guys are interested in how to sound good playing notes that are out of key you should have a look at the outro of Sir Psycho Sexy by RHCP, breaks a lot of "rules"
    Thanks Orion. Finally managed to find a youtube video that actually plays! With the version I saw (1999 live), he's sure not staying in the one key. But the bass is following what he's do ... there's even more fun to be had when the instruments start disagreeing (without having to veer off into sonic madness!)
    What rules does it break? Using accidentals and modulating is not against any rules. It can be explained with theory (otherwise we wouldn't have explanations for it like "modulation" and "using accidentals"). There really are no rules in music. What sounds good, sounds good. There are common practices but they are not rules. So you can say the outro of the RHCP song sounds original but it is not against any rules. Why would there be rules in music? Who tells you not to do something that sounds great? I just don't understand that.
    Hey Jerry, thank you for that great post. Fantastic job, makes you wanna look more into intervals (and theory) if you haven't already.I just have a question: I didn't understand the last paragraph (As a parting thought...), could you please explain it to me? Thanks in advance!
    Hi Ant0nic14. Glad you enjoyed the lesson. The last paragraph is a teaser for the next lesson, but in brief, intervals can also be ranked by their ability to be heard as a root note, when mixed together. When a 5th (7 semitones) is present, its lower pitch always wins. If there are several 5ths, the lowest of all of them wins. So, in that strange chord, even though there is a lot of clashing set up by the 3 and b3 being a semitone apart (i.e. those two pitches creating an interval of a b2), the 5 in the chord still stands out. In other words, there is a lot more fun to had other than just stacking thirds (the traditional approach to harmony taught at school etc). Next lesson, I'll explain in depth. cheers, Jerry
    Hi Aays, Thanks, mate. The ideas that arise from what combines with what (which theory discusses or hints at) is where loads of creativity and enjoyment can be had. cheers, Jerry
    Absolutely excellent. I was fortunate to have a like minded teacher when I took music theory. He spent the first two terms teaching us all the scales and modes and the basic rules of music theory. Then the third term came around and he told us to throw that all away. If you truly want to convey something emotionally through music, you can't be focused on following the rules of the scale you're playing in. Music Theory should be used as a tool to understand what another musician has already written, and to help you put the ideas in your head to paper (so to speak). In a more hippie/"oooh, look at how deep I am" phrasing: Use your mind to guide your hands where your heart is leading you.
    Thank you, Synth-Pro. Your last two paragraphs sum things up very nicely. I really hate the conventional approach to teaching theory. There are so many beautiful sounds to be had, all of which are straight-forward to comprehend, and which folk should have a chance to experiment with ... but somehow, standard teaching approaches do a great job at scaring too many off. That's just not right. cheers, Jerry
    hi stereosmiles ... yes, for sure that can do the trick, especially when you mess around with another power chord one semitone off either side of that as well (e.g. A ... C# D C ... C# C D ... D C# C). But that's jumping a little ahead of what I'm trying to get across here (shortly be covering intervals in relation to creating tonality, so you beat me to it : ). cheers, Jerry
    You have a very inspiring way to explain theory! I never have a lot of interest to theory because I didn´t understand what my teacher was talking about. It was like he was talking completly different language! Now when I read these lessons you´ve wrote I get excited to learn again, even when I don´t understand everything (because of my language barrier) it sets me to right mood and mindset to learn and study music again. It´s just a awesome feeling, like I´d be sixteen and foud guitar vey first time!
    Thank you very much. I'm really glad this inspires you and makes me very happy that I'm making some sense. My company will shortly be releasing trial software for teaching music theory (harmony, melody, rhythm) ... very different to usual stuff. No need to read music notation at all.