Using Intervals for Emotion - Part 3

This lesson looks at the concept of using specific intervals to give a melody the sense that it weaves around one specific pitch ... we call this "establishing a tonality."

Ultimate Guitar
Hi Guys. First, apologies for the radio silence ... my company is preparing for initial trials of our eMuso music education platform. Let’s get to it.

In the last lesson, we discussed melodic outline, but didn't discuss interval choice. This is what we'll focus on today. In particular, we'll look at a concept that underpins melody: tonality. I'll avoid theoretical names for intervals (like b3, or #5 ...) and just using how many semitones are involved, so we can literally count along frets (on the same string).

Example for This Lesson

Look at the pattern of coloured circles on this next diagram. The solid red circle, numbered zero, is placed at an arbitrary fret. The pattern shows it uses pitches that are two, three, four and ten semitones above the solid red circle (see how they are numbered to indicate this ... check for yourself by counting the number of frets from the solid circle to these other circles). Look at the red-ringed circle, at the thirteenth fret. This is twelve semitones above the solid red circle, namely an octave above it, so it is coloured and numbered the same. The pattern then repeats from there. Try playing the coloured pitches in the first octave, a few times, and remember the sound (just play frets 1, 3, 4, 5 and 11 in that order).

Each member of the pattern forms an interval with the first member of the pattern (the solid red circle). So we can locate each pitch at the appropriate number of semitones above (or coincident with) the first member, and each of these pitches forms its own unique interval sound, when paired with the start pitch. And by the way, the pattern says nothing about the order we play these pitches in a phrase ... that's our choice.

Ok ... but we're not always playing the start pitch every time we play one of these pitches ... we didn't above! True, but let's suppose we have some magic that allows us and our listeners to "hear," or more accurately, "sense," the sound of that start pitch at all times, even when it's not being played. With such awareness, we then can recognise by ear the number of semitones from the start pitch to any of the others.

Now look at the next diagram.

What do you notice about this pattern compared to the one above? (Examine the semitones to each pitch from the solid red circle, and their numbering). Anyone that said "they're identical" gets a gold star. If you didn't spot this, not to worry. Just look closely at the numbers in the circles, remembering they represent the number of semitones from the red pitch to that circle. What's happened is the whole pattern has been slid, unchanged, one semitone lower (one fret lower). Again, play the coloured pitches in the first octave a few times, and remember the sound (just play frets 0, 2, 3, 4 and 10 in that order, fret 0 is the open string). Then use the previous pattern again (that starts at the first fret), and ask yourself how this sounds in comparison. Go back and forwards between the two patterns (slide it up, slide it down and so on).

I hope you reach the conclusion that these sound the same, just one starts higher than the other. The reason is that the same pattern of intervals has been created relative to the "starting point." If youchange that pattern (omit some of the intervals, or add in additional ones), you create a new sound flavour ... you've changed the "sound palette" you're working with. Does this make sense?

Why No Pitch Names?

If I'd used pitch names instead, then as soon as I change my starting point, all these names change! The first pattern's pitches are F, G, G#, A, D#. The second pattern's pitches are E, F#, G, G#, D. At first glance, it is not apparent at all that these are the same pattern, just shifted by a semitone. For me, this demonstrates that thinking by pitch names is a bad approach for initial learning. In fact, when I improvise, or write, I never think by pitch names, other than finding my "start point."

I didn't need any pitch names for the above, just a pattern of intervals from a start point that we slid around. This is why interval awareness, and visual shapes, are so useful on guitar … you're massively reducing your mental effort. Much more importantly, with practise, we can recognise by ear the sound of each pitch in the pattern against the start point, even if the start point isn't actually sounding at a given point in time.


So what has the above got to do with tonality? Well, the first decision we make when we write a melody is what is our pattern of intervals, our sound palette, that we want use? Once we choose a pitch for our "starting point" (the red circle), all the others are nailed down at the various intervals of our pattern. Pragmatically, this "starting point" pitch is chosen because it's easier to sing or play the melody's intervals built off that pitch. This "starting point" pitch is known as the tonic.

It turns out that our palette should include a few specific intervals (discussed shortly) else the melody will struggle to connect with our listeners. By suitable placement of these specific intervals in the melodic outline of our phrase, the listener senses that the melody appears to weave around this starting point pitch. The remaining intervals in our palette are placed elsewhere in the melody to contribute additional flavour to the sound. If this is achieved, making the tonic stand out, with the overall sound flavour present in our palette, we say we have "established a tonality," centred around the tonic. This placement is the "magic" I mentioned earlier.

Most often, our choice of intervals in our palette is a well-known scale such as a major, or Mixolydian or minor blues and so on. So, if our starting pitch is C, our melody would establish a tonality of C major, or C Mixolydian, or C minor blues, and so on.

How to Establish a Tonality

To really strongly establish a tonality, our palette should contain the tonic, and the interval of three or four semitones and the interval of seven semitones. These are the most important intervals to use. (These are the most stable intervals, hence excellent choices for long notes that don't make the listener want to hear them be replaced (other than possible boredom on overuse!).

For those of you that know about triads, the above are the intervals that define a major triad (0, 4, 7) or a minor triad (0, 3, 7).

If the interval of seven semitones (whose octave below is found five semitones below the tonic) is immediately followed by the tonic below it, this really strongly brings the tonic to our attention. As does playing five semitones below the tonic, followed by the tonic, which is very common.

The remainder of the intervals in our palette form the next level of importance. These get used to "fill in" between the above intervals. For example, the major scale has the intervals (0, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11) which repeat in the next octave, and so on. So, we have (2, 5, 9 and 11) in this group of secondary importance. These are unstable to varying degrees (9, 2, 5, 11 from least to most unstable). As they're unstable, they create a sense that they need to be followed by a less unstable interval (which obviously includes those in the most important group. If we're descending from the octave of the tonic, we often just play 11 and 9 on the way to 7 (one of our most important intervals). Similarly, 2 often fills in between the tonic (0) and 4, in either direction. Likewise, 5 often fills in between 4 and 7, in either direction.

The least important are whatever's left over (remember, there are twelve semitones in the octave, so with a seven note scale, there are five intervals left over). Of course, if you used this last group a lot, then they are now elevating in importance because they're being heard a lot, and in effect, you are changing your sound palette.

Using the Example Pattern to Create Two Different Tonalities

Let's use the pattern we started the lesson with, starting of the open string (E) and try and establish E as the tonal centre using this particular sound palette. This pattern is not the best of choices because it doesn't contain the interval of seven semitones. The fact our palette includes both 3 and 4 semitones gives us a nice ambiguous flavour, and these are stressed by where they occur (on strong beat, and held). I'm using 2 strings to make this easier to play.

After sixteen bars, the melody shifts the attention to G as the tonal centre, but without changing any pitches. So the emphasis has to change to bring out the G (3rd fret). This ideally requires pitches that are 3, 4 and 7 semitones above that 3rd fret. All we have here is a pitch 7 semitones above, so we use that. This pitch (D, played at the 5th fret on the A string) is followed by the G (3rd fret on the E string). Notice how often the G and D get used. Its presence allows that tonality to be successfully established. The end of the melody is 4 semitones above open E, bringing us back to the E tonality.


Learn to sing (even roughly) the following six melody fragments from some pitch of your choice: 0, 2, 4. 4, 2, 0. 2, 0, 4. 2, 4, 0. 0, 4. 4, 0. Try to detect these in songs. They are everywhere. The 2 is not needed for tonality, but it makes it much easier to learn the sound of 4, when this present. Then replace the 4 by 3.

Good luck, hope you enjoyed this lesson and can start applying it with some cool phrases of your choice. See you next time.

Cheers, Jerry

12 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I feel this was unnecessarily complicated and is likely to confuse most beginners, and even some experts. I'm a fully-qualified music teacher and I kept getting tripped up while reading this. I'm sure you put a lot of thought and effort into this so I don't wish to offend you, but I think it could have been simpler.
    Where the emphasis changes above to G in bars 17 - 24 of the example, where G is the tonal centre, the intervals measured from G are (0, 1, 7, 9, 11). Check this by counting semitones (frets) from G (3rd fret) in the second neck diagram above. Whereas, in bars 1 - 16, E (open string) is the tonal centre, and the intervals measured from there are (0, 2, 3, 4, 10) ... again look at second neck diagram. We've used two different palettes, one for the first 16 bars, and the other for the last 8 bars. The firstto emphasise E, the second to emphasise G. We used what intervals we had available in each case to create each tonality, using the method described above.
    I don't get the whole Emotion part of this.....I also think the tonality bit is just a bit off. You set the tonality of a piece in its harmony, not melody.
    Thanks for your comment. Have you read the previous lessons leading up to this? Hopefully that will give some enlightenment on the emotion side of things. Without those previous lessons, yes, I get your point. Tonality is completely achievable by melody alone ... for example, there are loads of simple unaccompanied folk songs using various modes, without a chord anywhere. Or listen to an unaccompanied national anthem ... and so on. I really strongly recommend you look into this ... it can add a great more shape to soloing and melody writing, especially combined with a knowledge of phrasing. Harmony of course backs up tonality, or contradicts it, but is not a requirement to define tonality. BTW: if anything could be explained more clearly, let me know ... that's really good feedback ... I'm always looking for ways to simplify and improve these lessons. cheers, Jerry
    It has nothing to do with explaining more clearly.I just think that without a harmony the tonality can be guessed at only (at best). If you are to take a melody on it's own without a harmony a melody can be in any tonality related to it, relative minors, modes etc. Yes, you can have what you call the 'starting point' as the tonic (maybe in practise for 90% of pop musicians the standard seen as the standard). Tonality is based around a triad is it not? You could for example, play the notes from the A natural minor in different intervals on their own creating your 'melody line', now of course with phrasing you could say your start note, and the one you finish on is the Tonic (tonal centre), but a harmony could change that completely as to whether the tonality was A minor or C can't define a tonality with just the use of the notes in a melody though due to the simple fact that different modes/scales/chords share the same notes. Now getting theoretical, is tonality psychological, or the actual brain process? That is up for debate. At points in that example you have given at the end, you could take the first bar for example the notes E and F#, one might say right E is the tonal centre with an F#, stick a G major chord in the next bar and that tonality is G, not E with the G# semi tone being a non harmonic bass note (a semi tone away giving a Phrygian feel) which moves to the 5th (C) at the end of the second bar. That's all. I mean, maybe with a specification of creating a melody without a harmony, but other than that is it not perpetuating basic ideas of melody being key to tonality, and limiting use of decent harmony. How many people do a solo piece nowadays without some form of harmony in the background, yeah you can have something feel it is in 'X' key, but without a harmony in theory a melody line is ambiguous to a key or tonality, regardless of its tonal centre. A tonal centre again, not cementing the overal tonality. P.S. you said in the first lesson about 'is there a wrong note', and you can play any note against any harmony, thus suggesting, that the harmony is the basis as to what that note you are playing is portraying or meaning right? So wouldn't that suggest that tonality is not achieved by melody alone?
    "I just think that without a harmony the tonality can be guessed at only (at best)" There are so many examples that contradict this statement...
    Thanks for the detailed reply. Appreciated! So, until I studied melody,unlinked to any harmonic background, I used to share your thoughts, and you are right: the chords do also have a lot to do with tonality, when chords are present. The critical point is that chords don't have to be present to have a sense of tonality, and there are so many unaccompanied melodies that prove this. After all, as a guitarist, I would most often be presented with chords to write against (from other folk), and that would dictate the melody (if I didn't want to deny the tonality implied by the progression). Or I may start with my own progression. But, then I did the study on melody, and eventually went back to the original definition of tonality as a result ... (an interesting pursuit ... lot's of contradictions and confusion out there) ... for example, from "Harmony, by Walter Piston and Mark Devoto", we have [i]Tonality is the organised relationship of tones in music. This relationship, as far as common practice of composers on 18th and 19th centuries is concerned, implies a central tone with all other tones supporting it or tending toward it, in one way or another It then goes on to discuss the tonal functions of the various scale degrees (no chords). So, the lessons I have given here have been explaining how to create the sense of a central tone, just melodically so far, by using various techniques for creating the melodic outline, by phrase structure, and by tone tendency. If you want to discuss further, glad to do so, but maybe that's better in the forums, or just message me? Thanks again, Jerry
    Thanks SilverSpurs. Can you let me know which paragraph(s) in particular tripped you up, and what you think would help? cheers, Jerry
    After scouring the web looking at ways to actually understand how to write and play the music I want. This is exactly the lesson series I was looking for! I started looking at the CAGED system but was turned off as too how much it is separated from any kind of musicality. This series is perfect!
    Great to hear. Thank you. CAGED is just a guitar neck navigation system. I agree with the way it breaks a 12 fret region into 5 chunks (based on where the octave or duplicate of a given pitch is found), but I don't like the way it emphasises the major chord (the shapes of C, A etc). I learned the 5 region system, based on knowing interval shapes from the given pitch in any of these 5 chunks. I can't understand why so many folk like the mental torture which goes away by learning intervals, which can be mastered in literally a few minutes over a few days. And they are what underpins all chords and melodies.
    Mostly able to follow you until the Tonality paragraph. After that ... Also, maybe it's because I wasn't playing at 150bpm for the example piece (guess I'm a little too beginner-ish for that), but I didn't notice any "weaving" around a tonal center or emphasis change(?) or however that was supposed to be. Also, after reading the previous 2 lessons, I'm still not quite getting the emotion piece of these lessons. Again, maybe I'm a bit too beginner-ish. After that, the lesson seems well thought out and put together I'm just not understanding it. Which is why I haven't rated the lesson, don't think it would be fair.