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Using Intervals To Read Guitar Music Notation Easier

By Edited Aug 19, 2016 0 0

Beginning guitarists often ask how it's possible to read the notes on the page fast enough to sight read a piece at an appropriate tempo.  It seems to take far to long to name each note and put it on the fretboard.

While that's good place to start in reading music, it's not the fastest way.  Experienced guitarists don't read each note individually.  They read intervals, which are the distance between the notes.  I'm going to give you and easy shorthand trick for reading intervals quickly.

It's a simple fact that systems and patterns make playing guitar easier.  And our most useful systems help to narrow down your choices of what the note you're looking at might be.  Deciding between 7 different notes takes too long.  We can make decisions in half the time, and therefore read the music twice as fast if we only have 3 or 4 notes to pick from.

Being able to spot intervals will help you accomplish that.

Musical Intervals

First look at how the intervals lay on the lines and spaces.

- Even numbered intervals have one space note and one line note. Those are your 2nds, 4ths, 6ths, and Octaves.
- Odd numbered intervals have both notes of spaces or both on lines.  Those are your 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths.

Your first step then, is deciding whether your interval is odd or even.

Now you're down to 3 or 4 choices instead of 7.  You can then judge the space between the notes to find the correct interval.  Use these descriptions along with the picture above to see how they lay out.

Even Intervals
2nd: Squished up and tweaked to the side
4th: Small gap
6th: Medium gap
Octave: Large gap

Odd Intervals:
3rd: No gap
5th: Small gap
7th: Large gap

Your basic two steps are:
1. Decide whether the interval is odd or even.
2. Pinpoint the correct interval by looking at the gap between the notes.

But what do we do about major vs. minor intervals?  4ths, 5ths, and octaves are called "perfect intervals" which means they don't have major and minor versions.  But the others do.  For instance, G to B is a major 3rd.  G to Bb is a minor 3rd.  These are more of a worry if you're composing or trying to figure out the correct notes for a particular chord.  But if you're just reading notation, our system handles this easily.

The system I showed you above will get you to the natural notes.  Major or minor sounds will be created by adding sharps and flats to those notes, either with a key signature or accidentals.  Figure out your natural note interval first, then pop the written sharps and flats on them and it's done for you.  

So how does this help your reading and guitar playing?  If you have a pair or notes, you'll only need to name one of them and check the interval to know what the other is.  When you also know what those interval patterns look like on your guitar fretboard (that's your next step), you won't have to name the second note.  As well, if you're reading intervals and the playing the patterns all the way through the song, you probably won't have to name more than a few notes at all.

Lastly, reading music this way will help your playing sound more "connected".  And interesting musical phrase is created by the relationships between the notes, not necessarily by the notes themselves.  If you're reading one note at a time, it will often sound like you're playing one note at a time.  Thinking in terms of the relationships (intervals) will have you thinking and playing connected phrases instead of individual notes.  It's a subtle difference, but I've seen it do wonders for my guitar students. 


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