Learn Compound Intervals to Unlock the Magic Colors of Sound

Learning how to use compound intervals is a great way to spice up your chord progressions and melodies.

The problem is that most songwriters' and producers' free spirits feel shot down at any mention of music theory.

However, it's pretty simple to grasp when it comes to the concept of a compound interval. Understanding intervals is crucial to understanding the relationship between notes and getting the most out of your song production.

Compound Intervals

I created this resource, so in less than 15 minutes or less, you will have a firm grasp on compound intervals and how to start intentionally experimenting with the colors they provide.

It’s an easy win so let’s get started!

What is an Interval?

In music theory, an interval is a distance between two notes. Intervals are what give scales and chords their unique sound and vibe.

A musical note by itself has little to no meaning; it’s when you start defining the relationship of two notes or more by a distance that notes take on meaning and shape.

Simple Intervals vs. Compound Intervals

Simple intervals are note distances in a single octave. For example, in the C major scale, the notes C and E would create a simple major third interval.

However, when you start playing notes larger than an octave, you are creating a compound interval.

The simplest way to see this in action is to play the root note and any other note in the scale one octave up, and you would be playing a compound interval.

The way you could say this would be a compound major interval.

So as you should now see, the difference between a simple interval and a compound interval isn’t complicated.

How do you play a compound interval in music?

When you are writing melody lines, compound intervals may note be the best way to go. Often you want to write your melodies with a half step or whole step distance between notes. Writing in a stepwise fashion keeps melodies easy to sing and smooth sounding.

However, compound intervals work great for chords and can create more unique flavors for your music. These chords are often called chord extensions or upper extensions.

Compound Intervals and Chord Extensions

There are other ways to reference compound intervals, and that is as a chord extension. A chord extension adds the compound interval about the seventh degree of a chord to create a more exciting and colorful chord.

If you are playing a major triad with a major eleventh interval, you wouldn’t call the chord a compound major triad. Instead, you would call it a major 11 chord.

The chord extensions you will come across are 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.

In classical music theory, you technically build chords by thirds, so this is why you won’t see 10ths, 12ths, or 14ths.

As songwriters or producers, the primary use of a compound interval will be with upper chord extensions.

C9 Chord

How do you find the interval of a compound?

If you ever wonder what the interval is between two notes, you will count up from the note you are playing.

For example, you have the notes C D E F G A B C in C major. Each note in a major scale is a major interval except C to F, a perfect fourth, and C to G, a perfect fifth.

So any notes above that octave would be considered a compound major interval or a compound perfect interval.

The same goes true for any other intervals like minor, augmented, or diminished.

How do you simplify a compound interval?

To turn a compound interval back into a simple interval, you would take the note outside the octave and bring it down (or up) one octave. Then count the distance between the notes, and you will have the simple interval of those two notes.

What to Do Next

As you should now be able to see, compound intervals aren’t super complicated. However, understanding intervals is a great stepping stone towards more complicated music theory concepts like scales, harmony, and melody.

I’ve created a resource for songwriters, musicians, and producers to help demystify music theory and make understanding these concepts straightforward.

It’s called “The Ultimate Guide on Music Theory for Musicians Who Dislike Theory,” and you should check it out now to up your musical game. I know that it will help you become better songwriting and producer and unlock levels of creativity you never knew you had.

So get at it and happy songwriting!

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