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Intervals Tier List

2020 January 2114 min read

All right. So I've tried to stay away from controversial stuff on here, but I've been thinking about this particular issue for a while now and figured I had to address it at some point.

Not all musical intervals are created equal. The structural constraints of melody, harmony, progression, and modulation all naturally favour some intervals at the expense of others. Obviously, almost all of this just comes down to personal opinion, but since my opinions happen to be the right ones I felt it was incumbent upon me to make them known.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of a tier list, it originated on video game discussion forums and now it's basically how cool hip online people rank things based on preference while making appropriate room for ties. Items are sorted into one of seven tiers, from F as the worst, up to A, and then S as the best. For this list, I rated all the intervals up to an octave, loosely grading each based on factors such as:

  • how good it sounds by itself, as a chord;
  • how well it stacks on top of itself and with other intervals;
  • how suited the chord is to a melodic line and/or a bassline;
  • how well the two notes work played sequentially in a melody;
  • how well the sequence works as a chord progression and/or a modulation.

I'll also, in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, include some illustrative examples of the use of various intervals in my own music. You can click each link to immediately hear the relevant passage, without leaving the page, thanks to my site's all-new music player functionality! :)

It's worth making the disclaimer, first and foremost, that all of the intervals I'm about to talk about have redeeming qualities, and it is only because of the constraints of the tier list format that I have to put some of them substantially lower than others. That being said, there's a reason I stopped at the octave; if I had to include the minor 9th, it would skew the scale to such an extent that every other interval would shoot up to S tier. So with all that in mind, let's start at the bottom:

F Tier

Major 7th

There are definitely situations where a well-placed major 7th can be the highlight of a musical passage. I'm particularly fond of how it's used in the section beginning at 9:00 in Memory Lane: the bassline, along with the held Bb in the right hand, spells out an Ab major 9 chord, holding the G and delaying the Eb until the end. In context, the G stands out particularly nicely, really emphasizing that momentary shift away from minor to major before going back to minor again. The opening two notes of Muses Massachusetts also spell out a major 7th.

But even in this narrow use case of an upward interval in a bassline, I use the major 7th far less often than its minor counterpart - and outside of this scenario, I just find it too wide and too dissonant to be useful by itself. It usually needs notes in between, like a bridge needs arch support in order not to collapse under its own weight. In a melodic line, it has a sound so distinct that it's so often just distracting - and for singers, even the teacher on this page struggles to nail it for the audio recording. Harmonically, it's the go-to interval for if you just want to sound dissonant for the sake of it, and I've heard it so much in contemporary music that by now, I'm more than ready for it to die a slow death. So let's move on.

E Tier

Minor 2nd

It may come as no surprise that the complement to the major 7th is next on my chopping block. But I do find this one substantially more useful, especially in chords, because it's much smaller and easier to stack. I like how there are certain places on the piano where you can play it with only one finger; I take full advantage of this in sections like the one starting at 2:07 in Muses Massachusetts, where the right thumb plays E and F simultaneously, and its modulated reprise at 5:11, this time as B and C. But my favourite example of the minor 2nd in my own work is the transition between Atlantis and North Park Jazz, at 6:34 in Soundbites. I didn't exactly need the help modulating up that minor 3rd (we'll get to that later) but the dirty chords in that passage are a highlight of the piece for me.

However, in most cases I think the minor 2nd still suffers from the same flaws as the major 7th, if to a lesser extent. It's too small to stack well on its own, it's uninteresting in a melodic line, and good luck doing a straight minor-2nd modulation without sounding awkward or cliched - and good luck getting back once you've done it. (Also, Spielberg has all but copyrighted the interval at this point.)

Minor 6th

I initially thought it was gonna be tough deciding between the major and minor 6ths, but boy, there's really nothing interesting I can think of about the minor 6th. It feels like the musical equivalent of a lanky 6-foot teenage boy; just big enough to stand out awkwardly but still immature and needs to be supervised at all times (by accompanying intervals stacked above or below it I guess, like a tritone).

Compared to its major counterpart, the minor 6th is harder to work into a cool chord, and melodically it either sounds like an inverted major 3rd or it has to resolve downwards, and either way it will often sound trite. And forget about using it as a bass chord; the overtones just clash way too much. I guess it's good as just a way to "structurally support" the tonic in a melody, like at 4:38 in Soundbites.

D Tier

Major 3rd

Everyone's favourite sing-song interval ("doe, a deer, a female deer", etc.) It's harmless in a melodic line, and it definitely signifies "major" more than any other interval, but it feels like kind of a one-trick pony in that respect. Compared to the minor 3rd, it's less common in melodic harmonization, and while modulating down a major 3rd is pretty easy and has a nice effect, modulating up is a different story entirely. As well, because it goes evenly into an octave three times, it's not very interesting when you stack it on top of itself (the strings passage at 4:11 in Insomnia notwithstanding).

I do, however, like how well it stacks with other intervals like a tritone - see, for example, the left hand at 7:03 in Episodes - and it is particularly nice when mixed with my favourite interval, so stay tuned for that. All in all, it's an essential part of harmony and melody and, in my view, certainly deserves to be bumped up ahead of those we've seen already.

Major 6th

The better 6th - to my ear, it sounds much less hackneyed in a melody, and brings enough interest to compensate. I particularly enjoy experimenting with stacking them on top of a melody in a minor key or a dark mode, and seeing all the cool harmonies that arise (e.g. 3:03 in Muses Massachusetts). As I mentioned, it's easier to work major 6ths into cool chords like those at 9:55 in Episodes, and as a melodic bassline it features prominently in Memory Lane, beginning with the opening passage. It's just preferable to its minor counterpart in all respects, except that it maybe suffers even more for its size, and for the same reasons.

C Tier

Tritone

Everyone loves tritones, right? They're the essence of almost all dissonance, and using them in resolved chords is the cornerstone of the blues/jazz sound. The tritone is also the perfect pivot chord, because it's its own complement - in particular, I always have fun sequencing down the chromatic scale with tritones and doing 2-5-1 basslines underneath (1:02 in Memory Lane is a small example of this). It even sounds good and has a commanding presence just by itself, as a chord, with no other accompaniment, something that can't really be said about many other intervals.

Melodically, it's a bit like the minor 6th in that you usually know where it's going (thanks, Leonard Bernstein), but even then it shines and gives off a distinct bright Lydian sound that can be indispensable. And most importantly, it makes 19th-century prudes foam at the mouth, which is always a good sign.

Octave

It's the most consonant interval, it's basically the foundation of music, and it's register-agnostic: big enough to work in the bass clef but consonant enough to accompany a melody as high as you want. Once you learn how to play them quickly, they're essential for whenever you're busking and suddenly need to show off to a big crowd walking by. They're big enough that you can fit an entire tune inside them - see 5:09 in Episodes - and when you need a flashy finish to the last song on your album, just do what I did for the ending of Latinesque, and reprise the opening motifs but with lightning-fast octave runs. What could be easier?

Of course, being the most consonant interval, the octave is the polar opposite of the tritone, and this consonance can really take a toll on you after a while. Octaves are like bread; an incredibly useful and essential ingredient, but you need stuff in between them if you want to have any flavour.

B Tier

Major 2nd

Everything great about the minor 2nd is amplified to another level in its major counterpart, and then some. It's the basis of the whole tone scale, and it's the "secret sauce" for dirty chords - just sprinkle 'em in literally anywhere to give any chord more texture. The major 2nd (along with its complement, the minor 7th) are for me kind of at the sweet spot between consonance and dissonance; they can sound either resolved or unresolved, entirely depending on context. For a quick example, note how the chord at 11:00 in Soundbites is unresolved, but the one at the very end (13:17) is resolved, despite both containing a major 2nd.

Also in Soundbites we can see how much easier it is to do a major-2nd modulation, versus a minor-2nd one. It happens in that same movement multiple times, and constantly in the main theme of Idle Skies. And in chord progressions, the examples are just too numerous to name. It's hard to imagine music without major 2nds (although it would make that bit of Scarbo a lot less of a headache).

Minor 3rd

Maybe it's my overall preference for minor over major in general, but I've just always loved minor 3rds. Like their complement, the major 6th, you can stack them on top of melodies for lots of spice, and work them into all manner of cool chords. They even have magic healing properties: no matter where you stick one on a major 7th - above, below, inside - it suddenly makes that F-tier interval not only listenable but supremely interesting. Stack two minor 3rds on top of each other to get the diminished triad (which is objectively superior to the augmented triad), and three stacked on top of each other gives you a diminished 7 chord!

And I don't even need to talk about how fantastic minor-3rd modulations are. I'll let the entirety of Cycloplex speak for itself (and maybe my blog post about it in case you're interested in that).

Perfect 5th

It's the basis for the 12-tone system, the namesake of the circle we all know so well, and the cornerstone of happy and triumphant melodies everywhere. Like the octave, it works just as well down low as up high, and is basically the only harmonic interval besides an octave that you can really do a bassline with; 3:33 in Woodside Whimsy and the entire fourth movement of Soundbites are just some of many examples in my repertoire.

It's not quite as spacious as the octave, so shoving a tune inside of them (like I do at 8:17 in Episodes) is a lot more restrictive - but stacking them on top of a tune can produce all manner of interesting results, like the piano bassline at 1:10 in Insomnia. Stack two of them together, you've got a nice major 9th; stack three, you've got a major 13th; stack enough of them and you've invented the chromatic scale, congratulations!

The perfect-5th modulation is also, by virtue of the circle of fifths, the easiest to pull off of any modulation. Tied, of course, with its complement - and don't worry, we'll get to that soon.

A Tier

Minor 7th

Here's a nice recipe for you. Take a minor 7th, add literally any triad or 7-chord on top - boom! Instant jazz. Put a tritone on top, and you get a chord you can sequence down via minor 3rds like at 2:18 in Episodes (there's those minor-3rd modulations again!) Like its complement (the major 2nd), the minor 7th feels like the sweet spot between resolved and unresolved and can serve either purpose depending on context. Also like the major 2nd, it's in the whole-tone scale, and might be that scale's only redeeming quality. ;)

But despite all this utility, it took a while for composers to fully actualize the potential of the minor 7th, and it still has a uniquely modern sound as a result. Any big interval can take the spotlight when it occurs in a melodic line, but to me the minor 7th does it the most gracefully. But where it shines most is in the bass clef, where its size benefits it and essentially makes it just a major 2nd but with adequate space between the pitches. I use it all over Muses Massachusetts, most noticeably several times in a row right at the beginning.

Perhaps the only downside to the minor 7th for me is that, like all the intervals around it, its size can get in the way when it's just by itself. Luckily, all you have to do is stick a note right in the middle, and you get an interval that's somehow even better...

S Tier

Perfect 4th

If nothing else, I think the perfect 4th just has... the perfect size. Like its augmented version (the tritone), it commands a presence just by itself, and you can essentially use it as "structural support" for any standalone melody by putting perfect 4ths underneath it, which is kind of what I do at 1:19 in Soundbites. Certain melodies work better with the 4ths above, rather than below, and vice versa - but because it's a 4th, it's very accommodating and you can experiment with whichever way works. One of them will.

Maybe the coolest thing about 4ths is how well they stack. Not only on top of themselves, where they make beautiful minor 7ths and 10ths (cf. 2:36 in Insomnia) - but putting one or two major 3rds anywhere in a stack of 4ths is a recipe for some of the chillest big chords you could hope for. Put a tritone in as well... now you're cooking with gas. Check out the passage starting at 7:10 in Memory Lane for a showcase of what is probably my single favourite chord: P4-P4-M3-d5.

Basically, my rule is: you can take any chord, stick a perfect 4th somewhere, and you'll probably make it better. Add another one, and you'll make it better still. And the perfect 4th is the smallest interval that does not go evenly into an octave, so if you just keep on stacking them, you'll always get something new.

Being the complement to the perfect 5th, the perfect 4th has all of the same nice modulation properties. Check out 4:31 in Latinesque and 2:36 in Muses Massachusetts for just a couple examples of perfect-4th modulations that would never have worked with any other interval. In melodic lines, perfect 4ths might be the most soothing and satisfying intervals - they're probably what give, for example, the Atlantis theme at 3:47 in Soundbites its relaxing quality. And I think all of these properties can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the upward perfect 4th is an "alternate" spelling-out of the ubiquitous 5-1 chord progression, the basis for tension and resolution. And you know me, I always prefer to resolve on a high note, which is why I'm putting the perfect 4th, my favourite interval, at the top of my official Intervals Tier List.

Intervals Tier List

Do you vehemently disagree with this list? Good! Hit me up on Twitter and berate me for it - it'll only boost my numbers. (evil laugh)

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