The Big Picture of Music Theory

How do you actually integrate Interval Theory into your Diatonic knowledge? Well, it's simpler than you think. Listen to Frank explain the 'big picture of music theory'. In the end, we all want to create fresh and great music, and that's why you should have a solid understanding of that big picture. It lets you navigate freely on the map of music theory!

Organizing Music Theory - The Smart Way

Conventional music theory focuses mostly on the Diatonic system. That makes it quite hard for somebody new to Interval Theory to figure out how to implement these intervallic concepts and techniques into their existing process. So, in this episode, I want to give you a clear picture of how Interval Theory and the Diatonic System work together, where they overlap, and where they differ.

Imagine four quadrants. The top left describes line writing using Interval Theory, and the top right stands for line writing using the Diatonic system. The bottom left represents vertical structures in Interval Theory, and lastly, the bottom right describes vertical structures in the Diatonic system; these are chords.

Next, let's figure out how to transition fluently from one quadrant to the next. Question for you: What does 'Diatonic' actually mean? I'll give you a few seconds to think about the answer while we listen to a bit of music.

Diatonic means pertaining to a scale.

So, all diatonic thinking follows a specific scale that limits the set of tones to scale tones. And the scale also ensures that melodies and chords go hand in hand. So, scales are crucial in Diatonic writing as they define all the parameters for melody and harmony.

To connect vertical with horizontal writing, we can use the Matrix of Modes, a fantastic way to start emotional storytelling while maintaining a pure Diatonic, and therefore, mainstream sound. This Matrix is the bridge between chords and lines and sets the overall emotional frame of the music.

But why should we want to leave the diatonic side and step into intervallic thinking?

Here are a few thoughts:

Everybody uses the same system based on the same established theories, and the chances are high that your musical work won't sound different from any other composer.

Next, you are missing a ton of musical options and opportunities that can make the music you write more elegant, sophisticated, and unique.

From an artistic point of view, why wouldn't you want to use the whole palette of colors and options in your work? You don't have to use everything all at once, but having the choice will let you grow into a more rounded and mature artist.

Applying the Big Picture of Music Theory

So, let's find out how we can move from the Diatonic side to intervallic thinking. Let's start with the melody, and that brings us to what we call String Theory, but how can we use String Theory to transition into intervallic thinking?

Actually, it's pretty simple. Look at your melody and count the distances from one note to the next. Let's say we move from C to D to Eb and back to D. This gives us a simple formula: C to D is 2, D to Eb is 1, and Eb down to D is negative 1. So, the formula reads 2, 1, -1, and that's the DNA of our string. The first segment of the Composition course covers everything related to line writing.

And if we take any melody and base it on a scale and a root tone, we just transitioned into Diatonic thinking. But the interesting thing is to remove the scale and the root so that the string is just related to itself.

Diatonic composers feel uncomfortable in that situation, and I can understand why that is, as we've just removed any point of reference, right?

We created a situation that is open to new interpretations. I know this can be scary and exciting at the same time!

The line still is the same, and the sound hasn't changed, but we can set a new light on it and focus on our emotional response way better. We even see the DNA of that line very clearly; that's the 2, 1, -1 formula. That formula will become very powerful in creating related material around our initial idea. It ensures that everything stays connected via the numbers and also the emotion. That's really the beginning of emotional storytelling - and all based on logic and a methodology that you can follow. And it goes way beyond just major for happy and minor for sad.

So, we've successfully transitioned into intervallic thinking with melodies, but how can we move into the vertical structures. Well, we can take all the notes from the string, or just a few, and play them vertically. We can transform any horizontal line into a vertical structure and vice versa. And this brings us to the other two quadrants on the big picture of music theory.

Similar to how we transitioned from a melody to the DNA formula, we can also transition from Diatonic chords to interval combinations. Again, this time, let's focus on the numbers between the tones vertically. That shows why and how Interval Theory enhances the Diatonic system without necessarily changing the overall sound.

  • It's almost like stepping into the Matrix (from the movie) and seeing those 1s and 0s.

Once we assign a root tone to an IC, we can transition back into Diatonic thinking, bringing us full circle on the big picture of music theory.

The Nature of the Intervals

Every interval has a nature to it. Some of them want to connect to others, and some are stable. It almost feels like energy that either wants to move to another place or stay. These behaviors are all derived from the Overtone Series. So, I'm not asking you to believe me blindly, or do I?

Well, it's all based on physics. So, you can safely trust me on that.

Ideally, you can switch smoothly between Diatonic and intervallic thinking. Take the best out of both worlds and create wonderful music. The Diatonic sound will attract a big audience, as it's the basis of our Western culture, but at the same time, Interval Theory allows for expressing yourself more honestly. You'll experience more freedom and options.

The Diatonic system and Interval Theory have their unique place in the big picture of music theory. Use all the benefits from both points of view to create better and more fluent music based on your unique voice.

Sometimes, you want to inject just a small but healthy dose of Interval Theory into your Diatonic writing. Just to spice it up a little. Just a little bit, and I'll see you in the next episode.


Take one of your existing compositions and shift your perspective from Diatonic thinking to Interval thinking. Count the distances between notes (horizontally and vertically) and become aware of those numbers. That's a fantastic and most efficient way to get used to the intervals!

Author: Frank Herrlinger