If you’ve covered the basics of music theory, then you’ve probably heard about the 12-tone Western music scale.
Perhaps you’ve also learned that there is something called intervals, which refers to the difference in pitch between two sounds.
If you haven’t, don’t worry – you don't need to understand intervals to understand octaves.
Here are the basics – there are essentially 12 intervals in music (13 if you count perfect unison – playing two of the same notes at the same pitch and frequency – as an interval), and an octave is a type of an interval.
But an octave is a special type of interval.
Let’s get into it.
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What Is An Octave? Octave Definition Revealed
So, we’ve established that an interval is the difference in pitch between two sounds (or notes).
I also like to describe it as the distance between any two notes.
This is because an octave does not represent the difference in pitch between two sounds.
An octave is exactly that – two notes whose pitch is the same.
So, if you played an A note on a piano and played a different A note higher up or lower down on the keyboard, you would have what’s called an octave.
Yet, there is a difference between the two notes, isn’t there?
If you go higher up on the keyboard, you get a higher note.
If you go lower on the keyboard, you get a lower note.
So, there’s one more key to understanding octaves.
An octave describes two notes whose pitch is the same, but whose frequency is different.
When you’re first getting started in music, recognizing intervals can be a challenge, and that is the case with octaves.
But with practice, anyone can learn to distinguish the difference between different notes (also see an earlier guide about timbre) because that is a powerful built-in skill we all have as humans (unless you can’t hear).
It sounds technical, but in practice it’s quite simple.
How Do I Play An Octave?
This will depend entirely on what instrument you’re playing as well as whether you have access to enough notes.
But I’ll offer a couple of examples to get things rolling.
On a keyboard or piano, there are 11 keys between each octave (including white and black keys), not including the target notes themselves.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but most piano players, at one point or another, learn to play octaves with one hand (thumb and pinky).
If that’s too much of a stretch for you, you can try playing octaves with two hands (for example, Middle C with the left hand, C an octave up with the right hand).
Here’s a video showing how to play octaves on piano:
On a guitar, there are many ways of playing an octave.
A simple movable shape that works for the sixth string is this:
Place your index finger on the sixth string – for this example, we’ll say the third fret.
Place your ring finger on the fifth string fifth fret.
This is a G octave.
You can move this shape anywhere on the guitar, assuming you’re using a sixth string or fifth string root (you must play a different shape on the fourth- and second-string grouping as well as the third- and first-string grouping).
The same shape also works on bass guitar.
Here’s a video explaining how to play octaves on guitar:
So, there’s a basic overview of how to play an octave on a couple of instruments.
How Are Octaves Used?
We’ll be looking at specific examples of songs that use octaves in a moment.
But it’s fair to say there are plenty of ways to use octaves (it’s doubtful that someone hasn’t thought of all of them already).
Here are some examples:
- Octaves played in the left hand on the piano. Playing two notes simultaneously (even if they are the same notes) can beef up the bass sound.
- Octaves played in single note sequences on the bass. Bass players usually play a supporting role in a band, laying down the bread and butter arrangement of the song with single note sequences. Octaves can be (and often are) played in single note sequences on the bass to create more interest.
- Octaves played to create melodic hooks. This can be done on any instrument, though the guitar certainly comes to mind. Octaves aren’t great for all melodic ideas but sometimes they work perfectly.
- Octaves used in riffs. You can create some cool riffs using octaves as a piece of the puzzle. Most of the time, you wouldn’t use octaves exclusively but as part of a riff containing other elements/intervals. Again, guitar comes to mind, but any instrument that can play octaves can do this.
Seeing as how there are a limited number of notes to work with in any key (usually seven), the octave interval appears in plenty of solos as well, whether it’s guitar, piano, synth, ukulele, mandolin, violin or otherwise.
And, technically, that is another context in which octaves can be used.
Examples Of Octaves In Music
Naturally, it can be hard to find examples of music where the octave is the exclusive melodic and harmonic device being used.
But there are plenty of songs where its use is prominent.
And, more than likely, you’ve heard octaves before – even if you didn’t know that’s what they were.
So, let’s explore some examples in a few musical styles.
Octaves In Disco Music
For starters, disco music tends to feature a lot of octaves, particularly on the bass.
Here’s a lesson demonstrating how this works:
Octaves quickly became a staple for disco bass lines, especially at disco’s peak in the mid-70s to early-80s.
Here’s a great example:
Most people have heard Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”
This song features plenty of disco octaves on the bass, especially in the chorus.
Have a listen and see if you can make them out:
Octaves In Jazz Music
Wes Montgomery is the legendary jazz guitarist who effortlessly and seamlessly transitioned from chords to single note leads to double stops and octaves.
All while making it look easy.
And, he picked and strummed entirely with his thumb – no picks and no fingers!
In the video that follows, he performs his original “Four On Six”.
As I mentioned already, he’s a little all over the map with his playing, but see if you can pick out the octaves in his lead playing beginning around 1:12:
Guitarist, vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson could be considered a contemporary of Wes Montgomery, though he was clearly inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chet Atkins and others as well.
The intro to his original jazzy instrumental “Manhattan” is rife with thumb-strummed octaves a la Montgomery.
Have a listen for yourself:
Of course, his playing is incredible throughout and while it is sometimes copied, it is almost never replicated.
Octaves In Rock Music
Octaves show up in all forms of rock music, including hard rock, punk rock, metal and more.
Here’s a video demonstrating some of the things you can do with octaves in harder genres:
First, I would like to share an example from classic rock.
Truly, there are no songs as iconic as the “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin when it comes to the use of the octave.
The repeating riff (as heard in the intro) is where you can hear an octave hard at work:
The octave riff perfectly compliments Robert Plant's “ah-ah, ah!” calls.
One of my favorite bands, in case you didn’t know, is Van Halen.
Eddie Van Halen is considered one of the most innovative and influential guitarists of all time.
There aren’t many techniques that he didn’t either: a) invent, or b) use in Van Halen’s catalog of music.
The song that follows is “Humans Being”, which was originally recorded for the 1996 film, Twister.
Have a listen to the melodic octave riff starting at 1:55:
It’s a great song overall, and there are plenty of other superb guitar moments in the song in case you hadn’t noticed.
Another well-recognized rock/pop tune using octaves – love it or hate it – is The Knack’s “My Sharona.”
Have a listen to the intro/verse riff:
One thing we can say for sure – the groove in “My Sharona” is infectious and is a lot of fun to listen to.
What An Octave Is In Music, Final Thoughts
Octaves can prove useful in other ways.
For instance, on the guitar and bass, it can be used as a tool to find specific notes on the fretboard.
Memorizing all the notes on the fretboard can take time – a shortcut to getting there is memorizing one string and then using your octaves to find where the same notes live on different strings.
They can also be used to “thicken up” single note melodies and riffs.
Of course, there is so much more you can do with octaves.
So, now it’s your turn to get creative with it.
Try coming up with your own solos, riffs, melodic or harmonic ideas using octaves.
You don’t get to keep what you don’t apply!