Learning to identify melodic intervals by ear

An 'interval' is the distance between two notes in semitones, and melodies are just a series of intervals. For example, the intervals in a melody could be: up two semitones, up two semitones, and so on.

The intervals in a melody in semitones. up 2, 3, down 4, up 2, 2, down 4.

Thus it stands to reason that learning to identify the melodic intervals by ear enables you to play any melody by ear. The sizes of these intervals in semitones, and their names are:

  1. Minor second (Semitone)
  2. Major second (Whole tone)
  3. Minor third
  4. Major third
  5. Perfect fourth
  6. Tritone
  7. Perfect fifth
  8. Minor sixth
  9. Major sixth
  10. Minor seventh
  11. Major seventh
  12. Perfect octave

The two ways of learning to recognise intervals by ear are Melody association and learning to sing the intervals. First, we will explore the principles of both approaches, and then put them into practice.

Melody association

Learning to identify melodic intervals using melody association works by connecting each interval with a unique melody that begins on that interval. For instance, the first two notes of the song 'Greensleeves' forms an ascending minor third.

The song 'greensleeves' starts on an ascending minor third.

By developing a strong association, upon hearing the interval the following notes of the tune will play back in your mind. To learn all of the intervals, simply associate each one with a different melody.

This technique works most effectively when you make use of your favourite music, music you already know very well. So, which melody to use for each interval is not something I can tell you. But I can give a few suggestions:

  • Study the music you enjoy listening to or play regularly and identify the prominent intervals, such as the interval the song begins on. Use these as a basis.
  • If you search online for 'interval melody association', you'll easily find many lists of 'common' tunes and their intervals. Don't use something just because it shows up on such a list. Rather, use multiple lists and pick out music that you already know well.

Compile your own list of the melodies and the interval they are linked to. As you will see later, there is no need to learn all 24 intervals in one go.

Learn to sing the interval

The other option for hearing intervals is learning to sing them. As both your vocal cords and your ears are attached to your brain, learning to sing the intervals is a great way of internalising how they sound. If you can sing them reliably, you know them, and so it's much easier to associate a name to that knowledge.

Making use of this approach is quite straightforward:

  • Find the extent of your vocal range. Sing long vowel sounds against a tuner—A, E, O, or U. Vary your pitch up and down to find the lowest and highest note you can comfortably sing.
  • Pick a note around the bottom of your range. Sing it as a long note, aiming to keep the pitch in tune using your tuner, or relative to a reference pitch. Raise or lower your pitch as needed to keep it stable.
  • Now move up by one semitone. Learn how it feels to sing this note in tune in relation to the note a semitone lower.

Once you can sing two notes a semitone apart, practice moving between them, and once you can do that, learn to sing an interval of 2 semitones (a major second) and so on for larger intervals. The semitone is useful for navigating your vocal range, to form a larger interval simply ascend or descend by multiple semitones in sequence.

If you have not done any singing before, it could take a few days until you can do this reliably, and that is perfectly OK. Don't worry if your voice isn't very good. It really does not matter how well you can sing as you are not performing, just using it as a tool to develop an intuitive feel for the intervals.

Learning the intervals

The most common intervals you'll encounter are the 12 intervals within an octave. As these have both ascending and descending forms, there are 24 in total to learn. This could seem like a lot, and so the old method of breaking things down into smaller tasks comes into play.

A good way of developing associations is to learn intervals in pairs, as this lets you test your recognition, but which intervals? In my opinion it is best to start with intervals that are obviously distinct. When you approach a new task your mind does not know how to deal with it, so this maximizes your chance of success.

To give a few suggestions:

  • Ascending minor second and perfect fifth.
  • Descending tritone and octave.

Note that this approach is different from the typical practice of pairing close intervals, such as a major and minor third. As these are only a semitone apart, it is quite easy to mis-hear them at first, leading to frustration.

And to put it into practice:

  • If you are using melody association, learn to play the melody fragments associated with the intervals. Once you have it in mind, play only the trigger interval, and practice hearing the following notes in your mind.
  • If you are using the singing method, learn to sing the two intervals and observe how they sound.

You need to practise these associations in a wide range of keys and octaves. Doing this on the ocarina can be a bit challenging due to the instrument's limited range, but can be done if you make use of ocarinas in different keys.

Testing your recognition

Obviously if you play an interval yourself, you will know what you just played. Thus, to test your recognition, you need someone ,or something else to play intervals for you to identify.

  • If you have access to a teacher, or a friend who plays an instrument, ask them to play your intervals for you to identify. They will then tell you if you are correct. If both of you are learning the intervals, you could turn this into a game. See who gets the most correct.
  • Another option is to use a practice tool. Tools like Gnu Solfege and various mobile apps exist that play intervals randomly. They present an interface so you can select what you think it was and tell you if you were correct.

If you use software, prefer apps that allow you to choose the intervals that you want to practice. In Solfege, this can be done by selecting 'configure yourself' then 'melodic intervals'.

For each pair of intervals:

  • Listen to the interval.
  • If you know what it was, that's awesome!
  • If you aren't sure, imagine your associated tunes, or sing the different intervals against it to see which one fits.

I have noticed that I fatigue rapidly while doing this. At first, I can hear intervals easily but, after only 5 minutes, I disengage and my errors skyrocket. Consequently, I find it best to work in very short sessions of a few minutes several times a day. Also be aware that even if you are not consciously aware that you are learning, your subconscious mind is still taking notes.


Unfortunately, listening to sounds in this way is not common outside of music, so developing this skill can take time. But learning to hear intervals is easier with patience and a good approach. If you find associations don't work for you, try singing or vice versa.

Any other experience that you can give yourself with listening will also help. For example, if you have a guitar, ukulele, or similar instrument, try learning how to tune it by ear.

The next step once you start to recognise the intervals is to practice playing some simple music by ear, or by writing out the intervals in the music. There could be a little extra complexity here, as you need to relate the intervals to an instrument.

Its easiest at first to just think of everything within the chromatic scale, unless you already know what key the music is written in.

With a bit more experience, you can identify the tonic of the melody, learn the intervals of the different scale types, and associate the melody to a key.

The different major, minor seconds, major and minor thirds, and perfect fourths in a major scale.

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