Learning to hear melodic intervals the easy way

In western music there are only 12 intervals:

  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

There is a lot of value to learning to identify intervals when you hear them. In particular playing by ear. If you know what intervals you heard it's easy to work out how to play that on an instrument.

The easiest way to identify intervals is to associate them with songs or tunes. For example the first two notes of 'Greensleeves' is an ascending minor third. If you listen to the interval and imagine the following notes playing in your head your mind will connect them. Upon hearing the interval these notes will play back in your mind. So to differentiate the intervals simply associate each one with a different tune.

Choosing effective associations

Most explanations of the association technique give large lists of 'common' tunes. However what is common to one person is foreign to another. Don't use something just because you see it on a list. Where possible it is better to make use of the music you already know.

Study the music that you play regularly and identify the prominent intervals. Such as what it begins on and those in prominent places. Make a list of these tunes, the intervals and weather the interval is ascending or descending.

There are going to be gaps in this list but don't worry about it. As you work forward pay attention to new music you like and gradually the gaps will fill. Some intervals like the tritone and minor second are very distinct in sound. You may be able to identify them without an association.

How to approach learning the intervals

It is good to develop and practice interval associations in pairs. Normally close intervals are paired such as the major and minor 3rd. I don't think this is optimal. When you approach a new task your mind does not know how to deal with it. As these are only a semitone apart it is quite easy to mis-hear them leading to fustration.

To maximize your chance of success you want to pair intervals that are distinct. Choose two intervals from your list that are far apart and of different types. Such as Minor second and perfect fifth. Both should be ascending or descending.

As you do this more your mind will adapt to the task and become better at it. You will become able to differentiate intervals that are closer together.

Developing the association

Choose one of your interval associations. Play the interval and the following 5 or 6 notes of the tune on your instrument. As you do so imagine these notes in your head at the same time. Once you have it clear in your memory play only the first two notes, the trigger interval. Keep thinking of the following notes in your head.

You need to practice these associations in a wide range of keys and octaves. A midi keyboard is an ideal instrument for doing this as they can be transposed at the push of a button without changing your fingerings. It is good to play multiple instruments as they all have strengths and weaknesses. Additionally you don't have to play an instrument well for it to be useful as a learning tool.

If you do practice this with an ocarina make sure you are playing in tune. Play ocarinas in different keys and octaves.

Testing your recognition

To test your recognition you need someone or something else to play the intervals for you. If you have a practice friend get them to play your intervals and you can identify them. They will then tell you if you are 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 where correct. Many of these apps follow the typical close interval pairing in there pre-configured exercises. For the reasons that where explained above it is important to use a tool that allows you to configure the intervals yourself. In Solfege this can be done by selecting 'configure yourself' then 'melodic intervals'.

Listen to the interval. If you don't hear the associated tune in your head imagine your reference tunes against it to see which one fits. Don't be afraid to repeat the interval. If you make a mistake don't worry about it. Repeat the interval several times and think of the tune notes over it.

Do not worry if you make mistakes. Even if you are not consciously aware that you are learning your subconscious mind is still taking notes. 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 mutinies several times a day.

Sleep is a critical part of the learning process. When you sleep your mind takes stock of the days experiences. This includes stuff you are trying to learn. Try it again after sleeping and you'll find that it's become easier. After a day or two when you hear the interval you'll get a slight hint of what you heard. A few more days and you'll start to strongly hear the notes of your associations.

Lastly if you find that an an association isn't working try a different one.

Learn to sing the interval

As both your vocal chords and your ears are attached to your brain, learning to sing the intervals is a great way of internalizing 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.

Don't make an excuse that you voice isn't very good, mine sucks too. 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.

To begin with simply sing long vowel sounds against a tuner, A E O or U. Vary your pitch up and down to find the extent of your vocal range. Don't stress yourself, if your voice starts getting very thin sounding, raise or lower the pitch until you reach a note that sounds clean. Make a note of the highest and lowest note.

Pick a note around the bottom of your range and chant it over and over again. You should aim to keep the pitch of this note in tune using your tuner. If it isn't make a conscious effort to correct it. Being able to hold a note stable is essential. You cannot sing an interval between notes unless the notes are stable.

If you have not done this before you may not be able to keep it on pitch for a few days or weeks. This is OK. Keep working on it in short sessions and you'll get there.

It is best to learn the semitone or minor second first. As it is the smallest interval commonly used in music it can be used to navigate your vocal range. Simply ascend or descend by multiple semitones in sequence.

From your base note raise your pitch so you are a semitone higher on your tuner. Practice this note on it's own until you can hold it stable. Then try singing the interval between them. If you land out of tune don't worry about it, just try again. As you sing the interval think of your song association's following notes, this will help to strengthen the attachment.

You can continue learning other intervals in the same way. Once you can sing the interval ascending, try singing it descending.

Ocarina for irish music

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