How to Recognize Intervals

Question: Mr. Frantz,

First of all I’d like to thank you for your amazing site. Everything you wrote and explained there has served me considerably.

I am an 18-year-old girl who has decided (a year ago) to pursue piano studies in university. I started to play at a very late age (15), but only at 17 did I realize how much piano had become important to me.

You have given me hope, for I had never yet heard of a successful pianist who had started at the same age as I. I had very little knowledge of musical theory some months ago, let alone ear training, and scales. This is why, to prepare myself for auditions, I have been working very hard.

My question is about recognizing intervals. I have been using the method that implies associating them to songs, but I am trying now to apply what you have explained upon answering the question “How can you learn to recognize intervals by ear?”. However, when I sing the scale degrees, I can’t help but to use the song method anyways. I also am very confused as to how exactly I should practice this. Should I sing them backwards in order to prevent myself from using this method? I am doing a lot of solfège lately, and this would help me a lot.

Again, thank you, and have a very good day.

– Maria (Montreal, Canada)

Albert’s reply: Thanks for your kind words about key-notes, Maria – they’re much appreciated. It’s perfectly alright to use the method of associating familiar song fragments with particular intervals. If this is your current approach, it won’t do you any harm. It’s but a crutch that should help you reach the next level of interval recognition.

Just be aware that there is a limit to the effectiveness of this method. In particular, while it is powerful for recognizing intervals by themselves, the method can break down in actual music. For example, you might have learned that the opening of “Amazing Grace” is an ascending perfect fourth. This interval occurs between the fifth and first notes of the major scale, scale degrees 5 and 1.

But a perfect fourth also occurs between scale degrees 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6. If you encounter one of these other perfect fourths in some piece of music and you attempt to hear your crutch, “Amazing Grace,” you will be trying to hear in two different keys at once: one key for your piece and the other for “Amazing Grace.” Needless to say, this is very confusing to the ear.

The solution is to think in scale degrees. You may indeed continue using the song method for recognizing musical intervals, but when you do sing the scale degree numbers. To continue using “Amazing Grace” as an example, sing “5 1 3 1 3 2 1 6 5” for the first phrase:

Practice singing the scale degree numbers for the music you hear. Over time you’ll find that you’ll rely less and less on the song method of interval recognition.

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