Interval Ear Training

Question: How can you learn to recognize intervals by ear?

Albert’s reply: There are several methods of interval ear training. The most common is to associate common melodies to each interval. For example, “Happy Birthday” may be used to recognize an ascending major second, “Amazing Grace” an ascending perfect fourth, and so on.

However, there is a major problem with this method: It works only for “naked” intervals, meaning intervals outside of a musical context. If you’re being quizzed on intervals and an ascending perfect fourth is played, you might recognize it as the opening of “Amazing Grace.”

Yet if you hear that same interval within an actual piece of music – in some other melody – it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to switch gears mentally and think of “Amazing Grace.” That perfect fourth might appear elsewhere in the scale, in which case you’d be dealing with two different songs in two different keys simultaneously. In my experience, this only causes confusion and I therefore don’t teach or recommend this method.

For starters I recommend learning intervals with the aid of crutches such as associating one song to each interval. There are many software ear trainers that will teach basic interval recognition in this manner. Many of them are available for free online. You can use them to learn the basic intervals within the octave: minor second, major second, minor third, major third, perfect fourth, augmented fourth / diminished fifth, perfect fifth, minor sixth, major sixth, minor seventh, major seventh and perfect octave.

Successful interval ear training requires recognizing intervals within actual pieces of music. You can achieve this level of fluency by singing scale degrees. If you were practicing major thirds for instance, they occur between scale degrees 1 and 3, 4 and 6, and 5 and 7 of the major scale, while minor thirds occur between scale degrees 2 and 4, 3 and 5, and 6 and 8 of the major scale.

Recognizing intervals by ear is only half of interval ear training. The other half is producing them in your mind’s ear at will. To learn this skill, practicing singing the intervals within the octave as follows:

For minor seconds, sing scale degrees 3 and 4, and 7 and 8 in the major scale.

As mentioned above, the major scale has minor thirds between scale degrees 2 and 4, 3 and 5, and 6 and 8.

For major thirds, you would practice singing scale degrees 1 and 3, 4 and 6, and 5 and 7 of the major scale.

For perfect fourths, practice singing scale degrees 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6, and 5 and 8.

An augmented fourth occurs between scale degrees 4 and 7 in the major scale.

Perfect fifths occur between scale degrees 1 and 5, 2 and 6, 3 and 7, and 4 and 8 of the major scale.

Minor sixths occur between scale degrees 3 and 8 of the major scale.

The major scale has major sixths between scale degrees 1 and 6, and 2 and 7.

The major scale has a minor seventh between scale degrees 2 and 8, and a major seventh between scale degrees and 1 and 7.

There are other possibilities as well if you go beyond scale degree 8 (which is the same as 1) and into the next octave. Similarly, I’ve focused only on the major scale; you should do the same with minor scales.

With sufficient practice, you’ll be able to recognize the scale degrees in music as you listen. This is the key to proper interval ear training!

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