Intervals can seem so basic! Why focus on the interval between two notes when there are chords to build, chord progressions to learn, entire melodies to play by ear and solos to improvise?
These all are full of rapidly moving and blending notes requiring much technical practice to master.
So why bother with just two notes at a time?
The thing to remember is that those two little notes are what all the melodies, chords, and improvisations are made from. And so interval training is the easiest way to access those more sophisticated skills.
In Interval Ear Training 101 we touched on several benefits of learning to recognize these basic building blocks of music. Now let’s look a little deeper into what intervals can do for you.
The Innate Pitch Ruler
Imagine a hot summer day. Think about what the temperature might be. If you’re from the United States, you might be thinking 90 degrees (fahrenheit); if you’re from almost any other country you might be thinking 32 degrees (celsius).
When you grow up with a certain measurement system—whether for temperature, time, distance, weight, and so on—you develop an innate feeling for that system, and calibrate your senses with it.
For example, your ability to estimate temperatures improved as you got used to talking about them with people growing up. Your ability to judge lengths of time increased as you practiced measuring it with a clock.
It’s the same with interval ear training, but for pitch. By training your ears for intervals you will develop an innate pitch ruler to calibrate your sense of relative pitch.
This is the fundamental benefit of interval ear training, from which all the rest follow.
Let’s see how this will help you reach your musical goals.
Intervals are the basis for recognizing different types of chord, for example, A major vs. A minor vs. A7.
You will hear the relationships between the pitches in the chord, since each pair of pitches forms an interval. For example, the distance from the root to the two other pitches in a major chord is a major third and a perfect fifth. Hear those intervals; hear the chord.
Once we can identify the chord quality, interval recognition will also reveal the inversions of the chord, and help us to tease out the all-important root note.
Interval recognition is the foundation of chord type recognition, so one of the major benefits of interval ear training is recognising types of chord by ear.
As the harmonic journey flows by in a piece of music, our developing innate pitch ruler will measure the movement from one landmark to another. This is most useful as we learn to identify the movement in the roots of the chords.
For example, in order to recognize a C-F-G progression, you will hear the root of the F chord as a fourth up from C, and the G as a major second up from F. Alternately, you may still have the C chord in your aural memory, and recognize the G as a fifth up from C.
Intervals are strongly related to the roman numeral system for characterizing chord progressions, or the Nashville number system—both incredibly useful tools for learning progressions, transposing (which is simply moving the music up or down by a specific interval!) and for communicating with other musicians. For example, when you refer to a chord progression as “I-IV-V” this is revealing that the second chord’s root note is a perfect fourth (= 4 = IV) above the first one, and the third chord’s root is a perfect fifth (= 5 = V) above it.
As we become more advanced at hearing the movement between chord tones, we can also discern the strongest stepwise movements for a strong melody or a moody bassline—a real boon for improvisers, songwriters and bass players.
This means that interval recognition also gives you the foundation for recognizing chord progressions by ear, so another major benefit of interval ear training is being able to play chords by ear.
Improvisation can be described as the ability to hear something in your head and express it through your instrument. Interval recognition is the process by which we translate our musical imagination into reality, so interval ear training is the key to learning to improvise music for yourself.
When you first start your interval training, the process seems so slow! How will you ever gain the speed to create the instant communication between inner and outer that improvisers enjoy so much? There are two ways to answer this:
1. Find a Framework
Improvisers often choose framework, such as a scale, in order to relate to the harmonic environment. That limits the notes, and the potential intervals you’ll need to know. You can practice these scales—and the intervals and chords within them—honing in on your fingering choices.
A potential drawback here: if you focus enough on learning the scales on your instrument without concurrent interval ear training, you can turn on autopilot. Your fingers actually play the solo without you hearing it first. The results are at best formulaic, at worst lifeless.
Interval recognition brings improvisation to life.
2. Find the Flow
In Interval Ear Training 101 we compared our developing sense of relative pitch to a new pair of glasses. With the clear focus provided by your innate pitch ruler, reproducing the melodies and chords playing inside you grows into a more and more natural process.
You may find a great improvement in your ability to hear and play your inner musical soundtrack well before you’ve mastered your conscious interval recognition! The mere act of putting attention on interval training wakes up the abilities within us.
You’ll be surprised how quickly interval recognition opens you up to the flow of music inside you. So we can add musical improvisation to the list of interval ear training benefits!
Playing Melodies by Ear
Your interval-trained ears will hear music much more clearly. Remember that music is an art of sounds and how they relate to each other. Identify these relationships precisely, and your brain will hear and remember music in more depth and detail.
So when you want to play music by ear, interval recognition gives you a big “head start”—literally!
Actually, playing melodies by ear has much in common with improvisation. Instead of expressing what’s in your head, you’ll be using the same skill set to reproduce someone else’s music. At first, it might be slow going. But like with improvisation, you’ll soon pick up speed with practice.
Finding a known starting note is the first crucial step to playing melodies by ear. All you’ll need is one note in the song. Frameworks can help here—looking up the chords or key of the song, for example. Or pick up your instrument and poke around until you find a pitch that matches.
From there, relative pitch takes over. Simply figure out the intervals from one note to the next and listen to the melody unfold.
Interval recognition is the foundation for hearing, identifying and remembering notes, so playing melodies by ear is another of the interval ear training benefits available to you.
The Magic Awaits…
Don’t be discouraged if interval recognition seems slow at first. More advanced skills—like playing by ear, improvising, and using chords and chord progressions—will grow much more quickly as you calibrate your sense of relative pitch with your innate pitch ruler. Since interval recognition works with structures we already have inside, the benefits will make themselves known even before we master our training.
Now let’s get to work! In How to Learn Intervals we’ll look at three tried-and-true methods to train your ears for interval recognition.