Intervals How-To

You now know what intervals are, and you can see the major interval ear training benefits which could transform your musical perception and expression.

Ready to begin training?

There are a few ways to go about it. Each has advantages and drawbacks, but the beauty of it all is that they all work together, so if one becomes rough going, you can always switch to another. When you will come back to the first method you’ll be refreshed and armed with the skills you developed with the others.

How to learn intervals

There are three tried-and-true approaches to how to learn intervals:

  1. Reference songs
  2. Solfa (a.k.a. solfege)
  3. Pure Recognition

We’ll explain each of these, its advantages and disadvantages, and give you some starting points for these methods of interval ear training.

Interval Reference Songs

Hey intervals are everywhere! So there must be some in your favorite song, right?

The idea is simple: Listen to the first two notes of the melody, and figure out the interval. Then use that as a reference when recognising intervals by ear.

Let’s say your favorite song is “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. The second note moves down a major second from the first. That means whenever you hear an interval that you suspect is a major second, you can mentally fill in the melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb and see if it fits.

Now you have an interval reference song for a descending major second.

The plan here is to find a song for each ascending and descending form of each interval. One down, 25 to go! (Only 21 if you sensibly skip the unison and the octave.)

Start with all your favorite melodies—they’ll be the easiest to remember. If you’re stuck, there are lots of resources to help you find good interval references songs, so take a look at the Ultimate Guide to Interval Ear Training and you’ll find some recommended reference song resources.

Interval reference songs is usually the first method taught in formal interval recognition training. Reference songs are great because you already know them, and it’s a fun way to jumpstart your confidence with intervals. It works pretty well with melodic intervals heard in isolation.

The trouble is that when you’re trying to pick intervals out of another melody, the reference song method can be distracting. Basically, you have to try to pull the interval out of the melody you’re trying to decode and put it in your reference song, then once identified return its place—all in your head!

And to apply a reference song to a harmonic interval, you’ll need to first pull it apart in your mind to the two notes to fit it to the melody.

Bottom line: Interval reference songs are a great way to start, but when you’re wanting to identify harmonic intervals or melodic intervals in a real musical context, you’ll probably do better with one of the other methods.

Solfa: Easy as “Do Re Mi”

What does a female deer have to do with intervals? “Do” is the first note in the “solfa” system (also known as “solfege”). While the Sound of Music made these syllables famous in a children’s song, the solfa system can actually be the most powerful and versatile method for learning interval recognition and developing your sense of relative pitch.

Solfa gives each note in the scale a specific name: “do”, “re”, “mi”, “fa”, etc. Learn more about it in this solfa tutorial series.

To use solfa for interval ear training you simply learn the syllables that correspond to the intervals. For example, sing “do mi”, and you’ve sung a major third ascending. Sing “mi sol” and you’ve sung a minor third ascending. Each interval can be represented in solfa by one or more combinations of syllables.

All your solfa practice helps you with intervals, and all your interval ear training helps you with solfa. To reinforce this even further, sing each interval twice. First solfa, then interval name: “do mi, major third.” Listen to this example:

Try these solfa interval exercises for more practice.

As an alternative to solfa, many professionals think in numbered scale degrees rather than syllables. This is the origin of the Nashville number system. But when you are beginning to learn intervals, the profusion of numbers used to label both scale degrees and intervals can be overwhelming.

The musical uses and implications of solfa extend far and wide. Once you’re hooked on solfa, it’s hard to think of any downsides to it. There is a bit of a learning curve, and it does require committed study to bring your solfa skills up. But it’s never too late to start!

Pure Recognition

Simple and effective, the famous Nike slogan sums up the most popular way to learn intervals: “Just Do It”.

In this method you learn interval recognition by simply repeat practice. Interval ear training consists of listening to examples, trying to hear which interval it is, checking your answer, and repeating.

This method is also known as the “pure recognition” or the “brute force” approach. A good name because it can sometimes take an extra dose of will and determination to slog your way through the drills! Especially since they seem abstracted from real music.

Fortunately, there are many more technological tools—MP3s, apps, etc.—available today then there were in the past, making this method much more fun and accessible than it used to be.

There are three ways to “just do it”:

1. Instrumental Ear Training for Intervals

Pick up your instrument and play intervals for yourself. Some knowledge of spelling intervals may be required, depending the layout of the instrument. Interval ear training on guitar, however, is possible without knowing the spellings.

When you practice intervals this way, you build your instrumental skills along with your interval recognition—a fantastic step in transforming your instrument into an extension of your inner expression.

2. Interval Ear Training Exercises as MP3 Tracks

These MP3 files play a series of example intervals, give you time to guess, and then give the answer. Each track, or lesson, will focus on a certain set of interval types.

Try this track for major and minor thirds (ascending):

Looking for more? Try these free interval ear training exercises.

3. Interactive Ear Training Software

Desktop software and mobile apps guide you interactively through interval recognition. They are customizable, convenient, and can be addictive—in a good way!

This is the method provided here at Explore our lessons and interactive interval ear training to easily teach yourself intervals with the “pure recognition” approach.

How to do Interval Ear Training

Learning how to recognize intervals doesn’t have to be a drudge. There are so many resources, from low-tech “you and your voice” all the way up to high-tech apps, that make it more fun, practical and interesting.

The three main approaches to interval training complement each other beautifully. In fact, while you might be more attracted at first to one or the other, it’s more effective to try them all at least a little.

Try each of the three interval ear training methods described here and you’re sure to succeed in learning interval recognition fast!