Wherever two sounds are present in music, so are intervals.
That makes them important and well worth training your ear for. Let’s look more deeply into what intervals are, how we can learn them with interval ear training, and what we can do with them once we have mastered interval recognition.
What are Intervals?
Sounds vibrate at certain frequencies that can be described as vibrations per second. Scientists call these Hertz (pronounced “hurts”). Technically, an interval is the difference between the frequency of two vibrations.
However in music we tend to limit ourselves to certain sets of vibrations known as pitches. Rather than naming them by frequency numbers, we give them letter names (C, D, E, etc.) or syllables (Do, Re, Mi, Fa… or Sa, Re, Ga, Ma…).
The slower the frequency, the lower the note, and the higher the frequency the higher the note. Think of the piano keyboard: the keys to the left produce lower notes, and those to the right higher notes.
That distance between two notes is called the interval between them. The closer together they are on the keyboard, the smaller the interval. The farther apart, the larger the interval.
You can see them on the piano, but you can also learn to recognize the differences by ear. That’s what people are talking about when they say, “learning intervals” or “interval recognition.”
An interval is the distance in pitch between two musical notes and interval ear training is simply the process of learning to recognise distances in pitch by ear.
It’s All Relative
Intervals are not just an abstract concept in music theory. Intervals are powerful.
Okay, screaming out “That was an awesome perfect fifth!” at the concert may not exactly impress your friends. But when you learn intervals you are developing your core sense of relative pitch.
Relative pitch allows you to judge the distances in pitch between notes. From melodies and chords to the most complex orchestral arrangements: when you recognise intervals, you hear it all much more deeply and with greater understanding. It’s like changing your vision from 2D to 3D.
Those magical musical abilities that we so admire in others are made possible by a well-trained sense of relative pitch. With intervals and relative pitch, these skills and more are all within your grasp:
- Playing songs by ear
- improvising powerful solos
- writing down the music you hear in your head or in the real world
Interval training will give you the core musical instinct for pitch to experience and create music like never before!
With relative pitch, you can play by ear and improvise. Interval ear training builds your sense of relative pitch.
What is Interval Recognition?
When you learn to recognize intervals, whenever you hear a pair of notes in music, you are able to recognize the size of interval between them. We call the different sizes “types” of interval and give each type a name. When you name the interval, you are actually perceiving the distance in pitch between those two notes.
So “interval ear training” is the process of learning to hear and name intervals in music.
At first the practice may seem dry and theoretical. You listen to a two notes and name the interval between them. As you improve, your interval recognition will become more instinctive—like seeing and recognizing a color. With a little time, you will hear a whole set of notes in a chord, or in a melody, and simply know what they are without thinking through each interval type.
Recognise the interval between two notes, and you recognise the pitch distance between them. Each distance has its own type, or name.
How to Name Intervals
The note A above middle C vibrates at 440 Hertz (cycles per second). When we double that vibration, the resulting note (880 Hz) is also called “A”. Similarly, if we halve the frequency (220 Hz) we come to another A. That 1:2 ratio in pitch frequency is known as the interval of an octave. In Western music, if you count all the notes from A “220” to A “440”, including the two As at the bottom and top, you’ll find 13 different pitches.
We could simply name our intervals according to the number of pitches from one to another. So what we named an octave would be known as “13”. But the best way to name them provides even more detail about their musical interaction by also relating them to the musical scale.
Thus there are two musical elements described in the interval’s name, known as degree, and quality.
- “Degree” refers to the step in a major or minor scale. Each of them has seven steps, so seven degrees. However, not all 12 possible pitches will be found in the seven-note scale. That’s where “quality” comes in.
- “Quality” refers to how that interval relates to the standard pitches in the scale. “Major”, “minor” and “perfect” are the most common, but you will also find “augmented” and “diminished”.
Here’s the complete list of intervals within the octave and how many “half steps” they are in size:
- Semitone, Half-Step, or Minor Second
- Tone, Whole Step or Major Second
- Minor Third
- Major Third
- Perfect Fourth
- Perfect Fifth
- Minor Sixth
- Major Sixth
- Minor Seventh
- Major Seventh
- Perfect Octave
In some cases, variant names are given since they are found in different countries or traditions, and in music theory some intervals have multiple names - but knowing these make no difference for recognition and listening skills. The interval is the same, so use whichever you like for your interval ear training.
The 13 primary intervals are named for the scale degree (“third”, “fourth”, “fifth”, etc.) and their quality (“major”, “minor”, “perfect”).
Do you need to know music theory to recognize intervals?
There’s a lot of music theory embedded in intervals. Where do they come from? How do they fit in with scales, chords, and progressions? What are interval inversions?
The good news is that to recognise and benefit from interval ear training, you really don’t need to know much of that!
Even better, when and if you do decide to delve into music theory, the very practice of recognizing naming intervals will give you a big headstart.
One example is the exact spelling of intervals, for example when going a major third down from C, is it A♭ - or should it be G♯? Or given two notes’ names, say D♭ and F, how do your work out the interval name? While there are specific answers, to your ears a major third is a major third is a major third!
If this skill is important to you, let’s say for sight reading music in choir, it’s not hard to work these things out with a little theory. But don’t let learning theory hold you back: whether you spell the intervals “correctly” or not, you can put them right to work in your improvising and playing by ear.
Knowing the 13 interval types are enough for now! You can “go deep” on the theory later, but just learning the basic names and recognizing them brings huge benefits.
Melodic and Harmonic Intervals
You may have heard these two terms. “Melodic” and “harmonic” simply refer to how the notes of the intervals are played.
When the two notes are played in sequence, one after the other, we call it a melodic interval. Since the second note can be either higher or lower than the first, melodic intervals can be either ascending or descending.
Here’s an ascending perfect fourth:
And the same interval descending:
In harmonic intervals, both notes are played at the same time, like in a chord or harmonized singing. A harmonic perfect fourth:
It’s best to study all three forms of an interval. They might sound different from each other at first, but soon you’ll find that studying one form helps with the others.
Hearing one note at a time? It’s a melodic interval. Both notes played together? It’s harmonic.
Start Interval Ear Training
Can you imagine having fuzzy vision your whole life and receiving your first pair of glasses? What would that do for your perception of the world around you? Well you can do that in the world of sound.
Learn to recognize intervals and you will hear in detail how musical notes relate one to another.
Now that you know what intervals are and why we learn them, let’s go deeper into the myriad benefits of interval ear training…
Learn more about interval ear training in the Ultimate Guide to Intervals: