Interval Tips

As you study interval ear training there will inevitably be times when you need some tips to help you keep improving.

While intervals themselves may seem pretty basic, there are so many ways to learn them. The profusion of methods, approaches, ins and outs to interval training all point to one message: intervals may be small, but they are mighty!

We saw this with Interval Ear Training 101 and the benefits of interval recognition, and each of the three interval ear training methods highlights a different bouquet of profound musical implications.

The four questions below provide the essential interval ear training tips which will make your training easier, broaden your perspective, and increase your benefits.

1. Learn the most important intervals first

There are 13 types of interval and 12 of them have three forms: ascending, descending and harmonic. And there’s more, with compound intervals greater than an octave.

You can’t learn them all immediately. The first of our interval ear training tips is to focus on a select group of intervals, the most important ones.

So which intervals are the most important?

When you were searching for interval reference songs, you may have noticed that certain intervals were easier to find than others. It makes sense that those more common intervals are the first ones to learn.

Here’s the shortlist:

  • Major and minor seconds: These little guys are what all the other intervals are made of. Also known as whole steps and half steps, seconds are hands-down the most common intervals in melodies.
  • Major and minor thirds: Thirds are the next most popular melodic intervals. But building chords is their real claim to fame! For at least 500 years the mighty thirds have been the bricks and mortar of Western harmony.
  • Perfect fourths and fifths: The perfect intervals (that includes the octave) don’t change between major and minor scales. The notes within them relate vibrationally in pure mathematical ratios. These mystics of the interval world create strong, distinctive melodic leaps. If thirds are the “bricks”, then fourths and fifths are the “foundation stones” of harmony. They are crucial for understanding chord progressions: how chords relate to each other, and move one to another.

Once you learn these three groups (the melodic marvels, the handy harmonizers, and the progressive perfect intervals!) they will serve you well in your quest for musical mastery.

Beyond their direct usefulness in listening to expressing music, they will also be very helpful in learning the other intervals, since they are closely related to them in the form of inversions.

2. You don’t need to follow a fixed path

This is a slightly counter-intuitive interval ear training tip. When you look at interval ear training courses, you might think that it’s necessary to master each type of interval before training your ears for the next, because:

  • There is a set order to the lessons.
  • Music theory-wise, there is a logical order of intervals from smallest to largest.
  • Repetition will build strong brain pathways for developing the innate pitch ruler.

But total mastery of each step is not required before moving on in your training. In fact, it may even be counter-productive!

Intervals relate one to the other in surprising ways, so learning one interval will greatly accelerate your learning of others. Begin by planning your interval ear training to study the different forms of an interval (ascending, descending, and harmonic) soon after each other. Learning to hear each form will help you with the others.

Go right ahead and use intervals in your music-making. A hands-on approach to intervals will bring all those listening drills to life, and vice-versa.

But if you’re having issues with certain intervals, move on and come back to them later. Often the original problem will have simply disappeared.

A simple guideline is to aim for 80% mastery (meaning you guess the correct interval type four times out of five) before moving on. A flexible approach to your training (like the one used at Musical U) will help you move nimbly around obstacles, and will actually accelerate your overall progress.

3. Mix it up when you get stuck

Intervals may be among the simplest building blocks of music, but learning them can take a while… Even though most musicians arrive at a good functioning intermediate level within a few months, progress can feel slow. This can lead to frustration and feeling like you can’t get any better. Don’t worry, there is a solution, and you don’t need dozens of interval ear training tips to get moving again.

The answer is simple: mix it up!

Remember, all the varied interval recognition skills and approaches complement and build on each other. Rather than an admission of defeat, changing your method will most likely improve and accelerate your progress more than if you give in to grim determination.

Research has shown time and again that learning is more effective when it’s fun. Try these ideas to mix up your interval training:

  • Switch instruments. A change of timbre can have an oddly refreshing effect on how you hear intervals. Plus the challenge of working out the intervals on a different instrument is an exercise in itself.
  • Switch methods. Tired of the MP3 drills? Have fun with some interval reference songs. Reference songs too slow? Try delving into solfa.
  • Switch intervals. Try a different combination of intervals, or a different set. If you’ve been stuck on melodic intervals, try some harmonic intervals or vice versa.
  • Switch training. Have you been totally focused on practice drills and exercises? Go ahead and flex your intervallic muscles with songwriting, playing by ear, and improvisation.

Looking for more interval tips? Try these in-depth posts on the subject: Interval Ear Training Help and Interval Tips and Tricks.

Perhaps the biggest cause of stuckness in interval ear training is reluctance to sing. Read on to discover why singing intervals is so important.

4. Sing Intervals

Even if you think your voice is, well, less than perfect, use your voice to train your ears and watch your progress in all things music go into hyperdrive.

The intimate biological connection between your voice and your ears will make your training feel like part of yourself, like nothing else can. This is probably the most powerful of our interval ear training tips in fact.

If you love singing, you’ll be super excited to put this principle to work. If you don’t, remember this: nobody else has to hear you! But they will hear the results in your other music making.

Your voice is the ultimate portable instrument—no case required, no need for electricity to run your amp. You can practice singing intervals anywhere! With your voice, you can play around with the intervals, calibrating your voice and and your innate pitch ruler at the same time. For example, if you hear a harmonic interval, you can sing the notes one at a time to derive the melodic equivalent.

Final Interval Ear Training Tip: Have Fun!

The most important of our interval ear training tips is to make it fun! Like any game or sport, good training makes the game more exciting. When you enjoy the process, you’ll want to do it more and your progress will show the results.

The interconnected nature of intervals fit perfectly with a “cross-training” program. Focus on the seconds, thirds, fourths, and fifths, mix up your training, and sing, sing sing! Your musical expression and interval recognition skills will grow by leaps and bounds.