How To Listen For Intervals

Photo (c) 2013 Steve CaseWe were sitting around the dinner table tonight enjoying my wife Sue’s peach/rhubarb crisp with vanilla ice cream, (it was wonderful, and all the more since our dinner was carry-out from Pizza Hut), and knowing that my Sunday night posting deadline was due for, I asked everyone within earshot the penetrating yet open-ended question:

“So…what do you think I should blog on tonight?”

I was really impressed how fast my daughter Sarah, a piano teacher herself, answered.

“Intervals. Teach about listening for intervals.”

“Why intervals?” I said.

“Because I have a student that needs to learn them!”

Okay, good enough for me.

Intervals are… what?

Here’s the thing with intervals. An interval is a space, a distance between two pitches. Just like the rungs of a ladder are assembled evenly, say 12″ apart (I have no idea what they actually are), we would say that they are spaced at intervals of 12″. It is the space between the rungs we are talking about, not the rungs themselves.

Pitch is the high and low characteristic of tone. Two pitches can be spaced very far apart, like the sounds of a foghorn and a whistle, or they might be very close together, like two birds tweeting. The first step in listening for intervals is simply determining which of two tones is higher and which is lower, when you hear them together, or maybe one right after the other.

I have met only one person in my lifetime that I really believe is tone-deaf. He was the dad of one of my students, and when, out of curiosity, he asked about pitch relationships, I had him turn away from the piano and listen. I would push two different piano keys, each one, of course, having its own pitch. I asked him to identify which one was higher, and I did this several times. He was correct exactly 50% of the time. He really could not tell which was higher and which was lower, the definition of tone-deaf.

Use Some Familiar Labels

Once you can identify the high and low of a tone when compared to another tone, we can refine your listening skill by comparing an interval you hear to tunes that you know well. For example, if I played a minor 3rd, you might recognize that distance as being the first interval of Brahm’s Lullaby. A tone is played twice, followed by the tone 3 piano keys higher (3 frets on the guitar). For now, just memorize that sound as a minor 3rd.

Now think about the song, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. A tone is played twice, followed by another tone played twice that is 7 piano keys toward the right, which sound higher. Both white and black keys on the piano count. Or 7 frets on the guitar. Play the lower one twice and the higher one twice, and you’ve got the first 4 notes of Twinkle. In musical terms, the distance you’ve covered is a perfect 5th.

Now for one more example. Play two tones that are an octave apart (12 black and white keys or 12 frets). The first two syllables of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” are an octave apart. Or you can think of it as “do” to the next “do” when you sing or play the scale.

An Audio Exercise

So we’ve got a minor 3rd (Brahms’s Lullaby), a perfect 5th (Twinkle Twinkle) and a perfect octave (Somewhere Over The Rainbow). Listen to the audio track I’ve included and make a list of the interval names as you listen. I’ll give you 20 examples, each one played twice. You might want to try it more than once – if you do, don’t look at the answers you wrote before, approach it fresh on a clean sheet of paper. I’ll post the answers in the next few days after you’ve had a chance to test yourself.

Don’t worry about the reasons behind the names of the intervals just yet. We can talk about those at some point, but the idea here is to listen for specific pitch relationships.

Next Steps

The next step will be to add another close interval and another wide interval to your growing list. And then another pair, and another, until you are listening for intervals that range from a single 1/2 step (1 key or 1 fret) up to a full octave or even further. For now, use this audio test first, then be alert as you listen to your favorite tunes, trying to recognize these intervals in the melodies you hear played or sung.

Is this new to you? Have you ever thought about developing your listening skills to the point of learning tunes simply by hearing them? It’s not magic, you can learn to do this!

If you have any questions about listening for these intervals, or any other musical questions of any sort, please leave a comment below or email me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you!

© 2013 Steve Case

Published by scase

5 thoughts on “How To Listen For Intervals

  1. That was a pretty cool exercise Steve! I can’t wait to see how my answers match up! Thanks for the challenge! 🙂

  2. Hi Steve!
    Two family members who play piano early on found it much easier to play by ear than to learn to read music well, consequently they don’t sightread well. This is a problem when playing in a band and/or learning music they haven’t heard before. Suggestions?

    1. Hi Caroline- you’re not alone! This issue crops up usually when students are trained in a playing-by-ear or by-rote manner when they are young, or when they are self-taught. Then playing in a large ensemble requires them to read music quickly, so that everyone in the band is speaking the same language, reading the same playbook, so to speak. Here are a couple of thoughts:
      1) depending on your student’s level, practice with flashcards for note-naming, or playing phrases of music. Have your students say the names of the notes aloud when they play the note or phrase, if practicing on the piano.
      2) Borrow some books from the band teacher, then practice sight-reading daily. What that means is, the student can look over a brand new piece for as long as he or she wants to, even close the lid on the piano and play on top of the wood. But once they start to play, even a section of the piece, THEY CANNOT STOP! Once they replay any of the music, it has gone from sight-reading to practicing the piece, and defeats the purpose. Get as much new music in front of your students as often as possible, and each piece gets only one shot!
      3) There are additionally some piano books that have been written to teach sight-reading skills. Try Alfred Publishing (I’ve used these) or possibly Hal Leonard Publishing. You can find these online.

      And last, even if your students are playing other instruments on their own or in a band, if they work at these skills on the piano, their sight-reading on each instrument will improve. It is a valuable skill, good luck to all of you!

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