Train Your Ears – Identifying Intervals (Part I)

For those of you that don’t know, an interval is simply the distance between two pitches. Here is a list of intervals along with the number of semitones (or half steps) they represent. I also give examples of which notes are separated by that interval (second note is always higher than the first note).

Unison = 0 semitones (Same note played twice)

Minor 2nd = 1 semitone (examples:  C to Db, B to C, G# to A)

Major 2nd = 2 semitones (examples:  C to D, A to B, F# to G#)

Minor 3rd = 3 semitones (examples:  C to Eb, G to Bb, F to Ab)

Major 3rd = 4 semitones (examples:  C to E, Db to F, A to C#)

Perfect 4th = 5 semitones (examples:  C to F, A to D, Bb to Eb)

Tritone = 6 semitones (examples:  C to F#, G to C#, E to A#)

Perfect 5th = 7 semitones (examples:  C to G, Eb to Bb, D to A)

Minor 6th = 8 semitones (examples:  C to Ab, B to G, E to C)

Major 6th = 9 semitones (examples:  C to A, F to D, Ab to F)

Minor 7th = 10 semitones (examples:  C to Bb, D to C, A to G)

Major 7th = 11 semitones (examples:  C to B, G to F#, B to C#)

Octave = 12 semitones (Same two notes played one octave apart)

You could continue on to even larger intervals (9ths, 11ths, 12ths, etc…) but for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with the intervals contained in one octave. The diagram below may help you visualize these distances.

semitones

(NOTE:  If you’re unsure of what those notes in parenthesis are doing there, refer to my post on basic scale theory.)

The space between each of those lines is a semitone. From B to C you have one semitone or a minor 2nd, from D to A you have seven semitones or a perfect 5th, and so on. 

Of course, using this diagram is cumbersome and not very practical while actually playing or singing music. What you’ll want to do is memorize as many of these intervals as you can (the perfect 4ths and 5ths are a good place to start, as they are linked to the circle of 4ths/5ths, and are very useful in general). Find the intervals on your instrument, find them in written music, make flash cards, or use any other method you want.

“But this post is about ear training, not staring at diagrams and flash cards!”

Right, while the theory is important, don’t get too caught up in it. Balance the theoretical studying with some actual ear training. Let’s go through each interval in detail and actually listen to them. I’ll give you some pointers on how to recognize them by ear, including references to some popular songs. Let us begin.

Disclaimer:  I will be focusing only on tips for identifying intervals in the upward direction in this post. Depending on the response I recieve, I may make a post where I discuss intervals going downward as well. So if you think this post is swell, let me know! If not, let me know how I could make it better. Also, the MIDI piano examples all begin with the note C. The audio examples I give may not begin on the same note, so don’t let that throw you off. Remember it’s the space between the notes you care about, not the notes themselves.

Unison

Things couldn’t start off any simpler. If the distance between two pitches is described as unison, they are the exact same note. It’s as easy as that.

Minor 2nd

Separate:

Together:

The minor 2nd is the smallest interval between two different pitches that exists in a scale (well, at least in the 12-tone equal temperment scale we commonly use today). This is the interval between every single note in the chromatic scale. Familiarize yourself with that scale and you’ll be able to identify this interval by ear fairly easily (just be careful not to mistaken it for the major 2nd).

For a classic reference, just listen to the tense theme from Jaws.

(audio taken from this video)

Major 2nd

Separate:

Together:

Perhaps a little easier to identify, the major 2nd represents the whole step. A good song to think of is the lullaby, “Frère Jacques (Are You Sleeping?)”. The interval between the first two notes (as well as between the 2nd and 3rd notes) is a major 2nd.

First part of “Frère Jacques” melody:

Minor 3rd

Separate:

Together:

I personally recognize this interval by hearing the minor triad in my head. It’s the distance between the root note and the lowered 3rd. Here is a clip of a C minor triad, first arpeggiated then played all together.

Minor 3rd triad:

Remember, a minor triad is made up of a root note (in the above example it’s C), a lowered 3rd (in the above example it’s Eb), and a 5th (in the above example it’s G). The interval between the root note and the lowered 3rd is, not surprisingly, a minor 3rd.

Also, how about a little “Smoke on the Water” for my guitar playing readers? Listen between the first two notes of the riff.

Major 3rd

Separate:

Together:

The major 3rd can be described as more “uplifting” than the minor 3rd. You could think of the major triad in your head to help identify this interval, but another way is to think of “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

You can hear the major 3rd in the first sentence of the lyrics:

whenthesaints

Listen to Louis sing it here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 4th

Separate:

Together:

I can’t hear the perfect 4th without thinking of “Here Comes the Bride”:

The interval between the first two notes is a perfect 4th.

Tritone

Separate:

Together:

Does this interval sound particularly menacing to you? You aren’t alone. According to The New Oxford Companion to Music by Dennis Arnold, the tritone adopted the nickname, “Diabolus in musica” (the Devil in music) in the Medieval era due to its dissonance (lack of harmony). While other intervals sound dissonant as well, this one is often considered the most awkward to sing.

However it has become an increasingly popular interval to experiment with over the years. One of the most notable songs to feature the tritone is Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story.

You can hear the tritone between the first two syllables of “Maria”.

Maria

Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 5th

Separate:

Together:

The perfect 5th is a very strong, confident sounding interval. So incredibly powerful that it has been used in such works as the Superman theme and, of course, Star Wars.

Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

I’ll cover the remaining intervals in Identifying Intervals (Part II)! Feel free to comment!

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5 comments on “Train Your Ears – Identifying Intervals (Part I)

  1. Paula says:

    Thank you so much; I stumbled across your Circle of Fifths chart and was so intrigued by how much better I understood it that I signed up for your blog. As an older guitar player and wannabe songwriter, you have helped me increase my theory knowledge more than I can say. Again, thanks for your time. I appreciate your descriptions and instruction.

    • dflomusic says:

      Thank you for your comment! It really means a lot to know that the posts are helping someone. Keep up the playing and songwriting! Don’t hesitate to let me know of any topics in particular you’d like to read about, and I’ll do my best to cover them.

  2. xealwithaheh says:

    Hi dflo, I came across your blog about learning piano and this post for ear training from similar interests for learning music; I am doing my own blog about how I am learning to teach myself piano for an ENG for social media class that I have. I am still learning but I would like to follow you and add to my blog roll to build my audience! My blog is at: http://xealwithaheh.wordpress.com/

    Thank you for your time!

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