There are a few ways to progress past this and really integrate your interval skills with the rest of your musical life:
1. Actively practise using intervals for the musical tasks you want to accomplish.
For example, if you want to play melodies by ear using your interval skills, spend some time explicitly trying to use intervals to work out melodies by ear.
You can practice in a simple way just by sitting down, listening to a melody, and then trying to work out the notes by figuring out each interval in turn. It’s slightly laborious, but doing it bit-by-bit using intervals like this will gradually internalise that way of hearing and it will start to flow and come instinctively.
If you want to make things a bit easier on yourself you could use the “Step and a Half” iOS app which generates melodies and challenges you to work out the intervals used.
Actively, intentionally using intervals in this way is essential to really see benefit from them in practical skills like playing by ear or composing.
If you don’t do this, you will still naturally improve a bit (because your overall relative pitch is improving) but taking the time to “teach” your brain how to use intervals for these tasks is what will really help you progress.
Integrate your interval training with any other aspect of your music learning you can!
- If you’re improvising, challenge yourself to use only particular intervals (e.g. seconds and thirds) – perhaps also keeping within the right scale if you have some extra mental effort to spare!
- If you’re transcribing or playing by ear, take the time to work out not just the notes in sequence, but the intervals between them.
- If you’re working with chords or scales, be sure to dissect them into their component intervals.
If you do these things once, they’re an interesting exercise. If you do them repeatedly you’ll find it adds an extra dimension to your hearing in each case. You’ll start to hear the intervals between the notes, not just the notes themselves.
2. Use solfege!
This is the big benefit of solfege: that it’s inherently intimately connected to the musical “meaning” of notes.
Because your scale degrees are defined based on the tonic, it gives you a very practical mental framework for hearing pitches and intervals, which connects directly to tasks like playing by ear.
It’s never too late to start learning solfege, and even learning the basics and spending a bit of time practising them will bring benefits.
Knowing solfege is also nicely complementary to the intervals-only method, so you can use whichever is most helpful for a given musical task.
3. Listen to intervals in real use.
Ideally, all ear training would be directly related to “real music”. Although there can be benefit in focused listening to intervals in isolation, once you want to start using your interval recognition skills you’ll need to practise hearing them in a musical context too.
The Unravelling Music ear training albums teach with this innovative approach, and Introducing Intervals teaches all the most common intervals. It uses real musical tracks, so that from the outset you hear the intervals in use – rather than as isolated “abstract” notes.