All great musicians rely on their sense of what’s called “relative pitch” to play and understand music. “Relative pitch” is the ability to accurately hear the distances between notes. The core skill of relative pitch is therefore “interval recognition“: being able to tell exactly how far apart a pair of notes are.
We give names to the different interval distances because names are important, which leads to many musicians spending time honing their relative pitch by memorising the distinctive sound of each type of interval. If you want to learn music, practise interval recognition.
- If you want to know how to play songs by ear, or how to transcribe melodies.
- If you get frustrated by music sounding “blurry” and indecipherable however much progress you make on your instrument.
- If you think there’s something nifty about being able to sight-sing from a written score, or identify a doorbell as a major third.
… it’s time to learn your intervals!
There are three popular approaches: Reference songs, solfege, and what I like to call “the Nike method”.
Before we dive into those, let’s make sure we have the basics clear.
Here’s a note:
Here’s another one:
Here’s the interval between them:
It can also go downwards:
Or both notes at the same time:
So each interval has three forms (ascending, descending, harmonic). Each form can take a bit of special attention to learn, but the fundamental sound of the interval is present in all three.
If this is all new to you, you might want to brush up on a bit of basic music theory. Don’t be scared! The excellent videos on daveconservatoire.org will get you up to speed in no time.
How to Learn Intervals
Now that we’ve covered the required background, let’s dig in. How do you go about learning interval recognition? Naturally, ear training is the key. When you first dive into the world of intervals though, you’re likely to encounter a variety of approaches and recommended methods, which can be a bit overwhelming.
For the full scoop, check out the Ultimate Guide to Intervals, which goes into detail on the what, why and how of interval ear training, and explains how to actually put your new interval skills to use in practical music-making like playing by ear, improvising, and creating your own music.
Let’s look at the three main approaches of how to learn intervals and the pros and cons of each, so that you can choose which is the best option for you.
1: Reference songs
This is probably the easiest way to get started learning intervals: pick a handful of songs you already know (folk songs, nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, TV theme tunes, etc.) which have a melody starting with the interval you’re trying to learn.
For example, learn a perfect fifth with the Star Wars theme.
Learn the challenging tri-tone with “Maria” from West Side Story (“Mar-ee”):
You can find plenty of lists to get you started with interval songs online:
- VCU Music Theory
- Interval Reference Songs… That you’ve actually heard of!
The online tool TrainEar.com can help you practice and test yourself as you learn, or on iOS try the handy Interval Recognition app which lets you assemble your own set of reference songs to train and test with.
The main downside of using reference songs is that even when you get very good at recognising the intervals in isolation, it can be hard to transfer that ability to real musical tasks. Your brain will try to “fill in” the rest of the reference song’s melody (which is what lets you identify the interval) but this is hampered by the actual music you’re hearing.
It’s not quite an interval recognition ‘trick’, but it is a shortcut that ultimately may not build the strong, versatile and confident interval recognition ability you want.
Still, using reference songs provides a great introduction to learning intervals and can be a useful tool.
What is solfege?
Simply put, it’s assigning singable words to notes. The most popular system is “moveable ‘do'”, which means the tonic (root) note is called “do”, and the rest of the major scale follows “re mi fa so la ti do”. Assigning names to the notes provides your brain with a powerful framework for understanding music.
Using solfege (“do re mi” etc.) to learn intervals is unfortunately a slightly niche method. Generally speaking, if you’re a ‘solfege person’ (like practitioners of the Kodály method of musicianship) you’ll be developing your relative pitch in a powerful way using solfege -- and interval recognition will come naturally out of that.
If you’re not familiar with solfege, it will seem like an odd and incomprehensible approach to learning intervals!
The basic idea is just that you learn which pairings of solfa syllables correspond to the intervals. So, for example, you learn the sound of a do so leap when practising the do pentatonic scale and you note that it’s a perfect fifth. Later you learn the la pentatonic and find that la mi gives you a perfect fifth too, helping you learn to recognise intervals in different musical contexts.
Solfege can seem strange and intimidating, but it’s never too late to learn! Try out the Starting Solfa series to learn intervals and chords with solfege (a.k.a. solfa).
3: The “Nike Method”
This approach doesn’t rely on reference points like songs or a naming framework, instead treating intervals as standalone abstract sounds to be learned.
You simply listen to examples of the intervals in isolation, drilling them until they become familiar, comparing them with one another, testing yourself on whether you can recognise them.
It’s the simplest approach -- but not the easiest! Staying in the abstract world makes for a versatile sense of relative pitch but can be tough going when you find yourself struggling. It can drive you a little crazy trying to distinguish tri-tones from major sevenths when it’s late at night and all the notes blur together…
Still, there are ways to make life a bit easier. Our RelativePitch app uses the Nike Method and make life a little easier when it comes to practising and testing yourself on the intervals.
Get Started →
How to Learn Intervals? Choose your weapon.
The Nike method is simple, but it can be hard going. You’ll find you can make a start easily, learning to distinguish major thirds from minor thirds, for example. And if you’ve played an instrument for a while you may find certain things come easy. Semitones (half-steps) sound like the end of a major scale. Major and minor thirds sound like you’re about to play an arpeggio. And so on.
This is essentially a combination of approaches: drawing on some of the benefit of the Reference Songs approach to assist your Nike Method. Never be afraid to bootstrap your music education!
Ultimately, which approach is best depends entirely on you.
- If you’re new to the whole area of ear training, we recommend using reference songs. It’s the easiest way to reliably make initial progress, and you’ll get great satisfaction from seeing your sense of relative pitch emerge.
- If you’re using solfege for your musicianship training, use solfege! This is a no-brainer. You have a powerful tool in place, just take the time to really practise those interval leaps and memorise which pairings of solfege syllables correspond to each interval.
- Otherwise: Just Do It! Generation upon generation of musicians have learned it this way, and with modern technology it’s never been easier. Theta Music Trainer provide fun and effective interval training games. And hundreds of thousands of musicians like you have learned intervals with the Nike Method and our RelativePitch app.
There are lots of interval ear training articles, practice tools and downloadable ear training resources here on the site which can help accelerate your progress learning intervals, including our in-depth guide on learning interval recognition. I hope this introduction to how to learn intervals has helped you choose a method to take your first steps, or try a new approach if you’ve been losing momentum with your interval training. Have fun, and remember: don’t just train for the sake of training -- put those intervals to use!
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