Interval recognition is a core skill in ear training, letting you develop a powerful and versatile sense of relative pitch and recognise notes and chords by ear. When you learn to recognise intervals you develop your ear, but you must also train your brain. This means learning to “spell” the intervals with correct note names. This can seem like a huge task at first, but as you’ll see below, there are some handy shortcuts to accelerate the process.
Spelling intervals means that you either take a pair of notes, for example C and the G above, and you can tell what type of interval that is – in this case, a perfect fifth. Or, that you take a note and the interval type, for example a C and “major third”, and know what the other note is to form that interval – in this case, an E.
Interval spellings enable you to apply your interval skills to real musical tasks. You can use your interval recognition skills to play melodies by ear on your instrument, because you know the corresponding note names. You can also sight-sing from written music, or transcribe (write down) the music you hear, using your interval recognition skills.
Learning to spell intervals lets you connect the sound of the interval with your instrument and the notes on the page.
We covered the fundamentals of interval spelling in our previous article, How to Spell Intervals. After reading that tutorial you should be clear on what it means to learn interval spellings – but you might still be wondering about the “how”, or feeling like there’s just too much to memorise.
With 12 root notes, at least 12 interval types, ascending and descending forms, it can feel like an awful lot to try to learn all at once!
Even just the major scale intervals is a big task:
Don’t worry! You actually don’t need to memorise this great big table of answers.
It turns out there are some structures and shortcuts you can take advantage of to learn interval spellings fast.
How to learn interval spellings fast
When you set out to learn intervals you probably imagine a future in which you can instantly answer questions like “What’s a minor seventh above a B♭?” or “What’s the interval between an F♯ and an A?”.
That kind of instant recall should indeed be your goal – but if you try to jump directly there you will find it a very slow and tedious journey.
The first thing to understand if you want to learn interval spellings fast is that there are actually two parts to your task:
- Learn fast how to spell intervals.
- Learn how to spell intervals fast.
This is an important distinction because it’s the combination of the two which normally makes musicians feel overwhelmed when trying to learn to spell intervals.
If you try to learn it all quickly and expect yourself to have instant recall of each spelling, you will soon become frustrated.
So one big tip for learning to spell intervals quickly is: let yourself do it methodically at first, and allow instant recall to develop over time.
Don’t treat interval spellings as a random set of letters and accidentals to simply memorise. Instead, apply some understanding to the spellings, and you can accelerate the process of learning them dramatically.
Our approach will be as follows:
- Learn a process for quickly figuring out an interval spelling.
- Practice applying that process.
- Through real-world application and regular practice, begin to effortlessly memorise more and more spellings for instant recall.
This allows you to quickly learn how to spell intervals – and in time you will also be able to spell intervals quickly.
Note: As you’ll see below, part of our approach involves learning only what you actually need to know. So you’ll find there are some omissions below, for example the more rare interval types. Don’t worry: you can learn those later once you’ve mastered the ones you’ll actually use day-to-day.
Quickly learn how to spell intervals
The process for figuring out interval spellings is simple and it’s essentially the same for both the tasks described above (identifying the note name to complete an interval, and identifying the interval type between two notes).
For simplicity we’ll describe just the process for identifying the note to complete an interval, i.e. answering the question:
“What note is this interval above this starting note?”
This can seem hard at first: the second note could be anything! But actually the answer can always be broken into two simple steps:
- Identify the note letter.
- Identify the appropriate accidental (sharps or flats).
Step One: Identify the note letter
The first step is quite easy. You just need to know your ABCs! Or technically your ABCDEFGs.
The names of the different types of intervals helps us here. What initially can seem like complex and archaic terminology actually gives us clues to how to spell them. You see, the number of the interval tells us how many note names to move through, to spell that interval. This is most easily shown through an example:
Suppose we are starting with the question “What is this interval above a C?”
You know the letter names which follow a C, so just number them:
This tells us that:
- Any second above C is some kind of D
- Any third above C is some kind of E
- Any fourth above C is some kind of F
- Any fifth above C is some kind of G
- Any sixth above C is some kind of A
- Any seventh above C is some kind of B
It doesn’t matter if it’s a major or minor second: it will be some kind of an D.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a major or minor third: it will be some kind of an E.
… and so on!
You can do this for any starting note. Ignore the accidentals. For example if the question is “What is this interval above a B♭?” just use the numbering:
So any second above B♭ is some kind of a C. Any third above B♭ is some kind of a D, and so on.
Now it’s time for step two.
Step Two: Identify the appropriate accidental
This is where things get a little bit trickier. The full process for identifying the appropriate accidental is based on the number of semitones (a.k.a. half steps) in each interval type: