Interval recognition is a core skill in ear training because it develops a powerful sense of relative pitch. Yet, as much as learning to recognize intervals you develops your ear, you must also train your brain to recognize them, too.

This means learning to “spell” the intervals with correct note names, which may take a little memorization.

With regular practice, once you are able to quickly spell intervals you will be able to apply interval recognition skills to a whole host of musical tasks.

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Applications of Interval Spellings

What exactly does it mean to “spell” an interval? Spelling intervals means that you take a pair of notes and identify what type of interval is between them. Or, if you already know the note and the interval type, you can determine what the other note of the interval pair is.

Learning to spell intervals enables you to apply your interval recognition skills to real musical tasks.

You can use your interval recognition skills to play melodies by ear on your instrument, sight-sing from written music, or transcribe (write down) the music you hear.

It also allows you connect the sound of the interval with your instrument and written notes on the page.

By learning to spell intervals you will learn to instantly be able to answer questions like, “What’s a minor seventh above a B♭?”. For more information on the fundamentals of interval spelling have a look at our previous article, “How to Spell Intervals”.

An Approach to Fast Interval Spelling

Our three-part approach to learning how to spell intervals involves learning only what you actually need to know. It focuses first on how to quickly spell intervals and then later on instant recall:

  1. Learn a process for quickly figuring out an interval spelling
  2. Practice applying that process
  3. Through regular application and practice you will memorize more and more spellings for instant recall.

Learn Fast and Spell Faster

In learning how to spell intervals fast there are actually two parts to your task:

  • Learn fast how to spell intervals
  • Learn how to spell intervals fast

Trying to do these two similar – yet different  – tasks at the same time can be overwhelming. After all, with 12 root notes and interval types, both ascending and descending, there can be a lot to memorize!

In this post we’ll cover just the first task: quickly learning how to spell intervals. Then we’ll continue in the next post to discuss the tips and tricks you can use to spell intervals fast and get that “instant answer” ability.

The traditional way to learn to spell intervals is rote memorisation. BORING! When learning how to spell intervals it actually helps if you don’t treat interval spellings as a random set of letters and accidentals to memorize. Instead, apply understanding to the spellings and you can accelerate the learning process. Narrow it down too to what’s actually useful: you can learn to spell the more unusual intervals once you’ve mastered the ones you’ll actually use daily.

Spelling Intervals Fast: Two Steps

The two-step process for figuring out interval spellings is: Identify the note letter and identify the appropriate accidental.

Identifying the note letter is easy – you just need to know your ABCDEFGs! The number of the interval tells us how many note names to count through.

1. Identifying the letter

For example, suppose we ask the question “What is this interval above a C?”

First, number the letter names following C: C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7. Count the letter names between the two notes to get your interval type, e.g. “some kind of a third.” As a result, any second above C is some kind of D, any third above C is some kind of E and so on. It doesn’t matter if it’s a major or minor interval at this point.

You can do this for any starting note and ignore the accidentals. For example, to determine the interval above B♭, number the letters as follows: B = 1, C = 2, D = 3, E = 4, F = 5, G = 6, A = 7.

2. Identifying the Accidental

Identifying the appropriate accidental of an interval is where things get a little bit trickier. The process for identifying the accidental is based on the number of semitones (or, half steps) in each interval type.

The big problem is that counting the number of semitones between two notes is very time-consuming! You can make this process easier by trying to imagine a piano keyboard, guitar fretboard, or music staff. Once you memorize the number of semitones in each interval, you’re ready to put it into action:

  1. Unison
  2. Minor Second
  3. Major Second
  4. Minor Third
  5. Major Third
  6. Perfect Fourth
  7. Perfect Fifth
  8. Minor Sixth
  9. Major Sixth
  10. Minor Seventh
  11. Major Seventh
  12. Perfect Octave

Then the process is for determining the appropriate accidental is:

  1. Identify the note letter (as described above).
  2. Measure the number of semitones between your starting note and that note letter.
  3. Add accidentals to the note letter in order to match the target interval type.

For our example “What is a minor third above a C?”: Compare the number of semitones to determine the exact interval spelling: “there are four semitones so it’s a major third”. You’ve already determined that the note letter a third above middle C is an E so next count the number of semitones between C and E, which is four. A minor third is actually just three semitones above C therefore E is an E♭, so your answer is that a minor third above a C is E♭.

Try to find ways to apply your interval recognition and spelling skills to your daily musical life. For example, you can use interval spellings to play music by ear, improvise, transcribe, or compose your own music.

Every opportunity you find to practice spelling intervals will bring you closer to being able to instantly spell any interval you hear. Soon you will be well on your way to instant recall which, as we will discuss in the next instalment, is your ultimate goal in learning to spell intervals fast.

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