In a previous article, How to Spell Intervals, we thoroughly explained the process of how to spell intervals. This process works very well, and you can use it immediately in your daily musical life.

The downside is that it’s slow! Fortunately, there are several tricks you can use to speed up the process of learning to spell intervals.

This is a summary post.
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Trick #1: Memorize the Rules Fast

There is a quicker way to instantly know the correct accidental other than learning note name and interval type combinations. There’s a set pattern of rules for each interval type, so you can learn a simple rule for each one. Here are the six rules for the intervals of the major scale:

  • Major Second: Accidental matches, except root E/B where it’s raised one
  • Major Third: Accidental raised one, except root F/C/G where it matches
  • Perfect Fourth: Accidental matches, except root F where it’s lowered one
  • Perfect Fifth: Accidental matches, except root B where it’s raised one
  • Major Sixth: Accidental matches, except for root A/E/B where it’s raised one
  • Major Seventh: Accidental raised one except for root F/C where it matches

Simply memorize these rules, and your step-by-step process just became quicker! You will immediately know how to spell that interval starting from any note.

Trick #2: Use the Key Signature

Another way to instantly know the right accidental is to use? the key signature of the root note. If you already know key signatures of major scales, this is an easy trick to the correct accidentals because the correct interval spellings will always be based on the key signature.

Trick #3: Beyond the Major Scale

There are other intervals beyond those in the major scale that you will need to learn. Thus far, we’ve focused only on major scales so that you can derive the other interval spellings from this framework. However, there’s no need to memorize all the minor, augmented and diminished intervals in other types of scales. If you already know the major interval, then simply reduce the top note accidental by one to arrive at the minor.

Trick #4: No Need to Relearn

So far, we’ve only discussed how to spell ascending intervals but there’s no need to re-learn how to spell descending intervals.

For example, “What is a major third below a C?”. You have two options to re-use your existing knowledge to find the answer. First, you can reframe the question and you may find you already know the answer: “What note is C a major third above?” It’s a bit like the show Jeopardy: Start from the answer, and might find you know the question!

The other option is to use the inversion trick. Each interval type pairs up with a corresponding inversion. Going up by one interval brings you to the same note as going down by the other. For example, perfect fourths and perfect fifths are inversion pairs. So going up a perfect fourth from a C takes you to an F. Just like going down by a perfect fifth from a C takes you to an F.

Learn the following inversion pairs and you can transform any descending interval task into an ascending one:

  • Unison ←→ Octave
  • 2nd ←→ 7th
  • 3rd ←→ 6th
  • 4th ←→ 5th
  • 5th ←→ 4th
  • 6th ←→ 3rd
  • 7th ←→ 2nd

The quality of the interval in an inversion pair changes like this:

  • Perfect ←→ Perfect
  • Major ←→ Minor
  • Augmented ←→ Diminished

Trick #5: Enharmonics

An “enharmonic” is another name for the same note pitch. For example, E♯ and F are an enharmonic pair in that raising E by one semitone is the same pitch as F. This is useful for interval spelling but be sure that you don’t use it the wrong way! You might think that if they’re the same pitch then they are interchangeable. In some musical tasks that might work fine, such as playing the right notes on your instrument. However it doesn’t work for other tasks, such as writing music correctly in staff notation.

If you memorize the interval spellings for a note, you can derive the spellings for the enharmonics. You will need to adjust the spelling, but that doesn’t mean that you have to start over. If you already know all major intervals starting from an F♯, don’t waste time memorizing them for G♭.

Trick #6: Your Own Toolkit

Try to develop your own set of tools and tricks that make sense to you. So far we’ve introduced five different ways you can speed up learning to spell intervals. Don’t worry – you don’t need to master all of these techniques. Learning even just one or two tricks can considerably speed up the learning process for you. Which tricks are useful will depend on your musical background and learning style. Make sure you understand each of them, though, so you can make an informed choice as to which tricks are best added to your toolkit.

Trick #7: Choose Your Battles

Don’t make the mistake of trying to learn to spell intervals all at once. Gradually increase the set of spellings you expect yourself to know. Sometimes the fastest way to reach your goal is with small, consistent steps forward. For example, start with just the intervals of the major scale. Then you can use simple adjustments to instantly figure out the other interval types.

Instant Recall

In time, you will be able to spell intervals quickly with “instant recall”. Trying to learn quickly and trying to instantly recall of each spelling can be frustrating. Instant recall is the goal, but trying to do it right away will make for a tedious journey. Let yourself do it methodically at first and allow instant recall to develop over time. If you use the process explained above daily, you will automatically start to memorize the spellings. Spelling intervals will soon become second nature!

If you creatively apply the knowledge of scales you already possess and pick your battles wisely, the process of learning to name intervals will become easier with time. Remember, however, that all of this knowledge is only useful if you actually implement it in your daily musical life.

Find ways to use your interval recognition and spelling skills to play music by ear, improvise, transcribe, or compose your own music. Every opportunity you find to practice spelling intervals in a meaningful way will bring you one step closer to being able to instantly spell any interval you hear.

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