How to identify intervals
September 25, 2009 4:13 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn relative pitch? I can hear minor/major 2nds pretty well but 3rds are just defeating me.

I got an app for my iPhone called "Relative Pitch" and it's a great little program. But I have to get 20 out of 20 questions right to progress. After a few days I could do 2nds by just listening for whether or not the note difference "felt" minor or major. But after a week of trying I can't tell whether I'm hearing a major and minor 3rd (ascending only) more than 80% of the time at best, and I don't seem to be improving. I can tell the difference when I hear them back to back, or when I play them on my guitar, but when I hear just one I'm lost.

Can anyone who has learned this skill without any particular natural talent give me any pointers? Can you tell me what I should be listening for? I have tried hearing whether or not the notes are the beginning to "Smoke on the Water" or "Kum Bay Ya", but when I mentally try and hear that, both sound like they could be right. Crud.
posted by Post-it Goat to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I learned using songs, like you are now.

But here's a thought.

A minor second is one semitone.

A minor third is three semitones, and a major third is four, or two whole tones.

Since you can hear a minor second (a semitone), and a major second (a whole tone), can you try humming the steps in between the two test notes in your head, and seeing where you get to?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:26 PM on September 25, 2009


(Also, a week isn't a very long time to develop this skill if you didn't have it before, and such skills typically don't improve in a linear way, but more with sharp jumps and long plateaus, so don't get discouraged yet).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:27 PM on September 25, 2009


Are you singing? You need to be. Practice singing scales and arpeggios and intervals. Play a note on the guitar and then play the note a major third above it. Then play the first note and sing the note a major third above it. Practice that until you can do it without hearing the major third first.

Also the ear trainers at musictheory.net are good, but I think those kind of applications are more for testing purposes than for actually developing your skills, which seems to be your experience. But keep at it, it comes with time.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:28 PM on September 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I taught myself relative pitch from scratch. I didn't bother with the concept of "intervals" at all. I don't know why people learn that way. I taught myself "scale degrees."

Here's what I did: First I'd learn the 7 notes of the major scale so I had it down pat. I did that by thinking of equating each of the 7 notes in my mind with a different note from a different song. For instance, you could identify the "3" of the major scale (e.g. E in C major) with the word "three" in "Three Blind Mice." I learned to identify the "2" of the major scale (e.g. D in C major) with the "you" of the chorus of the Beatles' "You Won't See Me." (You need to start with a very strong sense of the "1" of the scale (C in C major), which is hard to explain -- you just have to have a gut feeling for it.) Then, once I was done with that, I filled in the gaps by learning the other 5 notes (which I would think of as flattened versions of the notes in the major scale).

Once you know the scale degrees, it's a matter of theoretical reasoning what the intervals are. For instance, if I listen to a melody that goes "A, F, G" (a random sequence I just made up) in the key of C major, I intuitively think: "6 - 4 - 5." A split second later I might think: "And if you go from 6 to 4 in a major key, you've gone down a major 3rd; therefore, I must have heard a major 3rd. If you go from 4 to 5 in a major key, you've gone up up a major 2nd; therefore, I must have heard a major 2nd."

Scale degrees are more intuitive and primal. They have more color and life to them. Intervals are relatively academic and harder to get a firm grasp on. I know they're often taught in school as if they're the most basic thing about melody, but I believe this is a mistake.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:42 PM on September 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Like iajs said, I think you meant you can recognize thirds. A fourth, the one I think you meant is causing you trouble, is "here comes the bride". I think you are on the right track finding tunes that help you recognize them.
posted by fritley at 4:43 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes. Learn and sing the tunes. When you read you begin with "ABC" -- when you sing you begin with "do re mi".

The "Here Comes the Bride" example is a great one.
posted by trip and a half at 4:55 PM on September 25, 2009


The Cycle of Fifths is also a great tool.
posted by trip and a half at 4:57 PM on September 25, 2009


I didn't bother with the concept of "intervals" at all. I don't know why people learn that way.

Well, intervals are important in a lot of ways, but what you're talking about is basically the movable Do system of solfege. Movable Do is indeed intuitive and easy to learn for anyone raised with western music, but its limitations arise when you're performing music that is highly chromatic, or changes key frequently, or has an ambiguous tonal center, or no tonal center at all.

But it's kind of beside the point -- movable do isn't a substitute for being able to recognize intervals, which ability has applications beyond singing major-scale melodies.

Like iajs said, I think you meant you can recognize thirds. A fourth, the one I think you meant is causing you trouble, is "here comes the bride".

Huh? He said major and minor thirds.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:00 PM on September 25, 2009


When you read you begin with "ABC" -- when you sing you begin with "do re mi".

But note that the lyrics "do re mi" in the song "ABC" are actually sol la do.

Anyway, I agree that the best way to learn intervals is to remember songs that start with those intervals. There must be a list of them somewhere on the web. I remember in particular that the canonical "starts with a tritone" song is "Maria" from West Side Story.
posted by dfan at 5:08 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


But note that the lyrics "do re mi" in the song "ABC" are actually sol la do.

Of course, but that's just pointing out why (and how) singing is different than reading! :)
posted by trip and a half at 5:20 PM on September 25, 2009


Ludvig_van has it right. You need to practice singing to get it. There are a few tricks out there that can help out (Like the second and third tones of The Simpsons is a tritone, N to B of NBC is a major 6th, Here Comes the Bride is a perfect 4th, etc.) but you really need to sing! I took four semesters of aural skills in college and still get stuff wrong. This is not meant to discourage you, but keep practicing: listen to your own music and see if you can identify those minor seconds, for example. And then sing them. Once you think you have one interval down, go from do to the first interval (say, ri) and then from do to the third (re, for example). Go back and forth - you don't want to be locked into knowing intervals just going up and not coming back down again. Figure out this progression interval by interval (and just a little bit at a time) and memorize it (exercises like this will get you more and more familiar with successive intervals):
do mi so fa re ti so la ti do la so fa re mi do re ti so la ti do

Have fun and good luck! I admire your enthusiasm! I bet learning this stuff on my own would have been a lot more fun.
posted by cachondeo45 at 6:42 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Think of the very first line of "Doe a Deer (from "The Sound of Music").

"A female deer" is a twice-repeated major third. Get it in your ear. Sing it. Sing it in different keys. Notice the interval in other songs. You'll get it.

"Taps" (the bugler's tune for dead guys) is a good contrast between fourths and thirds.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 6:46 PM on September 25, 2009


Maria (or The Simpsons) is how I remembered augmented fourth/diminshed fifth. Everything else had dozens of songs I could easily pick out to remember the intervals.

I interpet Jaltcoh's method as a different way of thinking about it, but the same thing in the end. A 1-4 in his/her terms is a fourth in interval terms. To me, they're interchangeable.
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:16 PM on September 25, 2009


If you can taunt schoolchildren in tune, you can recognize a minor third.

Nyeah nyeah na nyeah nyeah requires a minor third (found in descent between the nyeahs) for proper humiliation.
posted by Sallyfur at 9:20 PM on September 25, 2009


As other say, practice practice practice. For me, imagining the interval being played on the piano always does the trick.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:43 PM on September 25, 2009


thanks for the encouraging advice everyone. I'm going to give singing the intervals a shot now. it didn't occur to me because I cannot sing a note, but hey, why not try it anyway? thanks!
posted by Post-it Goat at 7:22 PM on September 26, 2009


I interpet Jaltcoh's method as a different way of thinking about it, but the same thing in the end. A 1-4 in his/her terms is a fourth in interval terms. To me, they're interchangeable.

Only if you cherry-pick an example that starts on the 1 of the scale. In that case, yes, they're practically interchangeable -- but many melodies don't start on 1.

For instance, under my method, you'd think of the first 2 notes of "My Bonnie" as 5 and then up to 3 in a major key. You could then infer (based on knowledge of theory) that this is a major 6th. I think that's a relatively natural way to hear those notes.

The interval method has you straining to try to identify it as either a major or minor 6th. Then, once you've figured out that it's a major 6th, you still haven't identified where that major 6th is relative to the key, which seems like a pretty critical omission.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:00 AM on September 28, 2009


Jaltcoh, again, it's apples and oranges. Hearing intervals is not the same as hearing functional diatonic harmony, and it's not purported to be. Both are important to study.

Being able to hear the difference between, for instance, different types of 7th chords is about hearing the intervals. It's not always necessary (or possible) to know how a chord or melody relates to a key signature.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:35 AM on September 28, 2009


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