How best to recognize intervals?
June 16, 2006 5:17 PM   Subscribe

Help me with Music Theory! Specifically, intervals...

I learned how to read music roughly eight years ago, but never really got very far into the theory and just went with what "felt" right after a while (muscle memory and simply assocating the visual look of the note with a specific fingering). So now I'm delving into the nuts and bolts, the basics of music theory (mainly to assist my guitar playing, which I've made lots of progress in since I started two years ago). I want to actually understand music and not just rely on rote memorization and routine. And so I've hit my first stumbling block.

I bought a book on music theory (Music Theory for Dummies); it seems to be a pretty thorough book. Anyhow, I'm attempting to understand and identify intervals, but I'm having trouble and have some questions:

1) What is the best way to learn to identify intervals? How did you learn? The book presents the topic with an example starting from the note C [i.e. C to D = Major 2nd, C to A = Major 6th], but for some reason, when I try to apply this concept [which seemed really simple to me] to intervals between random notes (naturals, flats, and sharps) using this resource, I have a horrible time. Later in the chapter the book suggests that it might be easier to think of intervals in terms of half steps (e.g. 3 half steps = minor 3rd, 7 half steps = perfect 6th). Is this a good way to identify intervals (by counting half steps)? So, I guess I'm just trying to figure out what is supposed to be going through my head when I see two notes and I'm supposed to name that interval.

2) How quickly should I be able to recognize intervals here? Should I be able to get to a point where I can name the interval just as quickly as I could name a specific note on the staff?

3) How important is it to learn to recognize/identify/understand intervals (a broad question I know, and not quite as important to me as 1.) and 2.)?
posted by Stauf to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Bad musician here, so keep that caveat in mind:

1. It's more a matter of what works for you. I think half steps would be a good way of thinking about them. Mostly, though, as long as you know what you're looking for, practice will make this easier.

Skipping 2. There's no right answer. If you're a musical genius, then very fast. If you're a beginner, very slow.

3. Not very. For songwriting, more important is understanding which chords fit together in a certain key. For playing, more important is just recognizing the notes. Finding the intervals is primarily useful in order to dissect a song and figure out how it works. That's useful in learning to write your own songs, but not as useful as actually writing.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 5:25 PM on June 16, 2006

A helpful book: The Sounds of Music: Perception and Notation.
posted by Gyan at 5:29 PM on June 16, 2006

Also, I can add, having looked at that site:

1. What works for me here is knowing that taking one note, and then every other note for the next three, will give me some kind of seventh chord. I know the chords in the key of C by heart, so I just figure out what chord I'm looking at.

2. It takes me three to five seconds apiece.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 5:30 PM on June 16, 2006

Learn the scales first (all of them), then the intervals. When I see two random notes out of context, I guess I would just think of the first one as the tonic, and then since I know that key from practicing scales, the interval to the second one is obvious.
posted by sfenders at 5:30 PM on June 16, 2006

1) yeah, the half step is the way to go here. remember to count both ways up/down the scale.

2) I think the more important question is how quickly can you play the interval written.

3) To what end? Playing guitar? not really. writing rock music. sorta. Composition. kinda. Orchestration. very important.

If I may make a suggestion, learn piano at the same time as learning theory, the two are tangled at the root.
posted by bigmusic at 5:31 PM on June 16, 2006

Best answer: Hi Stauf,

1) The easiest way to learn intervals with flats or sharps is to familiarize yourself with those scales. In other words, if the notes are an Eb on bottom and a G on top, count up the Eb major scale -- think "Eb, F, G --- ok, that's a major third". This isn't a perfect method -- you won't be able, for instance, to recognize a tritone by counting up a major scale. But it will help you identify the most common ones, like major thirds, minor sixths, perfect 4ths/5ths, and octaves.

2) Don't worry too much about the speed. Being able to recognize intervals "by sight", so to speak, isn't all that immediately useful. Sure, you should understand how they work, but it's not imperative that you see a Bb and an E and think, "hmm... tritone". What's more useful is to learn what intervals _sound_ like. To do this, you can train yourself to identify certain intervals with tunes. Here are a couple that I still sometimes use as a college music student:

Perfect 4th: "Here Comes the Bride"
Tritone [augmented fourth aka diminished fifth): "Maria" from West Side Story, or the Simpsons theme
Perfect 5th: Star Wars Theme
Minor 6th: Theme from "Love Story" [backwards]
Major 6th: "My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean"
Octave: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

3) I guess I sort of covered it above. My guess is that it's not quite as important as you may think. Definitely understand them, but you don't really need to know them at the drop of a hat. Spend more time learning scales (major/minor/modal/etc).
posted by rossination at 5:32 PM on June 16, 2006

Best answer: 1. I was taught to use tunes I already knew to identify intervals by ear.

Perfect 5th = Twinkle twinkle little star
Perfect 4th = Amazing grace
Major 3rd = Michael row the baot ashore
Augmented 4th/diminished 5th = Maria

If you learn to read music so you can play at sight, recognising intervals by eye will happen on its own, provided your ears already work. But there are visual patterns. Thirds are always the spaces on either side of a line, or the lines on either side of a space. Fourths are always line and the second space above, or space and the second line above. And so on.

2. By the time I had finished secondary school, I could transcribe four bars of four part harmony perfectly after two hearings, based on three practise sessions a week for three years. Recognising intervals by ear was the first exercise we did that culminated in transcribing four-part harmony. And my goodness it's so useful now when learning any new music in a band or other informal group. You listen, and you understand, and you can write down what you hear for later.

3. Intervals are fundamental to understanding Western classical harmony (and probably many other musical traditions also). Also, if you think in terms of intervals, you are freed from the constraints of key. You can describe things to others in terms of intervals rather than specific notes, which can be handy. To be honest, I find that question hard to answer, in the same way that your maths teacher might find it hard to answer why algebra is useful.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:34 PM on June 16, 2006

See? everyone uses "Maria"!
posted by rossination at 5:36 PM on June 16, 2006

Best answer: Real easy method, but it requires knowing which notes are present in a key signature:

Example: b to f

1.) Look at the bottom note (eg. f)
2.) Look at the top note (eg. b)
3.) Get the raw interval (the number) (eg. 4)
4.) To figure out quality (major, minor, diminished, augmented), determine where in the key signature of the bottom note the top note lies. In this example, the key signature for f dictates that all b's must be flat. Since we're dealing with a 4th, and the top note is b, not b-flat, and b is a half step up from b-flat, we have an augmented 4th.

In the case of, say, c to e:
1.) C to E is a third (steps 1-3)
2.) In the key of C, there are no sharps or flats. E is not sharped or flatted, so it's a major third.

In the case of, say, a-flat to c-sharp:
1.) a-flat to c-sharp is a third (steps 1-3)
2.) In the key of a-flat, the flats in the key signature are b, e, a, and d. The C would need to be natural for the third to be major. The C is sharped. Therefore, we have an augmented third.

If you need to know the key signatures, I'd suggest learning the circle of fifths and the order of sharps/flats (FCGDAEB and BEADGCF).

Eventually, you'll be able to do this at sight, but the only real way to learn is to do it. I'd stay away from any clever little memory tricks, since they'll just get in the way of the actual knowledge by adding an extra layer to the process.
posted by fvox13 at 5:39 PM on June 16, 2006

See, everyone uses Maria

Yeah, I used to, but I find that the Simpsons theme song is a lot more familiar when teaching kids tritones....
posted by fvox13 at 5:46 PM on June 16, 2006

You might also consider picturing shapes on your guitar. For example, you know that a third is one string higher and one fret lower for all pairs but the B string. So if you want to find the third given a root of, say, F#, you can picture the shape . one string higher and one fret lower, and read right off of the fretboard, A#.

It is invaluable when improvising to know what intervals sound like and what their shapes are on the fretboard. Eventually, you can forget about the name of the interval, and the names of the notes, and just play the interval you want to hear.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 5:55 PM on June 16, 2006

Here is a list of all the intervals, up and down and mnemonic songs to help remember them.

I trained myself to semitones and then I play a chromatic scale in my head or quietly whistling to get from one note to the other.
posted by plinth at 6:10 PM on June 16, 2006

The Wikipedia article on the Circle of Fifths (I think of it as the "Cycle of Fifths") might be of use to you.
posted by trip and a half at 8:35 PM on June 16, 2006

Best answer: what fvox13 said.

1) Don't count half-steps. That's dumb. You should be able to identify the "raw interval," to use fvox13's term, very quickly after a bit of practice. That is, A to D a fourth, C to E is a third, G to F is a seventh, etc., regardless of sharps or flats. This is easier if you're actually looking at it on the staff, because the distance between the notes visually is always the same.

Once you figure that out you need to determine the quality of the interval; that is, major, minor, augmented, diminished, perfect. When you know how to spell all of the major scales off the top of your head, which you should be working on first, this becomes rather trivial. You just compare the notes in question to the appropriate major scale. So, C to F# for example: C to F is a fourth, and since the F in the key of C major is natural, raising it a half-step makes it augmented.

2) Should I be able to get to a point where I can name the interval just as quickly as I could name a specific note on the staff?


3) Well, it's a pretty basic skill. Particularly if you're going to need to communicate with other musicians, you should be able to do this.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:51 PM on June 16, 2006

Sure, you should understand how they work, but it's not imperative that you see a Bb and an E and think, "hmm... tritone"

It is if you're a composer or an arranger.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:55 PM on June 16, 2006

(3) I don't see the point of learning intervals. I learned the scale degrees and the chords based on those. Once you learn that, you should automatically know about intervals. I don't think we really hear intervals when we listen to music.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:20 PM on June 16, 2006

I second the suggestion of learning piano. I played the bassoon first and had a hard time identifying intervals. But when I started learning the piano, somehow being able to visualize the keys on a keyboard (where the notes lie "in order" unlike the fingerings on the bassoon) seemed to help me identify intervals and understand key signatures and scales better.
posted by bluefly at 10:39 PM on June 16, 2006

Best answer: Sorry, nonmyopicdave, but I have to disagree with you. Depending on finger shapes on the guitar to recognize intervals is imperfect (as you yourself point out, because the intervals between the strings are inconsistent) and creates a crutch that will have to be discarded over time, when really it's not too difficult to learn to walk without it.

In other words, Stauf, bear in mind that intervals represent a very FINITE body of knowledge. The application of intervals is, of course, immeasurably broad, but just learning 'em isn't. I think all of the advice and tips here are good - scales worked alot for me (major scale - whole whole half whole whole whole half), as did mnemonic devices. But it's also worth keeping in mind a sense of perspective - learning intervals is INFORMATION, of the type which you already possess in great quantities. So don't be too freaked out by it - be patient and thorough and you'll get it before you know it.

(By the way, I didn't do so great on the interval id website you linked to - lots of bizarre intervals, like diminished octaves. Sure, they exist theoretically, but in my 30 years as a musician - including two years spent earning a master's at a conservatory and 10 working professionially at NYC - I can safely say that NOTHING has ever depended on me being able to recognizing intervals like that quickly.)
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:25 AM on June 17, 2006

I don't see the point of learning intervals.

Then maybe you shouldn't be answering this question.

By the way, I didn't do so great on the interval id website you linked to - lots of bizarre intervals, like diminished octaves.

Yeah, that does include some weird shit, but depending on what kind of music you're working with, those sorts of things will turn up.

Basically, you shouldn't see it as a stumbling block in your learning, but as a nice part of your skillset to hone. There are many fundamental musical skills, and interval recognition is just one. There probably won't be many times that you're going to have to look at a piece of music and be able to come up with "diminished octave" instantly, but of course being able to do so means that you're in good shape.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:10 AM on June 17, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks a lot for the advice, guys. I really appreciate it!
posted by Stauf at 3:23 PM on June 17, 2006

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