Intervals are an important part of music.  They are the measurement of distance between two notes. Many ear training methods basically teach intervals; that is, they instruct you to learn the distance between each note, rather than the sound of each note within a key. For instance, the interval between C and C# is called a minor second, the distance between C and D is called a major second.

Key Versus Interval

There are many different approaches to developing good pitch. Some of these methods are successful, some are not. First you must decide what kind of ear training will fit your needs. If you are a classical musician playing 20th century pieces that require you to play what may seem like random pitches with very few reference pitches to help you with intonation, you may find that developing perfect pitch is the most important goal for you. If you are a contemporary rock or jazz player playing improvised music you will find that developing relative pitch is far more important because it allows you to identify the keys that vamps, melodies and free improvisations are in, so you can respond spontaneously with appropriate melodies or chords.

Teaching Methods

Most courses of study for relative pitch concentrate on music dictation (transcription) and singing melodies. The majority of colleges and high schools teach this way. But there are very real pitfalls to this method; most of these courses of study prepare a student to pass a written exam, but don’t prepare a working musician for the skills they will need in a working performance situation. These courses do not address what to listen for, and instead encourage the use of common tricks. These in turn lead to habits which stunt the student’s progress. In some ways it is better if you’ve never done any ear training before starting the method presented here, because you won’t have had a chance to develop the bad habits incorrect instruction can lead to.

Teaching Methods That Don’t Work

Let’s us talk about some of these teaching methods and why they simply do not work in the real world. One of the most counterproductive assignments relative pitch ear training courses assign is to “learn all your intervals.”  As you will from the information presented below to “learn all your intervals” as a the sole means to improve your ear training skill is really missing the mark.  Later once you understand how hearing notes within a key center works and you have developed that ability it is certainly OK to “learn all your intervals.  But, you probably won’t need to because hearing in the key is faster and more useful.

Examples of Teaching Methods

A teacher sits down at a piano and starts playing different intervals and asks the class to identify which interval is being played. You may ask “What’s so bad about that? All music is made up of different combinations of intervals so this should help me to identify pitch, right?” Let’s look closer. Let’s say you have mastered this assignment; you know what any interval is instantly. All right, great! But now let’s say you are on the bandstand and the piano player is jamming along on a C major chord over and over and the bass player is playing a C note over and over. Most students with a little theory or practical experience know that playing a C chord over and over means the piece is in the key of C.

The Beginning of the Problem

Now your guitar player plays two notes which happen to be an E and a G. You instantly say “that’s a minor 3rd that I hear. (The distance between E and G being 3 half steps which is commonly referred to as a minor 3rd) “All right” says the guitar player “well play it then,” but now the real question has to be answered: what minor 3rd is it? If we examine the 12 pitches used in western music we find that there are 12 possible minor 3rd intervals that we could choose from. For example C to Eb, C# to E, D to F— all of these are minor 3rd intervals, and there are 12 possible minor 3rd intervals in all.

How do you know which one it is?

The answer is you don’t because you have only learned what a minor 3rd sounds like and not what the two pitches E and G sound like in a key center. So something is missing here, and at this point the band is looking at you and 1. wondering why you aren’t playing and 2. Going on to the next part of the tune. You are in the dust! So you need to know more than what an interval sounds like; you need to know what notes sound like in a key. This is the first and major difference between the ear training contained in this book and that which is commonly taught in schools.

Back to our Example

So, back to our example: if you knew what the 3rd and 5th of a key sounded like, you would
have known which two notes the guitarist played. What the interval was between the two notes is of little importance when trying to identify pitch. The important thing to realize from this example, is that all 12 pitches have a unique sound against a key.  The the important thing to realize is these unique sounds can be memorized. Let’s go back to our teacher again and explore another problem that comes from teaching intervals.

Remember Intervals by Relating Them to Common Songs

The teacher tells the student that it may help them to memorize intervals if they relate the intervals to songs they know. So the teacher suggests common melodies that they can use to help memorize these intervals, things like: a 4th is Here Comes the Bride, a 6th is My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean. So the student thinks “Wow this is great, now anytime I hear a 6th all I have to do is sing the first two notes of My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean and I’ll know what notes are being played.” Once again let’s look into this and explore two drawbacks of using common melodies to identify intervals.

Intervals vs. Degrees of the Key Center

1. The first two notes of My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean do comprise an interval of a 6th. But think about this, the 5th of the key up to the 3rd in the key is also a 6th. Let’s listen to this and see what happens when we play our “Bonnie 6th.” We’re back on the bandstand playing a C chord vamp. The guitar player is playing the C chord with the bass playing a C. The sax player plays a G (the fifth of the key) and then moves up to an E (the 3rd of the key). So you think “That’s a sixth because I can hear that it is the beginning of My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.” Great!

The Interval Problem Starts

Now the sax player plays an Ab (the flat 6th of the key) and then moves up and plays an F (the 4th of the key). This is a sixth too, but can you easily hear My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean in this sound? No.

Hearing Notes in a Key Center to the Rescue!

This is because the first two notes of “My Bonnie” are the 5th up to the 3rd of the key not the flat 6th to the 4th. So once again the important thing is to learn is?  What does each note sounds like in a key, not what the distance is between notes.

The Good Interval Student

Let’s say you’re one of those students who has faithfully learned all your intervals and have developed the ability to grab a sound from any context and place an interval name on that sound by applying your memorized song to this interval.

Back on the Bandstand

All right— let’s go back to our bandstand again and see how well it works as the band is jamming along.

Again the guitar player is playing the C chord.  The bass is playing a C and the sax player plays a G (the fifth of the key). The sax then moves up to an E (the 3rd of the key).  The first thing that happens is you say to yourself “What is that sound I’m hearing.” The interval trained student takes the two pitches (the G up to E) and runs it through their mental rolodex.  As quickly as possible the student runs through the 11 basic intervals.  Or even worse runs through the corresponding melodies that you have learned to identify these intervals. You come up with the correct answer and — Oops!

Left in the Dust

You’re in the dust again! The band is 2 bars past this point now and it’s too late to use this information. Why? It took you too long to calculate it. Quick identification of notes it the only type of ear training that will work in a live setting.  Learning the sound of notes in a key center gives you this quick response.  How is your relative pitch? Listen to some examples here.