So you want to train your ear to hear intervals? Well done! It's a very important step in ear training, in fact, intervals are the basis for everything else. So let's get going.

First, and most important, is getting to know intervals up to an octave. After that, you'll be advanced enough to continue on your own, or with a teacher, preferably. And there's only so much I can cover in one w/u, so let's stick to 1 octave, which is really the most important. The intervals (I am using the interval names we use for the purpose of ear training, so you will not see an augmented fifth in the list, because for all practical purposes it is the same as a minor sixth, which is what we want to hear): unison, minor second, major second, minor third, major third, perfect fourth, tritone (or augmented fourth or diminished fifth), perfect fifth, minor sixth, major sixth, minor seventh, major seventh, octave.

These can be divided into a main groupings: consonant and dissonant. I've heard so many versions of these groupings it's uncanny. There are often more than two groups. And many versions even contradict! My first ear training teacher told me the perfect fourth and perfect fifth are both consonant, and my current teacher says they're both slightly dissonnant. He's a great teacher, but I feel he's wrong here. So I'll write them out, in the order of consonance, as I hear them, with markings to display where I feel the subdivisions should be. Don't take my word for it: try them out.

And this is your first assignment (before you read what I wrote below): write down the list of intervals on a piece of paper. Sit beside a keyboard, and play the intervals. Mark each one as 'consonant' or 'dissonant', depending on what you hear.

-----------------

unison - strongly consonant
octave

-----------------

perfect fifth - consonant
(-----------------)        (some people would put the split here)
major third
minor third
major sixth
minor sixth
(-----------------)
perfect fourth

-----------------

tritone - dissonant
minor seventh 
major second
major seventh
minor second

-----------------

If you disagree, make your own table, though this is probably the most acceptable. In the end, whatever helps you hear better is acceptable.

How to practice

There are two things you have to do while training your ear to hear intervals: identify them when they're played to you, and sing them. Well, the goal, I suppose is to be able to hear them, but you're not going to get anywhere without singing. Believe me.

You may already be able to tell a certain interval, or sing a certain interval, and if so, great. It's very easy for most people, for example to sing a major second: just start a major scale: doh, re: that's a major second. But it's usually hard to sing and recognise most intervals when you're just starting out. This is why a good idea is to associate a song with each interval. That way, when you want to know what an interval sounds like, you can just sing the beginning of the song. For example, my favourite (and this has helped me immensly): The Wedding March (Here Comes The Bride) begins with a perfect fourth. For each interval, find a song that starts with it. If you can't find a song you are familiar with, you may have to get to the interval differently. So for a tritone, for example, you may have to go up a perfect fourth and then up another minor second, until you learn to recognise and sing a tritone.

Practicing consists, as I said, of listening and singing. In both cases, a keyboard is the best. Don't practice ear training with a saxophone or a piccolo.

  1. listening - there are two ways to do this: 1) have someone play intervals to you, and 2) get a computer program or ear training CD. Examples are EarMaster and Aebersold's CDs respectively. I would definitely go with a computer program. I have both and I use the program exclusively. You must hear the intervals ascending, descending and in harmony. (For example, for a minor second, C then Db would be ascending, C then B would be descending and C and Db together would be in harmony). Make sure you play the notes all over the keyboard. (Don't just play intervals from middle C or something). You should probably attack them in that order, too. (Ascending, descending, in harmony).

  2. singing - give yourself a note and sing an interval from it. Give yourself another note, and sing another interval, etc. Do both ascending and descending. Work on the ones you find hard. I haven't written much here, but this is a lot of work. Sing a perfect fourth down from an Eb, then from an E, then from a G, then from an F# a major seventh up. Pick a note (say C). Sing an ascending major second. From where you've reached (D), sing a descending minor seventh. From here (E), sing and ascending perfect fourth, then an ascending major second, etc. Be creative, and push yourself.

In both cases, use the songs that you have found to help you. As I said, it's hard to find songs for some intervals, and even if you do, it might be still hard to focus on the interval. (A descending major seventh is almost impossible). So you may have to use tricks such as:
For ascending tritone - go up a perfect fourth and then up half a tone (semitone / minor second) OR go up a perfect fifth and down a semitone.
For descending tritone - go down a perfect fourth and then down a semitone OR go down a perfect fifth and up a semitone.
For ascending minor seventh go up an octave and down a whole tone (major second).
For descending major seventh go down an octave and up a semitone.

Also, and I can't stress this enough: pace yourself. Start off with, say seconds and thirds, and stay there for a couple of weeks. Then add the fourth and fifth. Then add the tritone. Stay on this for a while. The add the sixths. Keep doing this for a week, and only then add the sevenths.

Keep practicing!

Here is a table of intervals and popular songs that begin with them (at least these are some of the ones I know and use - you'll have to find ones that YOU are comfortable with):

Interval        |        Ascending             |     Descending    
----------------|------------------------------|---------------------------- 
                |                              |
minor second    | How Insensitive              | Für Elise  
                | Theme from Jaws              |
                |                              |
major second    | Happy Birthday               | Eight Days A Week
                | Major scale (ascending)      |
                |                              |
minor third     | Happiness is a Warm Gun      | Hey Jude
                |                              |
major third     | major triad                  | Summertime
                | Oh When The Saints           | Here Comes The Sun
                |                              |
perfect fourth  | The Wedding March            | Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise
                |                              |
tritone         | Maria (West Side Story)      | Blue Seven
                |                              |
perfect fifth   | Twinkle Twinkle Little Star  | Feelings
                | I Can't Help Falling In Love |
                |                              |
minor sixth     | Because                      | Love Story
                |                              |
major sixth     | NBC                          | You're A Weaver Of Dreams
                |                              |
minor seventh   | Theme from Star Trek         | Watermelon Man
                |                              |
major seventh   | Second part of Superman      | I Love You (Cole Porter)
                |                              |
octave          | Somewhere Over The Rainbow   | Willow Weep For Me
                |                              |
----------------------------------------------------------------------------- 

Footprints does a great job starting people out on ear training. I have some small bits to add. What has been talked about so far is melodic interval training. In other words, it's about hearing one note followed by another. This is definately step one. Octaves, fifths, fourths, etc... as stated above, are the way to start melodically. The next step is to move on harmonically.

This is really the key to start unlocking chords. When you hear a chord you should be able to pick out a note inside it and sing it loud and strong. Once you've got the melodic interval figured out, you should be playing them harmonically and singing the lower note, followed by the upper note of the interval. Sometimes this isn't as easy as you'd think. It's not too hard to screw up a harmonic fifth by singing a fourth melodic interval instead (i.e. instead of singing C-G, you sing G-C), or vice versa. After that you've got to start looking at triads and trying to sing the third, or some other piece of it. And, of course you keep getting more and more complex chords hitting various parts of them and singing them quickly, and perfectly.

The real master of ear training is David Lucas Burge. He sells a perfect pitch and relative pitch training course. It's quite expensive but it's really good! Take a search for him on the web if you need to find him. www.eartraining.com is a good place to get some more information on him and what can be accomplished with a good ear.

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