Interval Ear Training to Improve Your Overall Musicianship

interval ear trainingDo you have an ear for music? The best way to test your ability to identify pitch is through interval ear training. An interval is the distance in pitch between two notes. Even people who believe they are tone death can learn to identify pitch. Like learning the words to a song, pitch can be learned with practice. You may even develop perfect pitch.

Ear training is a good way to learn or sharpen your knowledge of music theory. After basic music theory, intermediate music theory introduces semitones, intervals, and the major and minor scales – the musical toolbox of ear training. Learning intervals is the first step to learning how to hear chords in music.

Why Learn Interval Ear Training?

Whether you are a singer or play the guitar or other instrument, ear training is a valuable skill that will enhance your musicianship.

If you have auditioned for a choir, you may have been asked to identify perfect pitch. Absolute, or perfect pitch, is the ability to recognize a note in isolation. The choir director wants to ensure you are able to sing in tune and learn new music. Intervals require relative pitch – the ability to recognize the distance between two notes. In the warm-up before singing, singers often practice various exercises that involve intervals with the accompaniment of a piano.

When you learn relative pitch, the ability to recognize notes in relation to other notes, your overall musical ability will improve. Relative pitch is a key skill in music. Learning relative pitch will help you play music by ear. You will also improve your ability to sight read and improvise while playing an instrument or singing.

If you can sing Do, Re, Me, then you have already started your interval ear training. Many of us can recognize middle C and the next C up one octave. These Cs’s are the low Do and high Do, respectively, in Do, Re, Me. They also represent an interval. An interval is the name given to a pair of notes. The middle C and C up one octave make up an 8th interval. In the same way you have learned to recognize the notes in this basic scale, you can train your ears to recognize all the intervals used in music.

Below, we will discuss how intervals are named. Once you understand how the different intervals are formed, the fun begins. Practice, and more practice is the key to tuning your pitch through interval ear training.

The Intervals and Ear Training

Trying to learn all the intervals at once would be like sitting down and playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony without first learning the chords. Fortunately, there is a natural, intuitive progression for learning intervals. Start with the major and minor scales.

Intervals are the distance between two notes. The distance between two intervals is called a semitone, also called a half-step. For example, an interval of 12 semi-tones, say from C to C, is an octave. The first C is an octave lower than the second C.

Intervals are named based on the number of half-steps between two notes.

UnisonCC (for example)Perfect Unison – 0 half-steps
2ndC DMajor – 2 half-stepsMinor – 1 half-step
3rdE CMajor – 4 half-stepsMinor – 3 half-steps
4thF CPerfect 4th – 5 half-steps
5thG CPerfect 5th – 7 half-steps
6thA CMajor – 9 half-stepsMinor – 8 half-steps
7thB CMajor – 11 half-stepsMinor – 10 half-steps
8thC C   An Octave!Perfect Octave – 12 half-steps


Each interval has a name. So rather than say, oh, I recognize those two pitches as being the difference between a C and D note, you can identify the interval as a major 2nd. Interval scan be augmented or diminished. An augmented interval has one half-step more than a major while a diminished interval has one half-step less than a minor.

Practicing Intervals

You will require a musical instrument, metronome or other musical device to play the intervals for you to identify. A piano app can be downloaded to a tablet or smartphone. Or try one of the many interval training apps or online sites. It is best to first practice on a piano so you can follow the natural progression up and down the scale and tune into the half-step rise and fall in pitch.

Before starting, warm up by identifying the end notes of the octave Do, Re, Me. This octave you will remember is the distance between the Middle C and next C, 12 half-steps to the right. Practice now. Do (re me fa so la ti) Do. Do-Do, Do-Do. Your ear has found the pitch and range for the basic scale you are about to practice on. Remember, half-steps include the white and black keys – the flats and sharps.

Let’s start training our ears!

We skip the unison interval, since the distance between middle-C and middle-C is 0.

Minor 2nd

So let’s begin with a minor second; the interval is C and D-flat. Play a C, and then the D-flat.

Major 2nd

The major second is a whole step, from C to D.

Next, try the minor third, from C to E-flat. The interval is four half steps, or two whole steps.

The major third is C to E, representing 3 whole steps.

The perfect fourth is 5 half-steps, from C to F.

Keep following the examples in the above table. Continue until you reach a full octave. Focus on ascending intervals, in which the second note is higher than the first note. Once you have completed an octave, practice descending intervals, in which the first note is higher than the second note. If you have done singing warm-ups, then you should be familiar with moving up and down a scale.

Augmented Intervals

Let’s look at the augmented second. For the major second, move four half-steps from C to D. Then, add a half-step, so you are jumping from C to D-sharp.

Diminished Intervals

For the diminished third, start with the minor third, from C to E-flat and subtract a half step. The diminished 3rd is C to D.

Keep practicing until you feel comfortable moving up and down (ascending and descending) the intervals by name. Once you have mastered an octave, move up or down an octave and repeat the basic sequence.

Tips For Interval Ear Training

  • In the beginning, practice by moving up and down ascending and descending intervals. Then, practice with arbitrary intervals, which should keep you on your toes. Again, there are many apps and online interval training sites to help you practice. They randomly choose intervals for you to identify.
  • Sing your favorite songs with the same interval. Chances are high that you sing the song you hum each day in perfect pitch. Choose your reference songs and create an interval library. Oh Danny Boy starts with a minor second interval ascending. Also choose a song starting with a minor second descending. Find more popular songs and intervals.
  • If you are having a hard time distinguishing two tones, try playing them together. This is called a harmonic tone. A melodic tone is playing each tone separately.
  • Singing intervals is one of the best ways to tune into pitch. Once you have internalized the sound, you can recreate it and more easily recognize it.
  • Playing an instrument is another effective way of interval ear training. Tune your instrument while practicing your intervals.

After learning intervals, you are ready to move on to chords. Recognizing chords is another way of improving your relative pitch. Chord ear training involves three or more chords. But first, practice and feel comfortable with your interval ear training.

The Next Steps

If you are a singer, you can use the intervals to improve your ability to sing on key. Metronomes are instruments that you may already be using to tune your instrument. They can also be used to tune your voice. Singing the notes of an interval to tune your voice, or using intervals to tune your instrument, will improve your ear training ability.

Before practicing singing, warm up exercises will help you sing in tune. Like an instrument, tuned vocal chords will help you hit the right note. The right posture and breathing will ensure your vocal chords are relaxed and the sound can flow unencumbered.

Elite Singing Techniques can show you how to breathe properly so you do not swallow your perfect pitch, create a stronger voice and release vocal tension. Or drop into a virtual professional online singing studio and tune up with the pros by enrolling in Professional Vocal Warm Up.

Basic Ear Training will teach you how to learn music by ear, a valuable skill that will enhance your music experience. Start with melody and harmony intervals. Then, move to chords. Learn about anchor tones and pitch patterns, rhythm, meter and melodic dictation – a complete toolbox for ear training. Follow up with “Tune it up!” In-Tune Singing & Ear Training to do extra work on developing relative and perfect pitch. Sound clips will allow you to practice intervals and pitch matching.