Nothing is more important for a musician than strong, and well-trained ears. This little lesson is just meant to get you a starter into a vast subject. You might find it boring, and you might find it frustrating as you go along. Ear-training has a lot in common with learning to ride a bicycle. It seems impossible when you start - getting around on these two narrow wheels without falling. And you envy those who seems to do in quite naturally. There is no other way of learing than to try. You have to get up in the saddle, try, fall, get up again, and make a new try. And suddenly you get it. When you have learned it, it becomes as natural as walking or talking. And once you have learned it, you will never forget it.
To me it seems that all the very talented musicians who seems to have it naturally, do not really understand of those who have to work to get it. They have never experienced the problem.
Ear Training Software
If you are computer litterate, and have a computer (which I think you are/have if you are reading this), you should get yourself some ear training software. To be sure that you really identify an interval, a chord, scale, progression or any other musical element by ear, you need to have someone who can play the music without you knowing what they are going to play. If you play it yourself, you already know what you are playing, and do not identify it by ear. You need a very patinet friend to do this for you. A good software package will do the job and be much more patient than your friends.
MIDI-files (sound) and graphics
You can listen to all intervals as MIDI-files, and you can view them both in standard notation and tabulature. Just click on the name of the interval, and another window will open with graphics and embedded MIDI files. I decided to do it this way, to avoid too large files to download. I am not sure this is the best way, but I could not find any better.
You can hear the interval eihter played alone, first melodically and then harmonically, or you can hear it in a harmonic context. Even though both the interval C-E and G-B are major thirds, they don't sound the same when played in context. To establish a harmonic context of C-major, you will first hear a C-major scale, then the chords C - G7 - C, then the interval, and finally a C-major chord again.
Some basic theory: The intervals in a C-major scale
First you need to know what to learn. And that means to learn the names of the intervals. You need names as memory hooks and labels. You could have called them yellow inteval, jump interval, baby, giant or whatever. But it does not make sense to give them your own idiosyncratic intervals. Use the traditional terms.
A major scale has 7 notes, before it starts to repeat itself one octave above. I will use C-major as reference, but the same applies to all major scales.
The first note, C, is called the root, or the tonic. From that step up to the second note, D, is one whole step=two half steps. One half step=one fret on the guitar. The inteval from the first to second note is called a second. It is that easy - at least in the beginning. The interval between C and D is a second
It should then come as no surprise that the interval from the first to the third note is called a third. But beware: This third is two whole steps, and is called a major third. The interval between C and E is a major third.
The intervals are the distance between two notes, not necessarily the distance from the root note. The distance between the second and the third note is also one whole step, giving that the second and third note is one second apart. So the distance between D and E is a second.
The foruth note, the F, is different. It is only one half step above E, and two and a half step above C. The distance from C to F is a prefect fourth. The distance between E and F, one half step, is called a minor second. And if you look at the distance from D to F, you will find that it is one and a half step. This interval of one and a half step is called a minor third.
The next note, G, is a perfect fifth above the root , which is three and a half steps And if you look at the relations to the other notes, it is a fourth above D , a minor third above E and a second above F.
B is a seventh above C. But beware: This is a major seventh: Five and a half steps (=11 half steps). If you know the seventh from the good old seventh chord, this chord has a minor seventh (four whole steps and two half steps=10 half steps). It is a major chord, so the word minor is not used to name the chord. If you look at a C7 chord, you will see that it has a Bb, not a B in it. The major seventh intverval is what we find in a maj7 chord.
If we relates B to the rest of the notes, it is a sixth above D, a perfect fifth above E, and then some kind of a strange fourth above F. You will imediatly hear that it sound different from the perfect fourth, for instance between E and A. But it still some kind of a fourth, since you are going up three scalar steps. The interval between F and B has three whole steps (=6 half steps), while the perfect fourth has two and a half (=5 half steps). This interval of three whole steps is known as tritonus, or an augmented fourth.
The last interval from B to C, is again only a half step (minor second). And again:
If we add two inervals up to an octave, we get:
A major scale is never divided in to equal halfs with the same interval up and down to it's root. If you divide the octave in two, you will always get two different intervals. And you always have one of the following patterns:
perfect + perfect
The basis for the system of naming intervals is as easy as counting: You count steps along the scale: One scale step=second, two scale steps=third, three scale steps=fourth, four scale steps=fifth, five scale steps=sixth, six scale steps=seventh, and seven scale steps=octave. The counting is not the number of steps, but you count second=first to second note, third=first to third note, etc. And when looking at invervals going up to a given note, we have been counting down: Octave, seventh, sixth, etc. With this knowledge, you should be able to se that the interval between B and F must be some kind of a fifth. But it definitly does not sound like our nice and sweet perfect fifth.
The perfect fourth has three whole steps and one half=7 half steps. But the interval from B to F has two whole steps and two half steps, and that adds up to only 6 half steps. This gives us a diminished fifth. You might think that it in some strange way sounds familiar. The distance from B to F is the same as the distance from F to B, so the two intervals sounds the same. But they are not the same inteval. It is an augmented fourth (tritone) and a diminished fifth that meets each other. You might say that I was wrong when I said that the major scale cannot be divided into to equal parts. My reply is that you are dividing the octave from B to B, and that is not a major scale. And even that octave is not divided into to equal intervals, although the distances between the notes in these intervals are the same.
To the list of dividing an octave, we can add:
diminished + augmented.
If we then continue, we will return to well known intervals:
And then the last one is obvious: B->B: Octave.
We have been through all the invervals within the range of an octave, exept for the unison. The unison is two equal notes. We can make a list of where e find those intervals, starting with the smaller ones:
Minor seconds: E-F, B-C.
The same interval will not sound the same in to different musical contexts. If you are in the key of C-major, the interval from E to G and from A to C will not sound the same, even though both are minor thirds. The notes have different functions in different part of the scale, and the sound gets coloured by the musical context.
You should be able to identify both the distance between to notes, what might be called absolute intervals, and the notes in relation to the key.
An interval may be played melodically or harmonically. If played melodically, you play one note at a time, going either up or down. If you play harmonically, you play both notes at a time. You should be able to identify an interval both a melodic and an harmonic interval. But at least in my experience, it is easier to identify the melodic version of an interval. So that should be the place to start.
The process of learning the sound of the intervals
There seems to be only one effecient way to learn the intervals, at least for those of us who have to learn them and to not identify them naturally: To sing. If you are not able to sing an interval, you do not have the sound in your head as clear as you should. It not a question of being a singer or not. You do not have to have a beautiful voice. But you should nevertheless be able to hit the right note.
The way to go is to first play the interval at your instrument, and then sing. After a while, you should be able to play one note, and sing a note a given interval above or below that note. Play the first note, sing the interval, and then play the second note of the interval to check if you got it right.
Start from different tones, and vary between going up and down. Name the notes you sing, to strengthen your knowledge of these names.
When you thik you have learned the basic, then it is time for practicing. If you have someone in your family or a friend who will cooperate, you can have them play different intervals. And you'll try to get these intervals by ear. You can also use some of the ear-training software for such drills. Look at Harmony Central for a list of available software. There are lists for Windows and Mac. My favourite Ear Training software (for PC) is Earope, see my comments in the Toolbox.
As with everything, you have to go one step at a time. If you try to get all at once, you will probably get nothing. Start by learning one interval, and add the others one by one. The first one to learn is a perfect fith, and then the perfect fourth. As soon as you think you have two intervals under you belt, you should listen to the intervals played, and try to identify them. For that purpose you need a fellow musician, a computer program for ear training drills, or recorded examples of intervals. You cannot play them yourself. If you play, you know what you are playing and then you will not be using your ears to identify the intervals.
You will often mix the fifth and the fourth. It is not to difficult to explain: Both a fourth and a fifth contains the same notes. If you start from C, you have F one fourth above and one fifth below. And you have a G one fifth above and a fourth below. Don't get to frustrated. Go on with the thirds, and see if you can distinguish between major and minor thirds. Then add the sixth, the sconds, the sevenths and the tritone/diminished fifth (you cannot tell any difference by ear.)