Music Theory: Intervals – How To Train Your Ears

In this post about the music theory of intervals, we will learn:

  • what an interval is
  • the 12 most important intervals
  • how to recognise them by ear

According to Wikipedia, an interval is a difference in pitch between two sounds.

In musical theory, an interval is a distance between two notes and is best expressed in a number of tones ore semitones.

I elaborate in detail about tones and semitones in my blog post ► Piano Scales: The Major Scale

I am sure it is no surprise to anyone that making these blogs, with relevant information, is no small task. I love doing this for you because the piano is my passion! But to be able to keep doing this I have placed links to various services and products that I trust and endorse. Should you wish to buy one of those products I will get a commission at no extra cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

Explaining the Structure

Each interval described below comes with a symbol, a distance and a reference song. Those are handy for a couple of reasons.

The symbol of an interval comes in handy when we want to describe chords as a formula. When you know the formula of a chord you can play the chord in any key. Likewise, when you know your intervals really well it is easy to play the formula of a chord.

The distance of an interval will help new piano lovers to work out intervals by counting the number of keys. That is a good way, in the beginning, to get familiar with the keyboard and how to visually find the different intervals.

The reference song for any given interval is the best way by far to learn to recognize intervals by ear. If you can associate songs that you know with an interval, you will be able to sing any interval when given only the first or the second note. If you practice that regularly, you will be amazed at how quickly you can train your ears. Not before long you would be able to play a song just by hearing it on the radio!

I have given one reference song for every interval. Those are the songs that I know well and can remember easily. However, these songs may not be familiar to you (because you are younger than me) so you may want to find other songs that make sense to you. Here is an excellent resource to find other songs.

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The 12 Most Important Intervals

The Minor Second

Symbol♭2
Distance1 Semitone
Reference SongTheme from JAWS
Minor Second Examples
Minor Second Examples

The Major Second

Symbol2
Distance2 Semitones
Reference SongHappy Birthday
Major Second
Major Second Examples

The Minor Third

Symbol♭3
Distance3 Semitones
Reference SongOle ole ole soccer anthem
Minor Third Examples

The Major Third

Symbol3
Distance4 Semitones
Reference SongOh When The Saints
Major Third Examples
Major Third Examples

The Perfect Fourth

Symbol4
Distance5 Semitones
Reference SongHere Comes The Bride
Perfect Fourth Examples
Perfect Fourth Examples

The Tritone

Symbol♭5
Distance6 Semitones
Reference SongThe Simpsons theme song
Tritone Examples
Tritone Examples

The Perfect Fifth

Symbol6
Distance7 Semitones
Reference SongStar Wars Main Theme
Perfect Fifth Examples
Perfect Fifth Examples

The Minor Sixth

Symbol♭6
Distance8 Semitones
Reference SongTheme from Love Story
Minor Sixth Examples
Minor Sixth Examples

The Major Sixth

Symbol6
Distance9 Semitones
Reference SongJingle Bells
Major Sixth Examples
Major Sixth Examples

The Minor Seventh

Symbol♭7
Distance10 Semitones
Reference SongThe Winner Takes It All
Minor Seventh Examples
Minor Seventh Examples

The Major Seventh

Symbol7
Distance11 Semitones
Reference SongDon’t Know Why
Major Seventh Examples
Major Seventh Examples

The Octave

Symbol8
Distance12 Semitones
Reference SongSomewhere Over the Rainbow
Octave Examples
Octave Examples

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8 thoughts on “Music Theory: Intervals – How To Train Your Ears”

  1. Hello Tom, this post has just come right when my daughter is giving me headaches about wanting to learn how to okay a piano. Her mom plays the violin very well and she made the decision to learn to play the piano. She isn’t registered to any piano class yet, but with this i hope she can start up something pending when she will be registered. Best regards

  2. Wow this article is great! I have always wanted to learn about music, but I just never have the drive to sit down and do it. This is easy to learn and there are so many visuals it made it easy to sit down and absorb info.

    I’m interested in learning the Piano. I’m going to check out more articles on your site!

    • Hello Wilson,

      Thanks for the compliment!

      So glad I can inspire you to pick up something you always wanted to do but never got around to! Music is great for the soul and it will give you incredible pleasure!

      Have a great day!
      Tom

  3. I’ve been studying piano for quite a while now, maybe I’m in the elementary grade, but it is only through here that I encountered this music theory. What I used to see in piano pieces are symbols of flat or sharp and there’s no number like that. I tried listening to each two pair of videos that were compared in each section and indeed there are similarities in sound. Or, is it because I play piano based on notes and not based on chords like when people play their guitars?

    • Hi Gomer,

      Thank you for your feedback.

      When you learn the piano the classical way, you will usually learn through playing songs from a paper score. There are notes on that you need to play exactly as they are written. This is fine if all you want to do is write songs that are written by someone else.

      Once you want to start composing songs or improvise on existing songs, things become a little bit different. You need to start learning about harmonies and intervals. And ear training is a very important part of this process.

      At a music school, when you start to learn how to read notes, they will often dictate a melody and it is up to the students to write down the notes. This becomes so much easier if you know your intervals because you will always be able to work out what the next note is.

      Once you start composing you will indeed find that you need to learn chords and by proxy the need to learn intervals.

      I hope that helps 🙂

      Cheers,
      Tom

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