How to Memorize Musical Intervals

October 18, 2018

Learning how to identify musical intervals is an important part of music theory, and it’s a skill that can be picked up over the span of a couple weeks with a little bit of practice each day. A musical interval is merely the difference between two pitches.

Some people can hear a pitch (out of context) and identify the frequency of the note by specifying it’s note name; this is referred to as absolute pitch or perfect pitch. Roughly 1 out of 10,000 people have perfect pitch, so it’s quite a rare ability. On top of this, many people never realize they have perfect pitch unless they’ve put in the time to learn some music theory fundamentals.


One of my friends has perfect pitch. It seems almost like a superpower because we’ll be sitting around, and then something like an alarm will go off, someone will laugh, or a dog will bark and they’ll call out the note the sound source is playing. They don’t have to think about which note is playing, they just know. People with perfect pitch describe this phenomenon “like seeing in color.” Unfortunately, you either have perfect pitch, or you don’t.


If you don’t have perfect pitch, don’t worry. Most amazing musicians don’t have perfect pitch either, but they’ve developed their relative pitch. Relative pitch is the ability of a person to identify a musical note by comparing it to a reference note and determining the interval between those two notes. This is a skill that can be learned, meaning you don’t have to be born with it. It allows you to re-create melodies, identify the notes that are apart of chords, and much more.


Everything in music is relative, meaning the notes played before and after a note are just as important as the note itself. For example, the Jaws theme song is only a handful of notes that play a minor 2nd interval repeatedly. A minor 2nd interval is created by playing a note on your keyboard, and then moving up your keyboard one semi-tone and playing that note (for example, playing a C and then a D flat). Regardless of which note you start on, playing the note that’s one semi-tone up from it will create a minor 2nd interval.  

C and D flat create a minor 2nd interval

F sharp and G also create a minor 2nd interval


The minor 2nd interval in the Jaws theme song creates tension, suspense, and fear because it’s eerie, and many people associate it with a movie about a killer shark. My main point here is that the specific notes used in the Jaws theme song don’t matter. Regardless of what key the Jaws theme song is played in, you’re going to be able to recognize it as the Jaws theme song. If you hear two notes played either back-to-back, or simultaneously, and they remind you of the Jaws theme song, the interval being played is likely a minor 2nd.

Perfect pitch is a neat party trick, but it's not necessary to write great music. Relative pitch is what you should work on developing. The way you develop relative pitch is by memorizing different intervals. When the notes that make up intervals are played simultaneously, they create a diatonic chord; a chord made up of two notes. You already know one of these intervals (the minor 2nd), but there are 12 other basic intervals you should memorize as well. From there, you can move onto memorizing other types of chords, such as triads, 7th chords, 9th chords, 11th chords, etc.



The 13 Basic Intervals

There are 13 intervals that you should memorize:


Unison

Minor 2nd

Major 2nd

Minor 3rd

Major 3rd

Perfect Fourth

Tritone

Perfect 5th

Minor 6th

Major 6th

Minor 7th

Major 7th

Octave


These intervals can span beyond a single octave, but recognizing them doesn’t become much more difficult. A C1 to an E2 (Major 3rd + 1 Octave) isn’t too hard to recognize if you can recognize a C1 to an E1 (Major 3rd). It's important to be able to recognize intervals when they're ascending, descending, and when both notes of the interval are played at the same time. I've included what the interval looks like on a keyboard, and a YouTube video containing a memorable song that will help you to remember what each interval sounds like below.

You can either stream the intervals online to hear what they sound like, or download the intervals along with a cheat sheet that contains the reference songs. I recommend you download the intervals and add them to an iTunes playlist so that you can audition them easily and practice memorizing them later on.

Stream the intervals online here

or

Download the intervals and cheat sheet here


Unison

If two notes are in unison, it means that they sound the same pitch. I don’t have a video example for this one because there’s not much to remember; if the notes you’re listening to are the same, they’re in unison.

Unison - No difference in pitch



Minor 2nd

A minor 2nd is created when there’s a one semi-tone difference in pitch between two notes. This interval is played repeatedly in the Jaws theme song. It creates a tense, gut-wrenching feeling that wants to resolve to the root note of the key you’re in. A minor 2nd is being played by the low string section in the following YouTube video and is repeated multiple times.

Minor 2nd - One semi-tone difference in pitch

Major 2nd

A major 2nd is created when there’s a two semi-tone difference in pitch between two notes. The song “Happy Birthday” plays a major 2nd interval when it changes notes for the first time.

Major 2nd - Two semi-tone difference in pitch



Minor 3rd

A minor 3rd is created when there’s a three semi-tone difference in pitch between two notes. Canada’s national anthem “O Canada” plays a minor 3rd interval when it changes notes for the first time.

Minor 3rd - Three semi-tone difference in pitch



Major 3rd

A major 3rd is created when there’s a four semi-tone difference in pitch between two notes. The song “Kumbaya” plays a major 3rd interval when it changes from it’s second to third note.

Major 3rd - Four semi-tone difference in pitch



Perfect 4th

A perfect 4th is created when there’s a five semi-tone difference in pitch between two notes. The song “Here Comes The Bride” plays a perfect 4th interval when it changes notes for the first time.

Perfect 4th - Five semi-tone difference in pitch



Tritone

A tritone is created when there’s a six semi-tone difference in pitch between two notes. The Simpsons theme song contains a tritone, and it’s played when the voices sing “The Simp…” at 5 seconds. This dissonant interval resolves upwards to the perfect 5th when the voices sing “…sons.”

Tritone - Six semi-tone difference in pitch



Perfect 5th

A perfect 5th is created when there’s a seven semi-tone difference in pitch between notes. The Star Wars theme song plays a perfect 5th interval when it changes notes for the first time at 9 seconds. This interval is one of the most powerful sounding intervals and is used to construct power chords.

Perfect 5th - Seven semi-tone difference in pitch



Minor 6th

A minor 6th is created when there’s an eight semi-tone difference in pitch between notes. The song “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin contains three minor 6th intervals in a row at 12 seconds.

Minor 6th - Eight semi-tone difference in pitch



Major 6th

A major 6th is created when there’s a nine semi-tone difference in pitch between notes. The song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” plays a major 6th interval when it changes notes for the first time.

Major 6th - Nine semi-tone difference in pitch



Minor 7th

A minor 7th is created when there’s a ten semi-tone difference in pitch between notes. The original Star Trek theme song plays a minor 7th interval at 30 seconds.

Minor 7th - Ten semi-tone difference in pitch



Major 7th

A major 7th is created when there’s an eleven semi-tone difference in pitch between notes. The song “Take on Me” plays a major 7th inteval at 54 seconds.

Major 7th - Eleven semi-tone difference in pitch



Octave

An octave is created when there’s a twelve semi-tone difference in pitch between notes. The song “Somewhere over the Rainbow” from Wizard of Oz plays contains an octave jump, and it’s demonstrated when Dorthy sings “Somewhere.”

Octave - Twelve semi-tone difference in pitch



Methods to Memorize Intervals

Memorizing intervals is a pretty straightforward process, you just need to keep listening to intervals until you remember what they sound like. However, there are a couple of techniques that will reduce the time it takes you to learn these intervals, and that will turn an otherwise dull process into a fun game! Repetition is the name of the game, and if you practice for about 15-20 minutes per day for a couple weeks, you should be able to identify all of the intervals listed above with no issues at all. You’ll see better results if you spread out your practice time throughout the week. It's more effective to practice a little bit each day than it is to practice a lot in one day, even if the total time you've practiced is the same.


1. Cheat Sheet, Audio Samples & iTunes Playlist (Free)

Musical Intervals iTunes Playlist

You can download a list of all the intervals listed above with their reference song titles, and audio files here. An excellent way to practice these intervals is to have a friend randomly play them out of iTunes for you, or create a playlist that contains these intervals, shuffle it, and guess which interval is playing. I recommend learning intervals in the following order, adding more of them to your playlist in the following groups as you progress:


Unison

Tritone

Octave


Minor 2nd

Major 7th


Major 2nd

Minor 7th


Minor 3rd

Major 6th


Major 3rd

Minor 6th


Perfect 4th

Perfect 5th


2. EarMaster ($59.95)

EarMaster

There are apps for music producers that allow you to develop your ability to recognize intervals and chords, as well as work on many other music theory skills; my favorite of these apps has to be EarMaster. It’s a comprehensive ear training software that covers intervals, chords, rhythms, and melodies. If you’re looking for software that will streamline your voyage through the world of music theory, EarMaster is what you’re looking for.

I want to invite you to join me in the Black Ghost Audio group on Facebook; it's full of producers currently working in the music industry who are more than happy to help you improve your productions. Leave a comment below if you have any questions regarding this article. Your feedback is always appreciated and we'll take it into account when we publish future articles!

Charles is a Mixing and Mastering Engineer at Black Ghost Audio. After graduating from the University of Manitoba with an English degree, Charles continued his education at Icon Collective, a music production school based out of Los Angeles, CA. He is the founder of Black Ghost Audio, an audio engineering company that creates educational content for music producers. You can send him a work inquiry at www.blackghostaudio.com or contact charles@blackghostaudio.com.