Today I want to debunk a commonly held myth when it comes to ear training.
This is something that gets taught, incorrectly – more than anything else when it comes to ear training.
Many teachers will tell you that to learn intervals by ear – you have to associate each interval with a famous melody.
The first two notes of “Happy Birthday”… (for a whole-step)
Or the first two notes of “The Bridal March”… (for the 4th)
Or the first two notes of “Kumbaya”… (major 3rd)
And a different melody for each of the 12 intervals.
But the truth is that no one who plays music by ear uses this method.
This method is called ‘Musical Association’ – because you’re associating each interval with a famous melody.
This method works for one thing only – and that is passing a basic ear training exam.
Typically an examiner will play two notes on the piano – in isolation (no musical context), and ask you what the interval is.
So you would then go through your catalogue of memorized songs—
“Happy Birthday,” does it match? No.
“Kumbaya,” does it match? No.
“The Bridal March,” does it match? Yes. So that means that the interval is a 4th.
So yes – Musical Association works fine when listening to a single interval on its own, played in isolation, outside any musical context. Literally just 2 notes.
However it’s a very different thing when you try using this for real music…
When you’re listening to a piece of music (‘Song A’), it’s very hard to recall a 2nd unrelated melody (‘Song B’).
Try it. Go and listen to any song, and try to sing “Happy Birthday”…
Or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”…
Not only is it hard to do, but it also ruins your enjoyment of the song (and transcribing should never stop you from enjoying the song – in fact it should increase your enjoyment).
I’ve never met a professional musician who sings nursery rhymes to recall intervals.
Here’s What I Use Instead
The goal is to learn the sound of each interval, on its own – without relying on nursery rhymes.
You want to learn the sound of the half-step, whole-step, minor 3rd, major 3rd, etc – on their own.
And to learn the sound of intervals – you should practice SINGING them – because if you can accurately sing an interval, then you must have memorized its sound.
However, it might take some time to get to the point where you can sing each interval with 100% confidence.
So in the meantime, the method that I used is something I call ‘The Stepping-Stone Method’.
If you want to sing a 5th – well you don’t have to sing the 5th in one leap…
You can break the 5th down into 2 smaller intervals, and sing those – singing a minor triad would work (C – Eb – G):
Can you sing a minor triad?
Or for the 4th – you could sing a minor 3rd + whole-step (C – Eb – F).
And you can do the same for any interval:
How would you sing a minor 7th?
Well you could sing up a minor 7 chord (C – Eb – G – Bb).
Or you could sing up an octave, and then down a whole-step (C – C – Bb).
And there’ll always be multiple interval patterns you can sing for any interval.
This method isn’t as appealing as Musical Association – but it is what I use, and it works every time.
It works because it blends into the music you’re listening to – it’s not at all disruptive to sing a minor triad, or any interval pattern.
I don’t use stepping-stones all of the time – but I found this technique very useful while I was learning to play by ear (and learning to compose melodies in my head while away from my instrument).
And even if you’re confident that you know what the interval is – it’s often a good idea to double-check your answer using a stepping-stone path. Imagine that you only get one shot when transcribing, and that your life depended on getting the answer correct – in that mindset you would double-check the interval using a stepping stone.
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