Are you looking for a quick way to identify intervals? Then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, you’ll learn how to identify intervals quickly on the staff so that you can sight-read faster.
As I mentioned in a previous article (Should You Read the Notes or the Intervals?), reading intervals, as opposed to single notes, can greatly speed up your reading. So, it goes without saying that the faster you can recognise intervals, the faster you’ll be able to sight-read.
But how do you identify intervals quickly? Is there a trick?
Let’s find out…
What are intervals?
An interval is the distance between two notes.
For example, the interval between C and E is a third because it includes three note names, that is, C, D and E. Similarly, the interval between E and B is a fifth because it includes E, F, G, A and B.
Intervals can be harmonic, meaning that they are played together, or melodic, played in succession.
In this article, I’ll focus on harmonic intervals, but everything here can be applied to melodic intervals as well.
How to identify intervals quickly
To make things simpler, you can divide the intervals into two categories: odd-numbered intervals (unison, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th) and even-numbered intervals (2nd, 4th, 6th, octave).
Notice in the following image that the odd-numbered intervals are comprised of either two space notes or two line notes.
For a third, the two notes will be on adjacent lines; for a fifth, there will be a line or space between the two notes; for a seventh, two lines or spaces; and for the ninth, three lines or spaces.
Even-numbered intervals, on the other hand, are comprised of a line note and a space note:
A second is easy to recognise because the two notes are right up against each other; a fourth is a bit wider than a third but still on adjacent lines; a sixth is like a fourth but with a line or space in between; and an octave is with two lines or spaces in between.
To sight-read music more fluently, you only need to identify the distance between the notes (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.). You don’t need to worry about the type of interval, that is, whether the interval is major, minor, perfect, etc. This level of analysis is only necessary when learning, analysing or memorising a piece. And besides, when sight-reading, you don’t have the time to figure this out. You only have a split second to recognise the interval and that’s it!
So aim to immediately recognise intervals, whether harmonic or melodic.
A question you might have is:
Which note should you look at, the top or bottom note?
Since we identify intervals by counting from the bottom note, it makes more sense to read the intervals (or chords) from the bottom note.
For example, if you have this interval, look at the bottom note, which is E, and the interval, which is a fourth. So you would play E with the note up a fourth, which is A. Or if you think purely in terms of fingering, you would typically play with fingers 1 and 4 or 2 and 5, depending on the context. So even if you’re unsure of the upper note, you can still play the interval if you can recognise it.
What’s the best way to learn the intervals?
Start with the odd-numbered intervals, as those are the easiest to learn. Then learn the even-numbered intervals. Then lastly, to check how good your interval recognition is, test yourself with all intervals.
Use note reading apps such as Tenuto (iOS) or Perfect Ear (iOS & Android) to drill the intervals. You can customise the exercises so that you drill just the even-numbered or odd-numbered intervals or the intervals that you are struggling with.
And whenever you can, practise these drills at the piano and try playing the intervals as quickly as you can.
I will be publishing a YouTube video with interval drills which I will add to this article, so if you want to stay updated on when the video will be published, you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter (see form below).
In the meantime, you can download this free worksheet and time yourself to see how quickly you can identify intervals. Just fill in the form below and you’ll get the worksheet straight into your inbox!