Research in music cognition suggests that for most common aural skills, we process notes by their relationship to a tonic or their position in a scale rather than actually hearing adjacent note to note intervallic relationships. In this episode of Notes From The Staff, Greg and David look at this research on how we hear and the role that intervals play in that hearing. They talk about why classic techniques for teaching intervals can actually undermine students' reading skills, and look at ways of teaching intervals that instead complement and strengthen students' aural skills.

Why not use 'Here Comes the Bride' and other common melodies to recognize intervals?

We hear music based on how the notes relate to a sense of tonic, not based on the pitch relationship of immediately adjacent notes or even of vertical notes sounding together.

Ascending Fourths Song by David Newman

"Here Comes the Bride" comes along with context because it's sol-do-do-do (5-1-1-1). When a student comes across a sol-do leap in dictation and thinks, “Does that sound like ‘Here Comes the Bride’?” it sure does. But there are six perfect fourths within our diatonic collection, and they don't all feel like sol-do. If a student encounters a fourth that is not sol-do, it does not sound like ‘Here Comes the Bride.’ Additionally, they’ve brought with it the context of the starting note being sol, even though it's not actually sol in the current key, and the following note being do, even though it's not actually do in the key, and they’ve had to erase the tonal context to sing that perfect fourth, which is problematic.

What should we do instead? Teach intervals in the context of keys, and also give students tools for hearing intervals in non-tonal contexts. Here are six highly effective exercises that grow students’ independence in identifying intervals:

  1. Intervallic walks:
  2. Triadic walks:
  3. Scale patterns:
  4. Coded melodies:
  5. Remingtons in canon:
  6. Nadia Boulanger's interval distances:

Listen to the full episode on Interval Ear Training at

Notes From The Staff is a podcast from the creators of uTheory. Join us for conversations about pedagogy, music theory, ear training, and music technology with members of the uTheory staff and thought leaders from the world of music education. Subscribe to Notes From The Staff on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.