Melody Ear Training Exercise 6: Intervals and Distinguishing between Scales

One of the challenges in learning songs by ear is figuring out which scale the song uses. But if you’ve done the previous ear training exercises often enough, this will be easy for many songs. If you can identify a random sequence of notes on the major scale, you will be able to listen to a melody and say, for example, “that sounds like it’s going from the third to the fifth note of the major scale.” As you listen to the song, your brain will automatically orient you within some sort of scale, and if you’ve practiced enough ear training, you will be able to use your skill to figure out the scale. But this can sometimes be difficult, so I’ll try to break this task down into smaller chunks and give you tips on how to practice.

Figuring Out Where “One” Is

The first challenge when listening to a song is to figure out which note to call “one”, or which note is the first note in the scale of a song. Listen to the song and try to play or sing the note that seems to be “home base.” Ask yourself “If this song were to end predictably, which note would it end on?” For many songs, the answer will be obvious. For other songs, it won’t be. Let’s say we are listening to a song that uses only the white notes. But it doesn’t emphasize one note over the other. Or maybe it emphasizes different notes throughout the song. Sometimes songwriters do this on purpose. They write a song with somewhat of an ambiguous root so you can’t tell if it’s in C major or A minor, for example. In these cases, it doesn’t matter whether you say the root of the scale is C or A, what matters is that you know that both of these scales use the same notes, and the songwriter has (probably quite skillfully) made the root ambiguous.

Tones and Semitones

Once you know where the root is (or even if you don’t), you can start to figure out what scale is being used by finding the pattern of tones and semitones. You could start by practicing hearing the difference between a tone and a semitone. Then, you might notice that the melody goes up one semitone from the starting note. You now know that it could be going from the third to the fourth note of a major scale. It could also be going from the second up to the third note of a minor scale. Keep listening to the song to gain more clues like this.

Bigger Intervals

Sometimes the distances between notes in a melody are bigger than a tone. Tones and semitones are a subset of the broader category called “intervals.” There are many different sizes of intervals and if you get good at identifying them, you will gather more clues about the scale that a song is using.

Naming these intervals might be helpful, so I’ll describe the way musicians have chosen to name them. We already know what a semitone is, and that a tone is equivalent to two semitones. But what about three semitones? If you have two notes that are three semitones apart, those two notes will correspond to the first and third note of a minor scale, so the distance between those two notes is called a minor third. For example, C and Eb are a minor third apart. So are A and C. Similarly, the distance between the first and third note of a major scale is called a major third. A major third is equivalent to four semitones. The fourth and fifth notes are the same for major and minor scales, so there is no such thing as a major or minor fourth or fifth. These intervals are called “perfect” fourths and “perfect” fifths. Below is a table of the names of relevant intervals and the distance between the two notes, measured in semitones.

Interval Name Number of semitones
Semitone/Minor 2nd 1
Tone/Major 2nd 2
Minor 3rd 3
Major 3rd 4
Perfect 4th 5
Diminished 5th 6
Perfect 5th 7
Minor 6th 8
Major 6th 9
Minor 7th 10
Major 7th 11
Octave 12

I would not recommend memorizing the right column of this table. Instead, make sure you know all of the major and minor scales. If you want to go up a major sixth from Ab, play the sixth note of the Ab major scale, which is F. I don’t recommend counting up nine semitones, because counting semitones will never be useful. I did not know that a major sixth was equivalent to nine semitones until I made this table. However, I can tell you how to play a major sixth starting on any note because I know all the major and minor scales like the back of my hand.

(Bonus practice: In Melody Ear Training Exercise 3, I suggested playing scales using different patterns. When you play a major scale “in thirds,” which intervals are major thirds and which are minor? From “one” to “three” of a major scale is a major third, but from “two” to “four” is a minor third. What about all the other thirds? What about sixths?)

In many music schools, identifying intervals is the first ear training lesson. But as I explained earlier in this chapter, I don’t think identifying intervals should be the basis for an ear training method. However, identifying intervals is still a helpful thing to practice. It will come in handy when you’re not sure which scale is being used. To practice intervals, I highly recommend this interval training game.

To practice intervals offline, you have to practice them outside the context of any scale. In other ear training exercises, we started by orienting our brain to a scale, and then we identified notes in that scale. To practice intervals, try not to orient your brain in any scale. If you have a friend helping you, have them play two notes that are some distance apart, one after the other. Usually, the lower note is played first, but starting with the higher note is good too. Have your partner change the note they start on each time. Try to name the interval they played using the naming convention I described in the table. If you are on your own, play a random note and then try to sing a note a certain interval above it. Check if you’re right by playing the correct note.

It can be helpful to associate intervals with real-world examples. For example, the interval used at the beginning the famous song from the movie “Jaws” is a semitone, or minor 2nd. If you hear an interval that sounds like “Jaws,” you can be confident that it’s a minor 2nd. You can find different songs that use every interval. This website has a list of songs that begin with each interval. Pick a song you know from each list, and see if this helps you with identifying intervals.

Since hearing intervals in a song doesn’t require knowing the scale, you can start to learn the melody of a song before figuring out the scale. After figuring out a few notes of the melody, you will probably be able to guess which scale is being used. At this point, you can stop thinking about intervals and simply hear where each note of the melody fits within the scale.