Playing By Ear – The Intervals That Make Ear Training Possible

Playing by ear is something that many people want to learn how to do.  Some of the songs that we want to learn aren’t written on sheet music.  Learning this way requires some time and building blocks.
So for the beginners who have been taking lessons for a little while, this one is for you. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t seem to hear anything but what the singer is singing on a song, or if you can’t hear all the chords in a song.  Playing by ear can be learned as long as you can hear at least one note correctly.  Just like learning how to read music, playing by ear is going to take some practice and learning Intervals ares the key to training your ear.

Intervals – The Building Blocks of Playing By Ear

The first thing is to be able to recognize intervals and play them on your instrument.  An interval is the distance between any two notes. There are 12 fundamental intervals that music is made of.  Each of these 12 intervals can be matched with 12 popular songs and help you learn to play by ear.  The first interval is:


Minor 2nd

The minor 2nd interval is in the famous song from Jaws.  The two notes that the song starts with is this very interval.

Major 2nd

This interval is in the song Happy Birthday.  If you sing the very words “Happy Birthday”, you will be singing the interval of a major 2nd.

Minor 3rd

This interval is used in many songs and is a very foundational interval.  If you like Classic Rock music, this is the opening riff of the song “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.  Another use of this interval is in the opening melody of Lullaby by Brahms.  Sing “Lu-lla-by”, and you will have sang a minor 3rd.

Major 3rd

The difference between this interval and previous minor 3rd is essential to playing by ear, due to the fact that these two intervals are key to determining whether a chord is major or minor.  The major 3rd interval can be found in the songs “Kumbaya” and “Oh When the Saints go marching In”.  The first two notes of both of the previous mentioned songs are examples of the major 3rd.

Perfect Fourth

The perfect fourth can be sung in the first two notes of the songs “Here Comes the Bride” and “Amazing Grace.

Tri-Tone/Flat 5th

The tri-tone can be sung in the first two notes of “The Simpsons” theme song.  This is a dissonant interval and arguably the most dissonant, or “jarring”, intervals in all of the intervals.

Perfect 5th

If you sing “Twinkle Twinkle…” then you have sung a perfect 5th.  This is one of the first intervals that are taught when learning how to sight read.  The song Twinkle Twinkle being so famous, it is very easy to recall.

Minor 6th

In the song “We Are Young”, during the chorus, when the lyrics sing “…so let’s set the world on fire, we can burn brighter…”  The interval that is sung on “fire” is a minor 6th.  This is a more difficult interval to hear and is another interval of the dissonant category.

Major 6th

Just sing “hush little” from the song “Hush Little Baby” and you have sang our next interval, the Major 6th.  The first two notes of the NBC chime is also a Major 6th.

Minor 7th

The first “ooh-OOH” sung in the Star Trek original theme music is an example of the minor 7th interval.  This is another one of the more difficult intervals to grasp.

Major 7th

Any Soft Jazz fans?  The first words “I’ve waited…” from Norah Jones “Don’t Know Why” is an example of the Major 7th interval.

Octave/Perfect 8th

Last but not least, if you love the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sings a Perfect octave when she sings the words “Somewhere” in the opening of the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

Take Your Time

This concludes all 12 of the intervals mostly used when trying to play music by ear.  Listening for each of these intervals is the first step to being able to learn a song simply by hearing it.  Again, don’t rush trying to learn how to do this in one day.  Learning this is best done with a friend or a teacher.  Choose  3 or 4 intervals and test each other on which ones are being played, using these songs above to see if you can match what interval goes with what sound.  The next step to learning music by ear is familiarizing yourself with the sounds of certain chords.  In the Part 2 of this lesson, we’ll talk about how to hear some of the main chords used in music: Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished and Suspended Fourth.

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