Aural Skills for Guitarists: Perfect Intervals (Part 1)

Music is an aural art, so listening skills are necessary to appreciate it as well as perform it. To understand what is being heard, ear training is a must for all musicians, in which they learn to identify pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, etc. In this ear training series, we will be looking into interval recognition skills.

The Importance of Interval Ear Training

Intervals are the building blocks of music. By identifying the intervals between notes, you are literally “listening to music”. Not only can you listen to the music and perform analyses of any piece of music, but also read sheet music and know how it sounds like, which allows you to learn your favorite songs by ear, become better at sight reading, improvisation and transcription.

As a guitarist, you need to recognize different types of chords by ear, even tell the notes forming the chord. With a higher ability to comprehend music aurally, you will start to recognize what scales are being used and what certain notes sound like when played over certain chords. That’s why aural training is so important for guitarists.

What are intervals in music?

Interval is the distance (or difference) between two pitches. It can be categorized into two groups. They are (1) harmonic interval—two notes played simultaneously and (2) melodic interval—two notes played separately. Any musical interval is described in terms of quality (perfect, major, minor, diminished and augmented) as well as number (the number of letter names at the interval spanned). For example, the interval from C to G (C-D-E-F-G) is a fifth.

In this lesson, we will be focusing on the perfect intervals—the first (also called unison or prime) and eighth (or octave), while the fourth and fifth will be discussed in the next lesson.

Concerning the aural characteristics of intervals, except for the perfect fourth (which is either consonant or dissonant depending on its function), all other perfect intervals fall into the group of open consonances, which are very stable sounding. Let’s begin with the one that is easiest to identify—the unison.

1. Unison

Unison is an interval with a difference of zero half steps. It’s simply a note repeating all over the time. Looking for a song reference? “One Note Samba” is the answer!

Try this out—hunting for notes!

Hmm (or sing) a note then play it out. Listen carefully to find out whether the pitch of the note that you play is too high or too low. Do not search for the note randomly. Do it with one single string or a shape (pattern) on the guitar fretboard. As you become familiar with this, switch from one note to a whole set of notes (a melody line).

2. Octave

An octave (or perfect eighth) is made up of twelve half steps. C to C (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C) is an octave. Sing out the line “somewhere over the rainbow” beautifully and you should know how it sounds like.

Try this out—tuning the guitar using harmonics!

When the two notes (with an interval of an octave) are played at a time, they create strong consonance. Strong consonances are very stable and they have the least beating (or wavering) among all intervals. With the use of this principle, you can tune your guitar using harmonics.

First, have one of your E strings tuned. Then play the two strings at once. Though the difference between the two notes are two octaves (instead of one), they should also be in harmony. In any way one of the notes is out of tune (either flat or sharp), there will be beating of the intervals. The less in tune you are, the more beating there is. The rub that you hear in the beating gives the feeling of darkness and discomfort. Only when the note is perfectly in tune, the beating comes to a halt (see the illustration at below).

Have a look at the following tab and try tuning the remaining guitar strings (using octaves)!

In the next part, we will be discussing perfect fourth and fifth. See you!


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