Intervals Are Like Ice Cream.....They All Have Different Flavours Darlene Irwin     May 05, 2014

Intervals are like Ice Cream, they all have different flavours! I have said this many times to my students over the years.

Ear Training is an essential part of a music exam. And intervals (above and below a given note) are usually an important part of the entire ear training mark. But naming those intervals can be a daunting task for some students. I have found that, even if students have a good ear, they can have difficulty with this portion of the exam. The problem is that when a student is nervous or feeling stressed, they can leave their musical ears in the waiting room!

I would like to share with you some of the teaching strategies that I have used successfully in my own studio.

First: Play the notes of the various intervals together on the keyboard for your students. You can discuss the different flavours of each interval. Have them come up with ideas to describe the sounds as well.

  • 2nds: (Steps). The -2nd sounds very close and very harsh (fighting notes). This is a semitone (the smallest distance on the piano). The +2nd sounds very close but not too harsh. It's also helpful to know that it is a whole tone or whole step on the piano.          
  • 3rds: (Skips) The -3rd sounds sad and not too big. A -3rd contains the first 2 notes of a minor triad. The +3rd sounds happy but not too big. It contains the first 2 notes of a major triad. With either one, if you continue humming to the 5th, you will have a root position triad. It sometimes helps to relate the -3rd below to a doorbell (ding dong!)
  • 4th: The Perfect 4th sounds different - it is not part of the root position triad. However, it is a pleasant sound and it is not too big. It also has kind of an open sound, but not as open as the P5th.
  • The Tritone (aug 4th or dim 5th) is one of the most tension-filled intervals, but it is not as big as a +7th.
  • 5th: The Perfect 5th sounds open, but not too big. It contains the outer notes of a triad.
  • 6ths: The -6th sounds kind of sad but it is bigger than a -3rd. The +6th sounds happy but it is also bigger than a 3rd.
  • 7ths: The -7th is not so harsh but it is large AND it contains the outer notes of a Dominant 7th chord. The +7th is a very harsh interval AND it is large. I tell my students that this interval should hit you across the face!!! Be careful not to confuse this interval with the tritone.
  • 8th: The Perfect 8th is an octave, meaning that the notes sound similar and very big like a rainbow! It also sounds open and can easily be confused with the P5th.

Here are some other simple and effective ideas to help students with naming intervals:

  • First and foremost, make sure that they know which intervals they have to know for their grade so they don't guess one they don't even have to know. Have them memorize this list. Review it every time you do intervals in the lesson and have them say it out loud as you play the notes together on the keyboard. One of my students is doing a Grade 5 exam in June. Here is her list: ABOVE +/- 3rds, +/- 6ths, P 4th, 5th and 8th. BELOW: -3 (this is a single....NO +3rd), P5th and P8th (no P4th). When reviewing their list, have them listen carefully as the notes are played together. Have them describe the flavour as you play each one. Review this list every time you do intervals and before you begin testing the student.
  • Identify the 'singles' so that they don't guess the wrong one. For example, don't guess a +3rd below if you only have a -3rd!
  • If they can, always have the students hum the notes softly immediately as they are being played. Their voice will help then to identify the sound as smaller or larger. They are hearing the interval inside their head and physically feeling the distance with their voice. Work with them so that they can tone match the notes. This doesn't work for every student, but it is helpful if they can do it.
  • If a student is a good "hummer", then have them also try to hum the notes in between. But be careful. This is harder than it sounds. Some students can add or take away notes when doing this. Only use this strategy if they can consistently hum the notes in between correctly. I also find that generally, the boys have a harder time humming the notes. They sometimes feel self-conscious, especially if their voice is changing.
  • Naming an interval below a given note seems to be more difficult than above. This is especially true for the 3rds. If students can't hear an interval below the given note, have them try humming it softly the other way (forwards). Sometimes that is all they need to identify it. Again, this only works if they are a good hummer.
  • It is very helpful to have students associate songs with the intervals. This is especially useful when the student is under pressure or if they can't hum the notes. It's also a good back-up plan even if they can hum! However, the songs become absolutely essential for students who do not have a strong ear and cannot hum.
  • I use the Small Interval Cards found on The Student Music Organizer Website. This reference card is so handy. There is a good variety of songs for all of the intervals above and below. They can pick the song that they know the best. Highlight the intervals on the card that they have to know for their exam. The Above intervals are on one side of the card and the Below intervals are on the other side. Turning the card over as they name the intervals is good because they really have to listen to know if the interval is above or below the given note. Having them flip the card is part of the training. If they aren't familiar with any of  the songs on the card for a particular interval, then have them learn the first couple of bars of that song. They can also try to come up with a song of their own and write them on the card.
  • Make sure that they have the songs memorized for their required intervals. Review these songs every time you work on ear training. You don't want them to know the song and then guess the interval incorrectly!
  • I put a pocket in the back of The Student Music Organizer for their Interval Card so that they know where it is!
  • There is also a Large Teacher's Version of this card available. It's a great resource to keep by the piano in the studio.
Have fun teaching intervals and remember to savour the different flavours of each one!!

♥︎ Remember - Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎


The Cup Song - Unlocking the Magic of Chording and Rhythm Darlene Irwin     April 12, 2014

Last spring, I had an interesting experience with one of my students....I'll call him Lee. He came to his lesson one afternoon and he seemed very upset. He said "My teacher at school wants me to play The Cup Song for our class". I didn't think much of it. "Ask your teacher for the music. You can bring it next week and I'll help you learn it", I said and went on with his regular lesson.

The next week, Lee came for his lesson as usual. However, when he walked in the door, I knew something was wrong. "My teacher wants me to play The Cup Song", he said again. This time, he looked visibly upset. "OK" I said, "Did she give you the music?" I asked. He looked horrified!!! "That's the problem" he said, almost in tears. "She doesn't have any music. She told me to just figure it out!". More tears!

ABOUT FACE!! I quickly abandoned what I had planned to do for that lesson.

"OK" I said. "Where can we find this Cup Song?". I had never heard of it before! "It's from a movie." he said. "It's on Youtube. We sing it at school. My teacher said to say Pepsi instead of whiskey!". I had no idea what he was talking about but I was very interested to find out!!

"Well, let's look on YouTube and we'll see what we can do!"

I searched YouTube on the iPad and quickly found the song. I played it over several times and we listened to it together. Thankfully, it was in C+!!  (Yes, I thought. I don't have to transpose it!!)

I explained to him that you don't always have to have music to play a piece. What a revelation!! He looked shocked and surprised at the same time! "Wow, that's cool", he exclaimed!

We turned to the manuscript paper at the back of The Student Music Organizer and I started teaching him how to figure out a melody by ear. Then we had an impromptu lesson on how to transcribe it! I showed him how to figure out the time signature. The melody was simple enough but the rhythm was quite tricky. By the end of the lesson, we had written out the melody for the song and he had something to practice for his teacher! It had been a great lesson and Lee went home smiling!

I called his mother in the middle of the week to see how he was doing with the song! "It's all we've heard", said his Mom!! "He plays it over and over and over!".

At his next lesson, I said to him, "We figured out the melody last week and you can play that. Now let's see if we can add some chords". Again, he was intrigued. I proceeded to teach him the basic chords in C+ (I, IV, V and vi). Then I showed him how these chords can be added to the melody. I told him to listen carefully so that he could figure out which chord would work for which notes. We worked through the song and added the chord symbols over the appropriate notes. It was another great lesson and Lee went home, ready to try the next step.

When he returned the following week, he could play the whole song. He was thrilled. Best of all, his school teacher was thrilled!! He ended up playing "The Cup Song" while his whole class sang and did the rhythm with cups. Then the class performed it at the Spring Concert for the entire school! The most important thing was that Lee felt great about what he had done. He had fun playing music with his friends. He was the hero of the class. Mission accomplished!

Here are some fun ideas on teaching basic ear training in a lesson:

  • Start with a familiar tune. Have the student figure out this tune by ear. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star works well.
  • The student could transcribe the melody on manuscript or just learn it by ear.
  • Then teach some basic chords (I, IV, V and VI).
  • Have the student figure out which chords go with the melody and where they change.
  • After that has been mastered, you could have them try some variations with the accompaniment.
  • Try some other 2 and 3-chord melodies i.e. Amazing Grace, Happy Birthday or Silent Night.
  • Have fun exploring with your students.

"The Cup Song" is also a great song for teaching rhythm. I found out that quite a few of my students knew this song AND they knew how to do the cup rhythm. I had another bright idea!!! Let's do this song for our final recital in June. The students worked well together and they came up with their own arrangement. The biggest challenge was keeping it in sync. They really had to learn to listen to each other and adjust. The above video was our final rehearsal before the recital .They did it perfectly for the concert AND Lee played it from memory! It was the highlight of the recital!!

The moral of this story: Always be ready to change a lesson plan to meet the needs of your students

My next post will be: Can You Find the Music Hiding in the Notes?

Special Note:

I have just discovered a cool book which helps to teach rhythms while taking advantage of the cup "craze". It is called "Rhythm Cup Explorations" and it is published by Wendy Stevens. Her Website is called It's a reproducible resource, so you only have to buy it once for your studio!