Use Music Theory Intervals To Play By Ear

Everyone wants to know how to play by ear. Music theory intervals are one of the key components to obtaining this skill that so many people struggle to learn.

When I first started learning to play piano using chords, I was so impressed by people who could hear a song and play it back almost flawlessly.

I thought they "Just Had It.”

That they had an amazing talent, and I could never achieve that kind of status.

But after years of studying music I learned that it wasn’t something that you had to be born with, that I could learn to play music by ear using music intervals.

And the truth is, you can too!

Use these simple tricks to learn how to use musical intervals to start playing by ear.


What Are Music Theory Intervals?

Musical intervals are described as: The distance between two notes.

To help better illustrate this concept, think of the melody of your favorite song.

Focus on the first two notes of the song.

The interval for those two notes will be how much higher or lower the second note is related to the first note.

Take a look at the image.

Major Third Interval

A music interval is how much distance there is between the first note and the second note.

In this example the distance is a major third. (More on this later)


The Wide World of Music Theory Intervals

There are twelve standard notes in music, so there will be twelve different intervals.

Each interval has a unique sound, that once memorized, can be used to help you play music by ear.

To really understand intervals we need to number the keys on the piano.

Take a look at the images below and see that the piano is labeled from 1 to 8, starting on C, and going up on all the white notes.

This is going to be our reference point for when we start finding intervals.

Piano Note Numbers

If C is the starting note, then the rest of the 12 notes in the image are going to be given a music interval based on its relation to C.

So D in its relation to C would be a Major 2nd because it’s the second note relative to C.

This is the same with E, it is a Major 3rd from C.

I know this sounds a little confusing. I could go on all day explaining all the music theory intervals, but instead, you can check out my page that explains music intervals more in depth.

Also, check my chart that gives example of each interval with popular songs you can use to help you when memorizing intervals.

Here is a chart with all the intervals listed along with names and examples.

This will help you understand the many different intervals and what they look like on the piano staff.

Music Theory Intervals


Using Music Theory Intervals To Play By Ear

The magic behind musical intervals is that once you learn them, and can recognize them, you will be able to play almost any song by ear.

Before you are able to learn to play by ear using music intervals you need to understand piano chords. Check out my page on chords When you have a good knowledge of chord come back here to continue.

Once you have a basic knowledge of chords and how they are built you will be able to use them along with intervals to start playing by ear.


Playing Chords By Ear

When starting to learn to play by ear you need to listen for certain things in a song. There are many parts to a song such as melody, harmonies, highs notes, low notes.........the list goes on and on.

The part of the song that you need to focus on is the movement of the bass notes. In order to know what chords to play at the right time, you need to listen very intently to the bass.

When listening to a song there are a lot of things that can make the choice of a chord more difficult. Things like inversions which can make a chord sound very different.

If everyone played the standard root chord it would be easy to pick out chords and play by ear.

But once they start using different inversions or adding different voicings, it can make interpreting the song quit difficult.


Quick Tip!

Listen Closely To Bass Note Intervals To Find The Chord Changes


This is why I like to listen to the bass notes in a song.

This is the one thing that tends to stay pretty consistent.

If the bass moves up perfect fourth, chances are, the chord moves up a perfect fourth. You can be pretty confident that where the bass note moves, the chord will move to same place.

Let’s look at an interval of a perfect fourth.

If we start on C Major Chord, and the bass has a music theory interval of a perfect fourth, this tells us that the next chord you should play is an F Major Chord.

Listening to the intervals of the bass will help you to know what chords to play and when. Listen to the amount of distance there is between one bass chord and the next to determine what chord to play.

Chords are the backbone to playing music by ear, use the piano chord encyclopedia to learn how to play piano chords.


Playing Melodies By Ear

If you want to play the melody of the song (what the singer is singing) by ear, you need to know intervals as well.

Knowing the distance between one note in the melody compared to the previous note will help you to play the harmony by ear easily.

If you are able to recognize intervals, then playing back the melody of a song will be simple.

As you practice playing by ear you will start to almost instinctively and naturally know the music theory intervals without even thinking about it.

Most people just start randomly picking notes when trying to find the melody, but the people who can really play by ear are using their knowledge of intervals to make the best guess of what the note is.

Some people are better at this than others. They might have a better “ear” for music. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t learn the same.

If you take time to learn musical intervals, you will notice that when you are guessing for notes less and less of the time.

Ear training is just as important as physically practicing piano.

I try and practice ear training for a short amount of time during every practice session.

See the power of music intervals when you start playing your favorite songs by ear.


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