Learning guitar intervals is one of the best ways for guitarists to start ear training – the process of developing a good ear for music.
An interval is the distance in pitch from one note to another, and intervals can be thought of as the ‘building blocks’ of music. Learning to recognise guitar intervals when you hear them, and to play them, unlocks some exciting benefits.
Why Learn Guitar Intervals?
Learning intervals develops your core sense of ‘relative pitch’, which is what lets you recognise the individual notes in music. With a strong sense of relative pitch you can play by ear, improvise instinctively, and write your own music easily.
‘[Once you master] intervals … you can play by ear, improvise instinctively, and write your own music easily.’
By training your ears with interval recognition exercises, you’re building this sense of relative pitch and learning how intervals relate to the guitar fretboard. This lets you immediately start taking advantage of your new interval skills when you play.
Types of Interval
Intervals measure the distance in pitch between two notes, and each distance has a particular name. For example, if you play two notes that are just one fret apart, that forms a ‘minor second’ interval. Here are some examples of minor seconds played on different strings:
Thinking about intervals in terms of frets is a good approach for guitar players. Here’s the full list:
You can play each one in three different forms:
- Harmonic (both notes together)
You will want to learn to recognise and play all three forms. The ascending and descending forms are great for playing by ear and improvising. The harmonic forms can help you start recognising chords and chord progressions by ear.
How to Learn Intervals
To learn intervals on guitar, practice exercises which demonstrate each type of interval and listen carefully for the similarities and differences. You can also find interactive apps and training MP3s which help you to train your ears for intervals.
‘Practice exercises which demonstrate each type of interval and listen carefully for the similarities and differences.’
Start simply, by playing the ascending interval on a single string using the table above. Then work out the corresponding shape across two adjacent strings. Here’s an example exercise for major thirds, ascending:
Begin with just one type of interval in one form and experiment with playing these patterns in different positions on the neck. Then mix in the descending form too. Find the equivalent fretboard pattern for playing the interval on two adjacent strings and then experiment with the harmonic form (both notes together).
What to Listen For
As you train your fingers to play each type of interval, train your ears too by listening for these two things:
- The interval’s sound
- The interval’s size
Each interval has a characteristic sound which you can learn to recognise by ear. For example, the ‘minor second’ interval sounds quite discordant: it’s a harsh, uncomfortable sound. Other intervals, such as ‘major thirds,’ sound bright and relaxed.
‘Each interval has a characteristic sound which you can learn to recognise by ear.’
You can also train your ears to gradually listen for the raw size of each interval; for example, that a major third is ‘bigger’ than a minor third.
Why It Works
Training your ear using interval recognition works well because you are giving your brain a simpler task than normal. Real music has so many notes in so many combinations, it’s hard for your brain to learn to recognise any patterns instinctively.
‘Real music has so many notes in so many combinations, it’s hard … to recognise any patterns … start from these basic “building blocks” [instead]’.
If you instead start from these basic ‘building blocks’, you will start to see the interval patterns jumping out at you from the fretboard and the music you hear.
Learning guitar intervals can take months, so the important thing is to approach it in small steps. Choose a small group of interval types and learn those well before introducing more. Gradually build up your interval skills and you will find your musical ear improves rapidly.
About the Author
Christopher Sutton is the founder of Easy Ear Training and Musical U. He grew up envying those guitarists who could play by ear, finally learned how to do it himself, and founded his company to help others do the same. You can learn more about guitar ear training on his site.