Brian Slesinsky's Weblog

Saturday, 22 Aug 2009

Ear training, with links to neat YouTube videos

In an attempt to improve my musical skills, I've been practicing with Interval Ear Trainer a little bit every day. It's a web app that plays two notes, either sequentially or at the same time, and then you have to decide how far apart they are in pitch. (This is a common exercise for musicians.)

If you can recognize a melody then you can hear these intervals, though you probably can't name them. So it might seem like this is just a matter of learning some new names, but it's more like exercising a muscle you didn't know you had. Sometimes when practicing, I would start to think I was getting it, but then lose concentration and make silly mistakes. Low notes seem a bit easier for me than high notes, maybe as a result of my less-than-perfect hearing. Also, just like when listening to a song, the same interval can sound very different depending on what came before it. (Perhaps part of learning to recognize intervals is being able to ignore this effect?)

I've become reasonably good at recognizing intervals when the notes are played sequentially, so now I'm working on doing it when the notes are played at the same time, which is almost like starting over. It was a little frustrating until I hit on the scheme of practicing with only two intervals at a time, starting out with intervals that are spaced fairly far apart. (For example, I turned off everything except perfect fifth and octave.) After hearing the tone, I try to imagine the notes played separately, and that connects back to what I already know. Sometimes it takes a second or two for imagination to kick in: "It's not an octave so I know this must be a perfect fifth, but I'm not hearing it - oh, there it is." It's like I can almost feel the neurons connecting.

It's a fun exercise, in short stretches anyway. If you want to try this, a trick to help you get started is to associate each interval with a song you know. (You could use separate songs for ascending and descending intervals, but I just learned to mentally reverse the notes.) It's best to use songs you know well, but to get you started, here's what I use:

Incidentally, thinking of songs that you know with a particular interval and finding them on YouTube is a fine way to waste an hour or two! It would be fun to find out which songs other people use. My blog doesn't have comments, but if you use Twitter, I suggest posting the link to Twitter with #interval in your Tweet so that it will show up here.

(As an extra bonus tip, here's how to create a link that starts in the middle of any YouTube video: if the link looks like and you want it to start 2 minutes and 18 seconds in, then you add #t=2m18s to the end of the link.)

Update: I decided to write my own ear trainer applet. It lets you do interval training with random musical phrases. You can try it out here.