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Learning to identify intervals typically relies heavily on singing. This is evident in many posts here regarding ear training (see below). But what about those for whom singing isn't an option?

  • people with damage or illness affecting vocal chords or airway
  • people who "can't sing", and the time needed to learn would be prohibitive
  • perhaps other reasons...

What non-singing techniques are available to develop the ability to aurally identify intervals?


A related post, but one which focuses on developing the voice: How to develop a musical ear when even singing poses great difficulty?

A few questions about interval ear-training, where singing figures prominently in the answers:

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You learn interval recognition by ear without singing the same way you learn interval recognition with singing, except this time you don't sing.

Aaron's answer brings up playing an instrument as a substitute for singing.

My piano teachers brought up interval songs as their primary way to teach me how to recognize intervals. With an interval song, I memorize how an interval sounds by matching it with part of a famous melody. Different interval songs are provided for ascending and descending intervals, though there is some expectation that I can mentally play interval songs in retrograde to extract descending intervals from the same interval song as ascending ones. When teaching an interval song, the teacher needs to say which interval the song is for, play the interval, and play the song.

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  • I think this works best when the lower note is the root note of a song. And it all happens in the first two notes. Having to sing/play through a couple of lines makes it tedious. – Tim Feb 22 at 14:11
  • @Tim - While interval songs do tend to have their characteristic interval in the first phase, the interval often doesn't involve the first 2 notes. For extreme examples I have been given in piano lessons, "The Entertainer" actually doesn't have a minor 6th in its melody until Bar 5, and the Star Wars opening theme only has its "F-F-F-Bb" figure for a perfect 4th many notes in. – Dekkadeci Feb 23 at 3:06
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In my experience, it's not that ear training programs rely too heavily on singing, but that singing seems to be the best way to consolidate the information to your long term memory. I'd argue that most ear training programs do not require you to sing, but recommend you to do so through the exercises. The ones that require singing are generally tailored for singers.

One option is ear training apps and web pages. The 4 android apps I use have options for answering through singing, but it's not at all required. In my case, I do sing the intervals or scales or whatever (or at least try to!), but I don't turn the option of answering through singing on, so the apps don't know I'm singing at all. I just answer by pressing buttons.

The apps and web pages normally work like this: You hear a root note or a cadence that introduces a tonal home. Then you hear a note (or series of notes) and you have to identify the intervals by pressing the button with the correct label.

This can also be done with a teacher. The teacher plays whatever, then you answer by saying which interval you heard, but not by singing the interval. It's much cheaper through apps, but you don't have the same quality feedback.

So, in short, my advice is to just search around for ear training programs and apps like you'd normally do, and chances are that they'll not require singing at all. At least for the interval recognition exercises.

I do still recommend whistling or at least imagining or playing the interval in your head though! The point of ear training is not just improving your ear, but to get your musicality to the next level. This impacts your composition, how you play, and how you improvise. Without applying intervals (and ear training in general) to how you experience music, the advantages of the practice become much limited.

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  • +1 for the mention of whistling. That gets at the tactile/felt part of distinguishing intervals. IMO that deserves to be at the front of the answer rather than the end. – Aaron Feb 22 at 15:44
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A valuable element of ear-training is establishing physical/felt associations with the adjustments needed to produce a certain interval. Traveling up a third or down a fifth requires a physical adjustment that can be internalized. Singing is an excellent way to internalize the feel of an interval, but it’s not the only way.

Brass instruments: buzz intervals on your mouthpiece. The pitches can be tested against any reliable source — a piano or keyboard, a tuner, an online pitch generator…. But most any interval exercise that can be sung can be buzzed. By using the mouthpiece only, you rely purely on your ear and physical adjustment; the instrument doesn’t help you produce the pitch.

Non-fretted string instruments: Try finding intervals using a single string to the degree possible. As with the brass players, this will help force you to find intervals with as little help from the instrument as possible. The fretless part is important in that feeling the frets is one way the instrument can help. The tactile learning should be purely internal to you as much as possible.

Piano/keyboard/mallet-percussion: Play intervals one-handed and staccato. You don’t want to be able to feel your way across the instrument; instead, you want to “jump” from one note to the other so that your body has to learn the direction, angle, and distance. Try practicing with your eyes open and with your eyes closed.

Woodwinds: For woodwinds I suggest going a bit further afield. Develop a tactile sense by “walking the intervals”. Play the starting pitch, walk one step for each half-step toward the target interval, and then play the target note with the final step. For example, to practice a minor third, play the starting pitch and hold it, then take three steps, playing the resulting note on the third step.

Regarding starting pitches

One of the advantages to singing — and also to mouthpiece buzzing — is that one needn’t know the name of the starting pitch. When an unknown starting pitch is required for practice purposes, use a tuner to tell you the first pitch. Since relative pitch is what is being developed, knowing the starting pitch isn’t a handicap.

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    Knowing the name of each pitch I'd have thought important. Starting with a C# will give a different interval with whatever other note than starting with Db. – Tim Feb 22 at 10:01
  • @Tim It 100% depends on the background of the student. Most ear training programs start without naming pitches, and then pitch names are incorporated as the student makes progress. If the student is already proficient with interval-pitch binding, then they can start using pitch names from the beginning. It's important to notice that interval recognition by ear, and knowing the dynamics of pitch naming, are considered two related, but different, abilities though. Ask your teacher for more details, ear training is its own beast. – user1079425 Feb 22 at 14:03
  • @user1079425 - I am the teacher! And never had interval training when I was student. – Tim Feb 22 at 14:08
  • @Tim What you're saying is true, but beyond the scope at least of most basic ear-training curricula, up through the undergraduate level. Ear training of intervals tends to be outside of musical context and focuses on major, minor, and perfect intervals, plus tritone. So spelling doesn't come into it at that stage. – Aaron Feb 22 at 15:42
  • The things listed seem more about execution of intervals rather than hearing intervals. – Michael Curtis Feb 22 at 20:49
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I have thought that the reason to sing for ear training or with various drills is because it taps into a latent human ability to match pitch, to hear a pitch and then copy with your voice box. If a person isn't made to feel self conscious - like in an ear training test - or hasn't been defeated by a society that discourages singing for all, it isn't a big deal for most people to simply match a pitch.

But if you need to match the pitch on an instrument you first need to know some technical stuff about how to work it and then you need to control it too. Imagine, for example, if someone sang middle C, then handed an untrained person a French horn and asked them to match the pitch! They aren't going to be able to do it, because the instrument is a barrier.

If I match a pitch vocally, I don't need to know what the pitch is. But, by necessity, on an instrument I have to be aware of the pitch, or at least the fingering, technical execution of it. Even if you aren't a skilled singer and your a bit off pitch, you correct it quickly. There seems to be a neurological "wiring" in the human brain to get the voice to match what the ear hears. You really just do it. You don't consciously manipulate your vocal chords. You don't get that connection with an instrument. If you don't have perfect pitch, or aren't highly trained on the instrument, you have a lot more groping around to find the pitch.

It seems to me a big difference would be the need to give a reference pitch.

For example, someone could ask me to do a number of things vocally, in call/response fashion copy the teacher singing a melodic interval, sing a certain interval above the teacher's tone, sing the third of a chord the teacher plays, etc. All those things could be done without any reference to specific pitches.

On an instrument similar things can be done, but first start by giving an _specific reference tone. You might say "we are starting on D" and then the teacher sings the melodic interval. The student knows the first tone is D, but the point is to hear the relative relationship of the second tone and finger the appropriate interval. Some basic technical training for intervals on the instrument would be needed, but I don't see how that can be avoided. The idea is naming the pitch of the starting tone, the focus can shift to the relative relationships of tones. If you don't have that starting pitch, it's like expecting the student to have perfect pitch and relative pitch.

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  • You seem to be advocating for singing, but the whole point of the question is for people for whom singing is genuinely not an option. The "given pitch" issue is addressed in other answers. – Aaron Feb 22 at 20:30
  • If you can sing: yes. Otherwise I'm say just state the starting pitch. Right now there are only three other answers and they don't identify naming the starting pitch and the main solution. – Michael Curtis Feb 22 at 20:47
  • I see. As written, it focuses very heavily on singing. If you're open to the suggestion, consider a rewrite to put the focus more on the "given pitch" aspect. – Aaron Feb 22 at 20:51
  • The main point about singing is just a way to arrive at the point technical problem with instruments. I don't think it's given undue weight. It's worth understand why it's a traditional method. Then the workaround for instruments is fairly simple. – Michael Curtis Feb 22 at 21:18
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Download the app "Perfect Ear" (I think there is a Perfect Ear 2 now) All notes are a frequency in the air. Wifh enough repitition we can learn the different between frequencies :) (1 dollar purchase to do other tests in the app, was worth it for me)

Edit: Thank you for the responses, I would love to explain how the app works to help you with learning intervals! I'm not involved with this app at all, its jist a supplementary tool that helps me and my students train our ears.

In the intervals section of the app, it starts you off with simple intervals and always has a reference pitch. It plays the audio sample, and you pick between two or three options. If you get it wrong, it highlights the right answer and repeats the interval. You can also click to hear what the wrong answer sounds like. As you move through different questions, the amount of choices grows, and reference pitches start changing. (Might be only C for early questions, then moves around for later questions) There are intervals ascending, and descending too. Eventually your options grow to every possible interval up to a 15th or so, with different starting notes and ascending or descending. Don't forget double stop intervals too! What is great is with one tap you can hear every interval, even if you get it wrong.

Learning ear training is just a different mindset. The best way to learn is to have someone sitting at a piano showing you intervals and then repeating them to you to guess. Hearing the interval in the first place is the most important part. Not everybody has a personal piano player right in front of you though, so using an app like this is very useful!

I hope this helps clarify, and I can explain more if this isn't enough.

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    Answers that only recommend a product are not what this site is looking for. This answer would be improved by, for example, adding a description of how the product works. That way, the answer remains relevant even if the product itself goes away (i.e., what method is used for training the ear?). See Where do we draw the line on product recommendations? for more information. – Aaron Feb 22 at 5:57
  • @Aaron I really don't think this person is advertising their product here, which is the purpose of that rule. I think wickwotwes could easily edit this answer to make it fit our guidelines by generally saying that there are apps that can help, and he found "Perfect Ear" to be a useful example. All the others with downvotes really should explain their reaction! – SMBiggs Feb 22 at 15:00
  • @SMBiggs it is explained in the comment and meta above. While explaining voting can be helpful, it's very clear from the meta why it's down voted. An answer that is just a product is not what we want on this SE and comes with several issues. – Dom Feb 22 at 15:57

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