The cause of a lot of my anxiety, and the reason I've been too frustrated to practice music for the last few months, is because I do not have an effective way to work on my relative pitch. I taught myself how to recognize intervals in isolation, both upwards and downwards quite well (and without needing reference songs). But I'm having a lot of trouble moving on to recognizing those intervals once there's more than one in sequence.

Playing melodies back on an instrument doesn't seem to be good practice (as it gives instant gratification and doesn't require you to actually think about the intervals), so I haven't been doing that. Instead I've been trying to work out the intervals in my head or on a piece of paper, then afterward going to confirm on my instrument. This works somewhat, but each time I have to manually go through each interval, listen carefully for it to match an interval I've memorized, and then move on to the next one from that. I don't think this is going to help me either, though. Does going through each interval, essentially "isolating" it from the melody, counter the whole point of trying to learn relative pitch?

So, I could try just guessing, and hope that each time I get a little bit closer to the mark, but this approach is also frustrating.

I need to have a way to practice my relative pitch before I can keep practicing music, it's just too upsetting knowing that I'm not getting any better at it. How can I practice recognizing intervals in sequence and improve my relative pitch?

Edit: I should mention that I have ADHD and have a very difficult time focusing on things like ear training when they don't seem to be helping me progress. If it's clear to me that progress is being made, I can keep my anxiety under control.

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    You might find this answer helpful.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 5:32
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    I can recognise intervals, but why do I have difficulty in hearing them in a song? may also have helpful tips.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 5:34
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    Regarding transcribing by ear: Transcribing by ear, is it done with the root as reference, or the previous note?. Also search for tags ear-training and transcription.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 5:38
  • As others have mentioned, I think what you’re looking for is the ability to recognize scale degrees. When I’m using relative pitch to notate a song, I don’t think of the intervals between the notes. Instead, I think of the scale degree of the individual notes, or as others have put it, the relation of each note to tonic. Intervals are really only useful in the context of a song if it’s a really complicated melody/harmony Part. Singing and transcription exercises using either solfege or the numbers 1-8 will be a great help to you, I think.
    – Kevin H
    Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 16:05
  • Let me put it this way: I want to be able to tell what every note within a sequence is once I've been given the first. How would I go about that? Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 2:49

3 Answers 3


Playing melodies back on an instrument doesn't seem to be good practice (as it gives instant gratification and doesn't require you to actually think about the intervals)

This may be an important thing to reflect on. For most people, Most musical activities don't require them to focus on what the sequential intervals are. For this reason, I don't think it's something that most musicians spend a lot of time practicing.

If anything it's much more common to be aware of the degree of the scale you're playing - i.e. relative to the tonic - rather than focusing your mind on the interval between successive notes in the front of your mind.

Thinking of every perspective from which every note can be seen is likely to be quite stressful!

I need to have a way to practice my relative pitch before I can keep practicing music

Bear in mind that relative pitch doesn't usually refer to an ability to explicitly identify successive intervals - it's just the experience that most people have that the same frequency ratios tend to 'feel' the same. Many very competent musicians have probably spent very little time, if any, "practicing their relative pitch".

the reason I've been too frustrated to practice music for the last few months

If recognizing sequences of intervals is something that you don't enjoy and is stopping you doing music, why do it? It may be a useful skill but there are probably equally useful skills you could be practicing that you would enjoy more.

  • It's not that I don't enjoy it, it's that I haven't found a way to let me learn it effectively. It's something that I want to accomplish very badly, I won't be a musician until I actually know the notes that I'm playing and how they relate to each other. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 12:47
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    @コナーゲティ "I won't be a musician until I actually know the notes that I'm playing" - even if that were true, knowing the notes that you're playing doesn't mean that you necessarily need to be super fast at recognizing the intervals between successive notes, which is what your question is about. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 14:10
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    "...and how they relate to each other" - well, there are lots of ways to think about how notes relate to each other. It seems this particular way isn't working for you; why not (for example) practice the more common skill of knowing what degree of the scale you're playing at a given time, then just get fast at calculating the intervals? Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 14:10
  • that would work too, but I don't know how to go about that either. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 15:52
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    @コナーゲティ I agree with this answer. Are you comfortable with major and minor scales? If so, one way to practice is listen to a piece of music and randomly pause it, then try to ask yourself what was the last melody note you heard. At first you might have to sing (out loud or in your head) up or down to the tonic. Another thing you can practice is transcribing melodies
    – jberryman
    Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 20:29

In my opinion, singing is actually the best way to improve your ear. Start with simple songs, and practice singing them in solfeggio. Also, learn basic theory-- simple cadences and so on. Outline cadence chords in solfeggio like this:

  • Do-Mi-Sol-Mi-Doooooo (CEGEC)
  • Do-Fa-La-Fa-Dooooo (CFAFC)
  • Re-Fa-Sol-Ti-Doooooo (DFGBC)

I recommend using movable Do (do always the root), and also singing the note names as well.

Also, practice sight reading, starting with songs you already know to get a feel for it (starting with Christmas songs, or maybe your favorite pop songs). If you can sing it, you should be able to recognize it.

There's a nice list of all the solfege notes here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solf%C3%A8ge#Movable_do_solf%C3%A8ge

  • Singing the right note requires me to first be able to identify them, no? I suppose singing notes out loud once I've identified them might help. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 13:19
  • The first few times, you will have to do it at a keyboard. The idea thing is that you are building up a memory of connections between notes and sounds. I know very well what "Do mi sol mi do" sounds like, so if I'm listening to a song with some or all of those notes, I can identify them. The next step is to apply theory-- knowing what Do Mi Sol is in every key (i.e. knowing the key signatures). Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 15:30
  • What about the rest of the chromatic notes? I have my own note naming convention, so I've just been using the chromatic series of intervals starting with A Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 15:58
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    What you call them is arbitrary. You can just call them 1-12 if you want. Then a tonic major would be 1-4-7. The point is that you start with pieces whose intervals you know well and get those sounds in your ears. This is the same as with language-- you see a picture of dog, a parent says "dog," and eventually as soon as you see a dog, you think of that word automatically. The advantage of using solfege is that later, when you're a teacher for example, you can communicate your musical ideas because you aren't using a custom naming convention. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 16:34
  • I recommend watching and following Rick Beato. He's an ear-training god. youtube.com/watch?v=rPSRH3tf5B8 Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 16:36

For me, relative pitch isn't about a long sequence of interval jumps where each pitch is compared only to the previous pitch. It is about comparing each pitch to the harmonic centerpoint i.e. the tonic. When I hear melodies (and chords), I identify each pitch (and chord) in relation to an imagined tonic. This ability lets me play songs by ear and transcribe songs.

Why would I need to think about intervals like you're trying to do? Maybe, if I'm transcribing some extremely atonal and chaotic stuff where I can't identify any harmonic centerpoint, and all I have is the previous pitch. Then, for each interval, I'll "reset" my imagined tonic to the starting note. I've never had to do such a thing though.

Even if I'm transcribing music, I notate what I'm hearing in relation to a tonic note (or maybe a chord root), not isolated note-to-note intervals. If I need to name a note-to-note interval (which I almost never have to do), I just look at the note pair and subtract the difference.

To summarize: I don't need the skill you're after, and I don't think anyone else does either.

Edit. From your comment:

I want to learn to play music by ear. I want to be able to hear a melody/harmony, and be able to play it back or write down the intervals without having to think about it.

You learn to play music by ear by playing music by ear. Do it as melody and chords. For each melody note and backing chord: did you get the melody note right, and did you get the backing chord right?

Melody notes and backing chords are the main product you deliver, and intervals between them are only a secondary byproduct. When you play an F melody note against a Dm backing chord, the F note is the chord's third. When you play an F melody note against an Am backing chord, the F note is not a part of the chord, but it's right above the chord's fifth. You'll start to notice these relationships when you keep playing music by ear, as melody and chords.

This should come without too much thinking, because if you get the backing chord wrong, it should feel very wrong. No need for difficult thought exercises, you feel it. And if you play the wrong melody note agains a backing chord, that should feel very wrong too. Again, you feel it. You have to feel it.

If you don't feel a difference between things you do, then in my opinion, your first priority is to learn that. If you don't feel any difference between Am and Dm, you'll have to keep playing and "tasting" the chords until you feel a difference - in a context of a song and a key! You cannot progress, if you cannot hear a difference. Your main concern is, did I get the chord right, did I get the melody note right. Your main concern is not getting an interval right.

So, how to learn it effectively: play music by ear as melody and chords.

  • I think I described what I'm looking for poorly. I am interested in being able to recognize intervals as they relate to a key center, and knowing how a note relates to the previous one as well. Because the emotional progression obviously is created both by the relation to the key center, as well as the previous notes, with the relation to the most recent being the most powerful second only to the tonic, or so I presume. Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 8:39
  • Maybe you should set a concrete, real musical goal, something you could explain to a non-musician. Do you want to be able to play songs by ear? Perform as a part of a group in some situation? Compose songs? Whatever you're trying to learn about this relative pitch thing - what role does that skill have in achieving that concrete goal? Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 23:37
  • I want to learn to play music by ear. I want to be able to hear a melody/harmony, and be able to play it back or write down the intervals without having to think about it. Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 5:04
  • Oddly, often in several places throughout a piece, I often don't have the greatest idea whether I messed up the chords because at least two alternative options in that slot don't sound very wrong. (Occasionally, I hear both chords being used in that place in different versions of the piece.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 12:18
  • @Dekkadeci There's a wide gradient of "wrongness" in chords, it's not a right-or-wrong question :) And from the perspective of the OP's question here, even if the chord is slightly wrong, then at least you know what chord you played, so you can see what intervals you created in relation to the melody note. And you hear what it sounds like, so you learn: I play this chord and this note --> it sounds like this --> looking at where the notes are, I can figure out what the intervals are that I produced. (IF I need the interval information.) That's how learning works: act, observe, repeat. (IMO) Commented Jul 15, 2021 at 12:34

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