I've practiced enough that I can recognize two-note intervals in isolation (sequentially), but this doesn't seem to help that much for understanding actual songs. What exercises would help to go beyond this?
Three ear-training exercises that will be beneficial whether you intend to study pop or classical music:
- Key: Find the key of a piece. This is the note often referred to as "1", "do", or sometimes "the home note".
- Solfege: Next, try to determine what other pitches (the pitches of the melody, for example, or the bass line) are, relative to do. Use solfege syllables (e.g. "fa", "sol", "te") to describe them, or numbers (though numbers can't specify raised and lowered pitches).
- Harmony: Finally, try to recognize harmonies--see if you can find the "root" of each chord and find its relation to do. You'll say things like "measure 7 is a IV chord", and so on.
Trying to achieve each of these goals will definitely help you better understand "actual songs"!
Add a third note to determine chords. You should be able to pick out the root of a chord, and from that learn to distinguish if the chord is inverted. For example, in a C major chord, you'll have C, E & G. In "the root position", C is the lowest pitch in this chord. In the "first inversion" then E is the lowest pitch (usually C gets moved up an octave).
In a lot of modern western music, mostly guitar, the melody and harmony consist of chords, rather than picking out individual notes.
I am working on the same problem. Initially I felt as if pitch perception changed inside a melodic context. Now, after around 2 months of training, I find 3 factors play a role in recognizing intervals inside melodies:
- Speed of recognition. How quickly you can identify? Once you are good at recognizing prolonged intervals, try making tempo faster.
- Focus in the moment. Focus on current note and upcoming next note. Here it might sound crazy, but I have found meditation helps.
- Pitch/Musical memory. Ability to replay a sound in your head that you hear once.
Here are some exercises that I am doing these days :-
- Try to identify the same intervals in various positions in slow, small melodies. After some practice I am able to identify first & last intervals in the melody. Middle intervals still elude me.
- If you have learned intervals using the song mnemonics method then you would identify intervals with their character. I find that sometimes I do not even recognize if an interval is ascending or descending without first recognizing its character. So another simple exercise I do is I chose any two random notes in random melodies and guess which is higher. I find most people figure out songs on piano by this simple skill. One variation of this exercise could be to try to guess the melody graph instead of trying to recognize exact intervals. Another variation is to try to guess cents between two random frequency sounds, so you will learn to judge interval from sound 'thickness'.
- Try producing various interval sounds with your voice. I find reproducing what you hear in your head is an important skill and slightly different from recognizing intervals you hear. Take any random note and try to produce a random interval on top of it. Record your voice and check your answer with piano.