Intervals or scale degrees?

A couple people were saying in a previous post how for ear training one should think in scale degrees and not intervals. So if I'm on note E and I want to get to note G. then I shouldn't think of "minor third", rather I should think of going from 3 to 5 in the key of C.

I always thought that intervals were of utmost importance since if I randomly pick a note on the keyboard I could play any melody I wanted to regardless of if I even knew what key I was on, just by committing the sound of an interval to muscle memory on the piano. Also each interval has a specific function and I'm not sure if scale degrees do. But now after I read what they were saying about scale degrees I'm thinking maybe that's the better approach because it sounds more efficient. I'm not sure. So in what situations would you use intervals vs. scale degrees, especially when it comes to playing by ear and improvisation?

• Note that Roman numerals are generally used for chords, not scale degrees. Note that scale degrees have no major/minor flavor, but Roman numerals are capital or lower case to indicate major or minor. – Todd Wilcox Aug 10 '18 at 16:34
• @ToddWilcox so what's the notation when referring to notes... just 1,2,3,4,5,6,7? – foreyez Aug 10 '18 at 17:50
• Yes, iii in key C is E minor, V is G major. – Tim Aug 10 '18 at 17:53
• I guess. I think I've always seen it written out: "E is the third scale degree in C major". – Todd Wilcox Aug 10 '18 at 18:23
• It's typically denoted by number with a carat on top. I.E ^5, but the carat get's dropped sometimes because the numbers are clear enough. – Dom Aug 10 '18 at 18:35

'Each interval has a special function'. Well, maybe. But that gets blown about when you consider that a m3 sounds pretty well like an aug2; a b5 sounds pretty well like a #4, etc. So, you hear a couple of notes, what interval do you call it? In certain keys, certain intervals may have a go-to name, but that isn't written in stone.

Knowing the key you're in, let's say C, and knowing that E>G is a m3 will certainly help when you transpose to another key, but knowing you go from M3 to P5 in C means you can transfer that across to another key, possibly easier.

In your example of E>G, it's always going to be a m3, but in different keys, it's different things. In Em it's the defining factor, in C, it's 3 to 5, in A it's making an A7, it could be part of Eo, so while it always sounds the same in isolation, in different keys, it has different functions.

I think that scale degrees are safer, as intervals don't have only one name, which muddies things somewhat. But eventually, just like you don't analyse what order words come out as you speak (normally), it all becomes far more automatic, so doesn't need analysing and thinking about in either context. When you started driving, it was important that you knew what gear the car was in. After a while, all you know, and need to know, is that it's the 'right' gear.

Having played by ear for over 20 years, I think almost exclusively in terms of scale degrees. I can correctly identify all the major and minor intervals, but anytime I hear a melody, I (subconsciously) hear it in terms of the scale degrees. This comes from years upon years of becoming familiar with them.

Add to that the fact that chords are analyzed by scale degree, not intervals. (For instance, you hear "I-IV-ii-V," not "first chord, then up a P4, then down a m3, then up a P4").

Interval training is not worthless, but it's just a means to an end. When you've reached ear training proficiency, you will most likely be (subconsciously) thinking scale degrees, rather than analyzing note by note, interval by interval. You'll be able to identify intervals, but for improv and transposition (things I do virtually every day), I've found scale degrees to be much more helpful.

• but it sounds like from what you're saying intervals ARE useless. :| – foreyez Aug 10 '18 at 18:08
• I guess I can see how it would look that way. Let me share my perspective. I never had to do formal interval training. When I got to that class in college I didn't really learn anything I didn't already know. That is because I've spent years upon years immersing myself in playing by ear and familiarizing. It wasn't as if I did formal training, I just heard things and tried to play them, and after years of doing that, I've made the connection between my ears, mind, and hands to play proficiently by ear and improvise. – Kevin H Aug 10 '18 at 19:26
• However, everyone's different, and for some people, interval training may help more. If you think about it, scale degrees is just the interval away from tonic, so if you wanted to start out relating each successive note in the song to the tonic, you should eventually get to where you don't have to consciously think about it every note. I've just found from my experience that full immersion, rather than rote drilling helped me get to where I am today. – Kevin H Aug 10 '18 at 19:29
• But it's not like I ever remember having a moment where I said, "So that's what a minor third sounds like." I just played so much that hearing the relationships between notes and chords became second nature. – Kevin H Aug 10 '18 at 19:31
• @foreyez- I don't think it gets said often enough, but there are many different ways that we learn, and not everyone learns the same way. our brains are not all identical in their make-up and function, and it's our own responsibility to know our own learning process and find others that can compliment that process. No body ever told me this, I had to learn it by feeling stupid and frustrated until the best teacher for me with the best learning techniques happened along. I find this forum very valuable because many different perspectives are expressed here, and multiple ways to learn. – skinny peacock Aug 12 '18 at 15:24

Being able to hear music in terms of scale degrees is the goal if you want to improvise fluently. (So long as you are training your ear to hear tonal music; scale degrees won't help you if you're working with Schoenberg!) But interval recognition is more fundamental — if you can't tell a half step from a whole step, you can't tell what scale degree you're on, either.

Recognizing intervals is the entry point to recognizing what key a piece is in. That recognition allows you to get other notes more quickly, and think in terms of harmonic structure, what chords to play with what notes, how to voice chords, and so on.

In sight singing class back in college, we were taught to learn intervals by taking each of them and tying a song that we knew well to them as a mnemonic, using the first two notes of the song. For example, "Over There" is a falling major 6th, and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is a rising major 6th. "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" is a rising minor 7th. "Maria" is a rising tritone. And so on. At some point they became automatic, and I didn't need the mnemonics any more.

In sight singing, you are trying to sing music that you see, so you have to also be able to look at the music and recognize what interval you need to sing. Ear training is the reverse: you have to write down the music that you hear. The common thread between sight singing and ear training is that you have to be able to recognize intervals. If you are working on training your ear, the technique might help you as well.

Intervals are still useful when you reach points where the piece modulates. Otherwise, you'd have to remember multiple scale degrees for a pivot point note or perhaps need to remember a simultaneous key and scale degree change (for "truck driver's gear changes" where the song just leaps one semitone or whole tone). They also help when the piece starts off distant from the tonic (e.g. Liszt's Grand Galop Chromatique starts off on repeated B's, then goes to Bb-B - it's a series of unisons, then descending minor second-ascending minor second, but it's a particularly unintuitive b6...5-b6 in its home key of E flat major).