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Recognizing Intervals and Writing Music Down

9 February, 2015 - 12:40
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This is the skill that allowed Beethoven to continue composing masterpieces even after he became deaf. If you are interested in composing, arranging, music theory, musicology, or just being able to write down a tune quickly and accurately, you'll want to be able to make that quick connection between what you hear and written music.


  • Before you can do this, you must know your major and minor keys and scales and your Intervals. You may also want to understand Transposition: Changing Keys, since you may find it easier to work in some keys than in others.
  • Here is a game you can play to practice identifying intervals when you hear them. It's an application (.exe file) that you can play in Windows. Or you can play the same game with a friend. Sit back-to-back and take turns playing intervals and guessing what was just played. If you get good at guessing intervals, see if you can guess the exact notes that were played. (You may be surprised at how well you can guess the exact notes if they are played on an instrument that you play often.)
  • Once again, practice is the best way to become good at this. Start with tunes that you know well, but don't know what the (written) notes are. Listen to them in your head (or play a recording) while trying to write them down. Then play what you have written, noticing where you were correct and where you made mistakes. Which intervals are you good at hearing? Which do you have trouble identifying? Do you often mistake one particular interval for another? Do you tend to identify a note by its interval from the previous note or by its place in the chord or in the key? Answering these questions will help you improve more quickly.
  • Some people find it easier to learn to recognize intervals if they associate each interval with a familiar tune. (For example, in the familiar song from The Sound of Music that begins "Do, a deer, a female deer...", all the intervals in the phrase "a female deer" are major thirds, and every interval in the phrase "someday I'll wish upon a star" in the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is a minor third.) The tune should be very familiar, so when trying to hear a triton, some people will prefer thinking of the beginning of "The Simpsons" theme; others will prefer the beginning of "Maria" fromWest Side Story. If you think this method will work for you, try playing the interval you are having trouble hearing, and see what tune it reminds you of.