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Understanding Piano Intervals

Have you ever asked, “what can I do to speed up my learning?” Well, investing time in understanding piano intervals will do just that! Read on to develop your skills in pattern reading, keyboard geography, improvising and more. This is what intervals have to offer the beginner pianist, an efficient, musical and expressive way of learning to play piano.

Learning to read music with piano intervals

Learning to read music in the past

It is interesting to observe how teaching approaches have changed over time. Just a generation ago most tutor books promoted, ‘one note at a time’, a somewhat laborious method of learning to read and play. After a huge investment of time, students were able to read simple melodies and eventually some simple chords.

Learning to read music today

Today, in general, there is a much more intuitive approach to reading music. Beginner pianists learn to read by understanding intervals and developing their pattern recognition skills.

The research

Take a moment to consider how you are reading this article. You are most certainly not sounding out single l e t t e r s. You are recognising the full word as a pattern. In essence, you are reading by word patterns rather than by letters. It would be very inefficient to read one letter at a time. Music is exactly the same; it is very inefficient to read one note at a time.

“In both cases, it is a matter of decoding larger units such as words, chords and scales instead of individual letters and notes.” (Leikvoll) –

You can read the full article here

Intervals in music

Steps

Intervals are the way we recognize patterns in music. Let’s start by naming and revisiting the first interval you probably played. The Skoove app shows you the exact fingering and waits patiently until you have hit the right key.

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In musical steps you played C to D. By moving from fingers 1 to 2 you played an interval of a major second. This is the same as two half tones. Now you can use ‘step’ pattern recognition and apply it to other notes.

Find the starting note, then simply follow the pattern. From there you can play any number of notes moving upward or downward by step. You don’t need to wait until you can recognise each note because you recognise the pattern.

You can read more about note recognition here.

Skips

We use the term ‘skips’ as the opposite of ‘steps’. It is very important at the beginning to play a skip by skipping a finger as well as a note (more on this later). Now, let’s play some skips. The Skoove app will help you place your hand correctly and ensure you are using the best fingers.

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The skip is an interval of a 3rd (3 or 4 half tones). This interval is very useful in playing and reading chords.

Skips and Steps

This is a brilliant exercise for anyone developing pattern recognition reading skills. For the richest learning, focus on the patterns and what it feels like for your fingers to respond to those patterns. The Skoove app will wait for you to play the right note, so you don’t even need to look down. This is such a good way to develop your keyboard orientation and listening skills.

Time for a piece

Play this sonata to practice these new skills. Can you spot the one interval which is larger than a step (2nd) or skip (3rd)?

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Hopefully you noticed the interval of G down to D, this is a 4th (G line, F space, E line D space = 4 notes). It is played from the 5th finger to the 2nd finger spanning 4 fingers. You may like to play the piece again now with a focus on linking finger movement to interval size. The Skoove app will listen to your playing and give you instant feedback.

Melodic and Harmonic Intervals

So far, we have been considering melodic intervals. These are intervals which make up the melody. Now it is time to turn our attention to harmonic intervals, these intervals are written vertically and make chords or triads.

Triads

The word triad simply means 3 notes. In the next piece your triads are made up of 2 intervals of a third. The interval between the bottom and top notes are a 5th. You can work this out by counting the alphabet names of each note, (C, D, E, F, G, = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The Skoove app will show you the best fingering for playing these triads. This is very important at this stage.

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Triads with mixed intervals

When using interval recognition to read chords, you only need to know the name of one note in the whole chord. From that one note you can simply identify the shape of the chord and play it. I am really excited about the following piece which has rich suspensions (a clash) followed by resolutions (a consonant sounding chord).

As in the previous example, it is really important to follow the fingering given by the Skoove app. Notice how the chords are made up of 2nd (step) and 3rd (skip) intervals. Due to spacing, the notes of a 2nd interval in a chord are printed tightly adjacent to each other. As you play this piece tune into your finger movements. In each bar the top two notes and fingers stay the same. Additonally, the lower note moves down a step and is played by the thumb.

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Check this out

If you are loving learning about intervals, chords and scales you can find two more great blogs here and here.

Intervals and The Keyboard

You now know how understanding intervals can support you in learning to read music faster, but there is more.  Intervals also support the development of keyboard geography or keyboard orientation. That means they help you build up a sense of the keyboard under your fingers. So, ultimately you will move with ease and fluency at the piano.

Reading by intervals = speaking your fingers’ language

Yes! Fingers are great at touch and the more we can heighten their sense of touch the more reliable they become at playing the piano.

Abstract messages like:

now play C, now play D, now play F, now play E do not enhance fingers’ physical connection to the keyboard. Fingers are simply being mentally directed by the brain to the correct note.

Through intervals, we can speak the physical language of our fingers as they rest on the piano keys, For example:

Start on C, now move up a step, now move up a skip, now move down a step. When you can name the final not you played (without looking down), you know you have a great physical connection to the keyboard. This is one way fluency can be enhanced.

It is important for beginners to build both the physical and mental connection.

For more on getting the most out of your practice click here

Intervals and building a physical connection to the keyboard

It is time to play, this is all about using intervals to feel your way around the keys. Skoove will give you guidance and instant feedback on your playing so you don’t need to look down. This is a great way to heighten your sense of touch.

Put into practice your freshly acquired skills with our Mix and Match course!

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Use the right fingering

Earlier, I encouraged you to use the fingering advised by Skoove, now I tell you why. One of the fundamental skills for any beginner pianist is to become comfortable in a 5-finger position. That means, at rest, your 5 fingers align with 5 adjacent notes on the keyboard. Achieving this is an important part of interval reading. How successful were you in following the fingering on the previous piece?

Interval reading Practice

Are you ready for a further challenge? These sight-reading cards encourage interval reading. Choose any starting note and then read by interval. For the ultimate test, without looking down, see if you can name each note you play.

Understanding intervals in improvising

A big concern when improvising is “what if I play something that sounds ‘wrong’?” The simple solution is found in intervals. Some intervals are consonant and some are dissonant.

The magic of 2nd intervals

Do you remember chords deluxe and harmonic tension? Each time, the dissonance was resolved by playing an interval of a falling 2nd.

TOP TIP

If you play a clash, keep your bass note the same and move either up or down a note in the treble. This will resolve the clash. This is how 2nd intervals can help you in improvising.

Try it out, when your left hand is playing an F#, make a dissonance by playing a G# in the right hand. Next, resolve this dissonance by keeping the left hand on F# and moving the right hand by step to F# or A#. You will find another dissonant interval between B and C#. Experiment with resolving dissonant 2nd intervals.

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The consonance of 3rd intervals

The following piece teaches you a popular chord sequence. You will notice all the intervals are consonant 3rd intervals.

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Predicting consonance or dissonance

When improvising you can reliably anticipate sounds. When playing a chord of C, E, G you will notice that D & F create a dissonance because they form intervals of a 2nd.

To learn more about improvising you need this article

Intervals and Playing by ear

Many pianists dream of being able to play by ear. This means, sitting at the keyboard and working out a tune by ear rather than by music. In raising your awareness of the sound and size of intervals, you are taking the first step toward learning to play by ear.

Part of learning to play piano involves revisiting early material to create new links. Why not revisit some of your favourite pieces now and play them again with your new awareness and knowledge of how intervals work.

Here is one of my favourite, American Pie. The Skoove app will listen and wait for you so you can even work out some intervals as you play.

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Looking ahead

Look out for these related upcoming articles on Skoove:

  • Major and minor chords
  • How to remember piano notes
  • Seventh chords

In these, I will further explore intervals. For now enjoy practising your new skills: You have learnt and played intervals of a 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th.  You will begin to recognise intervals of a 6th, 7th, and 8th (or octave).

For now, though, I leave you with this evocative piece of music. Here, you explore larger intervals in the left hand and revisit familiar ones in the right hand.

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The power of intervals

Intervals support pattern recognition making it easier to learn to read music. They are the language of your fingers, meaning they encourage a good physical connection to the keyboard. Intervals also provide dissonance and resolution in music, one of the core elements of western music. Through the tension created by dissonance and resolution we experience all the human emotions that make music such a profound a personal experience. I hope you enjoy unlocking new reading, listening and playing skills with your new interval knowledge.

Author of this blog post:

Roberta Wolff started piano lessons when she was five years old; she is still enjoying learning! Roberta teaches piano pedagogy and performance pedagogy at post graduate level in the UK. She also runs her own teaching practice where she enjoys teaching students of all ages and abilities and creating learning resources. Roberta loves writing and supporting others on their piano journey.