Ear training for major and minor thirds below and the perfect fourth below throw off even the intermediate students in levels 5-7 at my weekly ear training class to prep for RCM exams. Why is ear training for the major and minor thirds below harder?
First of all, they are only a semitone apart: the minor third, major third, and perfect fourth are closer together than the other intervals we study at early levels. And identifying descending intervals is usually more difficult for students.
Some students with perfect pitch just hear the notes and count the distance. Hurray! You’ve got this. But for others…
SING THE INTERVALS! Hands down, for all students, even if you’re not singers, the sure-fire way to nail intervals is to “connect the dots”–i.e., sing them in a scale. Once you can figure out if the interval is a third, or a sixth, then it’s a matter of determining the “flavour” or quality–major or minor. Normally there is an aural emotion associated with the tonality interval that we can hear–the “happy” and “sad” of major/minor tonality.
More and more, the RCM recommends all students sing their intervals, for this reason! Don’t have to be a diva; just phonate some notes 🙂 Singing the scale is the easiest way to find the perfect intervals, since they appear in both major and minor scales; even if your singing is off-key, you’ll still find the fourth and fifth, above and below.
COUNTING IN THE SCALE Where this is tricky is to remember which interval appears in the descending scale! The minor third is the one we’re most used to, since it is in the descending major scale.
- The MINOR third appears in a descending major scale, if you start from the top of the scale (tonic).
- The MAJOR third is in the descending minor scale!
Huh? So, if you sing a descending major scale, you’ll bump into the minor third. If you sing a descending minor scale, you’ll bump into the major third? Every time I state this, I get blank stares. Young students don’t have enough understanding of scale math-theory to hold that as a clue; it ends up being an instruction that is more confusing.
Second problem is…how many pianists can sing a descending minor scale? It’s even tough for vocalists; we simply default to the major scale because that’s how we hear most songs in the western world.
THE RULE OF THUMB TO FIND THE MAJOR THIRD BELOW So let this be your rule of thumb: if you sing the descending major scale, and the interval you heard is too big to be the third but not the fourth, you’ve got…the major third!
Do we intellectualize all this when identifying intervals on the spot? No. When we hear the descending minor third, what happens is this: we try to connect the dots, but can’t, so then we just give up and guess. If this happens, you’ve probably hit the major third! You’ll know because by the time you get to the fourth, if you haven’t heard the note in question, you’ve gone too far and you’ll just be confused and can’t quite remember where you started. If this happens, MAJOR THIRD!
SONG TRICKS FOR REMEMBERING INTERVALS Long have students used songs to identify intervals, but these days, it’s impossible to find common songs among students. I have students who’ve never heard Hot Cross Buns or Mary Had a Little Lamb, let alone Wagner’s Wedding March for perfect fourth help. Some students can’t work with songs, others need this, so for teachers, step 1 is to understand how your students best learn intervals. Even if they don’t know a song, then have your student listen to it and learn it to help find the intervals.
Here is a link for a page where you can choose songs you know, with links to youtube versions of the songs: https://www.earmaster.com/products/free-tools/interval-song-chart-generator.html
Minor third below – the first two notes of Frosty the Snowman
Major third below – the first two notes of Gershwin’s Summertime or the second and third notes of “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me.“
Perfect fourth below – the first two notes of the Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
See you this Friday for ear training! Please practice with any of these techniques, and listen to Summertime or Shoo Fly to hear the major third below.