How To Teach Intervals In Music

pedagogy corner Apr 04, 2022

Why is it so important to teach intervals in music and how can we do it? Cynthia Kinnunen gives us some ideas on teaching music intervals with games and exercises to engage our students, both children and adults.

Intervals are the building blocks of music. We create music either by harmonizing two or more notes (chords) or by connecting a series of pitches one after another (melody). In both cases, using intervals! Building recognition of intervals aurally (by ear) and on the page (by sight) helps to improve many aspects of our musical learning, including sight reading, sight-singing, harmonizing and more! But knowing where to begin teaching intervals, especially to children can leave us feeling like we’re on another planet.

What Is An Interval In Music?

In music, an interval is the distance between two pitches and regardless of what note you start on, the distance of a specific interval will remain constant. We can demonstrate this right on the ukulele fretboard. We learn a pattern – the pentatonic scale, for example – that we can then shift up the fretboard one fret at a time, moving us chromatically but never changing the series of intervals within the scale. This is the foundation of movable scales and chords, and of course, transposition!

Absolute pitch recognition, or perfect pitch, is rare; I don’t know many people who can pull a specific note out of the air at any given time. However, we can all learn relative pitch with intervals!

Familiar Songs That Teach Music Intervals

You don’t need to know what key you’re in but I bet you can sing a familiar melody from a starting note. Some students find it helpful to learn intervals this way, by linking them to familiar songs. It’s amazing how we can sing these song melodies with little trouble!

So if I know the opening of the old Star Trek theme, I can sing a minor seventh interval ascending. Or the beginning of the original Star Wars theme gives me a perfect fifth up. Who knew science fiction would help us with music theory? I keep my own personal list of songs that I share with my students but you can also find resources online, like here.

“Absolute pitch recognition – or perfect pitch – is rare, but we can all learn relative pitch with intervals!

Music Interval Games

Interval Bingo is a fun aural game in a group setting that can be used to teach music intervals to children, where you create bingo cards with numbers on them that will relate to the songs containing those intervals.

Perhaps you’re just getting started with these students and will only have four boxes on your page with 1, 4, 5 and 8 on it (unison, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, and octave).

As a class, go through each interval you’re working on. Have students establish which songs they know from your choices for each interval, and draw an image or visual clue with that number that will remind them of the song that links to the interval.

For example, for the perfect fifth, they could draw R2D2 or another Star Wars character around the number 5 on their game sheet. Let them get creative with their drawings as it will help the connection with the song! Once everyone has their song reminders, start the game by playing out the various intervals using a piano, ukulele or voice. Whoever recognizes all of their intervals first wins.

Other Interval Exercises

How about linking it to music you’re in the midst of presently? It’s important that students see that what they are learning is connected to their musical experience. Challenge your students to determine what the distance is between each note as they learn to pick melodies, calling out the intervals as they go.

You could ask them to figure out the opening line to a familiar song, like Jingle Bells, using only string number one. They know how the melody goes, now how many frets/steps do they need to get each note in the melody line? Or start with Frère Jacques if you want an easy tune that begins on the tonic (open first string).

“It’s important that students see that what they are learning is connected to their musical experience.

For your singer/players who need some additional challenge, you can ask them to figure out what a third above your melody line would be and have them sing or play it along with the rest of the class. Harmonization using intervals!

Finding music teacher resources

You can find resources around online from fellow teachers, too. Search for or start a thread over at the Ukulele in the Classroom Teacher Forum! I’ll leave you today with this funny one, The Music Theory Song by David Rakowski. Set to the tune of The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting), it takes you on a music theory journey that includes many references to intervals throughout. It can be a fun one to dissect for your more advanced students! You can listen to it here.

Of course, don’t forget about interval exercises and games like those in the Ukulele in the Classroom books that are a great warm up to remind students what the intervals sound and look like.

Getting comfortable with intervals might seem out of this world but once you climb on board, the sky’s the limit!
Cynthia Kinnunen is a music educator from Guelph, Ontario, teaching children and adults in private and group environments. She’s also Director of Engagement for Ukulele in the Classroom and part of the James Hill Music Team.


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