How important is intervallic recognition when reading at sight?

Nancy MacLachlan
March 23, 2023
min read

The ability to read unfamiliar music is a distinct advantage when learning new music or participating in a group.  Is this something which should be actively taught in the lesson, or is it something that the student is expected just to pick up?

What is intervallic reading? Music notation is a complicated form of graphing sounds in both pitch and time.  Time is a relatively easy concept to grasp:  a ticker tape or a Morse code tape gives a clear example of sounds in time.  However, the standard music notation indicates pitches relative to a specific point.  The higher above or the lower below a new note to the specific note is indicated on the staff by the size of the interval.  The new note could be a step away, indicated by a change from a line note to a space note or vice versa, or by a skip away, indicated by either a line or a space, depending on the size of the interval.  The ability to recognize the difference between line and space notes, and the distance from the starting note is a tremendous advantage for the reader.  

For pianists, it is essential to form muscle memory for each interval.  Any interval from a second to a fifth is easily played when the hand is in a relaxed position and resting on the keyboard.  An interval of a sixth, seventh, or eighth involves stretching, some degree of tension, and a memory of extension of the fingers and perhaps even a rotation of the hand.  For beginning students, it is perhaps best to remain with smaller intervals until basic skills are acquired, at which point larger intervals can be introduced, with an emphasis on recognizing them instantly and having a responding hand adjustment based on muscle memory.

The relationship between two notes is more than just distance; it is hierarchy.  Is the lower note the foundation note or is the upper note the foundation note, in other words, is the interval inverted?  Is neither note the foundation note, but related to another pitch, perhaps played by the other hand?  Some intervals project stability, 3rds and 6ths, for example, whilst others indicate dissonance and the desire to move or to resolve to new pitches, 2nds and 7ths, for example.  Being able to recognize a dissonant interval before sounding it will give the player a sense of the expected resolution and the direction of movement.  Knowing that the two notes before you are a middle C and the Bb above it will not be of much use to you unless you also recognize that the interval is a minor 7th and that the 7th note is pre-determined to resolve downwards.  You should be sure to choose a finger suitable for the Bb and yet still have a finger available for the A beneath it.  It might also indicate a modulation to the key of F major.

Intervals occur in two ways: melodic intervals in melodies, in other words, one note after the other note, while harmonic intervals occur in chords, or harmonies.  Both are equally important, and it is useful to know if the two notes are chord notes, non-chord notes, or ornamental notes, such as passing notes or appoggiaturas.  Ornamental notes add interest to music, softening and rounding the melodic line, and are often tied to a specific historical period or composer.  There are many mnemonic devices used to teach intervals, but the simplest is to choose songs which begin with the interval you want to teach.  “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” will teach a rising perfect 5th, while “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” will teach a falling major 6th.  These simple ideas are amazingly effective, and are invaluable when sight singing and sight reading at the piano.  It takes only a few seconds to reinforce interval recognition during a lesson, and will stick with a student for life.

Nancy MacLachlan
Piano Instructor
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