Some Tips for Teaching and Hearing Harmonic Intervals

The new syllabus for the Royal Conservatory of Music and Music Development Program has introduced harmonic intervals into its aural skills curriculum. The 2008 syllabus only required the candidate to hear melodic intervals, and now starting at Level 5 harmonic intervals are being introduced alongside their melodic forms. At Level 10 the candidates are asked to identify stand-alone harmonic intervals.

For students who are used to hearing melodic intervals in relation to specific songs or scalar patterns, this skill can seem a quite daunting. I am hoping that these tips can help.

Firstly, I play each harmonic interval and ask the student to listen carefully for the mood or character of the interval without even trying to think about distance. This leads to four categories of character:

Irritating - Crunchy - Harmonious - Medieval

The words are not always the same as above, but the characters are similar.

-Minor 2nds, Major 7ths, and Minor 9ths are irritating.
-Major 2nds and Minor 7ths are crunchy.
-Thirds and sixths are harmonious
-Perfect 4ths and 5ths are Medieval.

Octaves are generally heard well in the harmonic form, and Tritones fit into Irritating usually, but some students hear them as crunchy.

Secondly, once a student has categorized each interval and really hears them in this way then we add more traits - like medieval and hollow for the Perfect 5th, or harmonious and sad for a minor 3rd. The clearer the character the more confident the student becomes.

Thirdly, once a student has built consistency with their vocabulary and always says crunchy and distant for a Minor 7th then they can start converting these traits into the intervallic names.

This process does not need to be rushed, and the first steps can be practised for a while to build confidence.

This type of learning works well with younger students on melodic intervals since they can often understand the mood and character more than the terminology. For example I use the terms: bright, dark, and empty for Major third, Minor third, and Perfect fifth.

It is best to practise aural skills with a positive mindset, and just listening to the qualities of the sounds without having to give them a number value keeps things positive. It also leads to better listening - and we all want that.

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