Saturday, June 24, 2017
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Hearing Your Way to Better Musicianship: Intervals

Hearing Your Way to Better Musicianship: Intervals
by Stanley Curtis

In this article, I want to write about something that has been hinted at by a few other articles already published in the ITG Youth Masterclass column. Keith Johnson in his “Listening: The Primary Musical Skill” and Chris Gekker’s “Listening” both advocate listening to music. I agree that this is important, because listening can greatly enhance our concept of style, tone, and many other musical elements.

Nevertheless, I wanted to go a bit deeper into actual ear training with some specific assignments to improve your basic ability to recognize and reproduce what you hear. Why is this type of training so important? Because music is a hearing art, and our understanding and practice of it must be rooted in perceptive hearing. Remember when you were deciding to start playing the trumpet, you probably had some vague notion that you were going to have a lot of fun picking out songs on your trumpet and playing those fun songs for your friends and family. Then you joined the band program at your school and perhaps started taking lessons. You began to learn to play by using sheet music. Then the whole notion of being a real musician revolved around written notation and the proper execution of those squiggles on the page. The “sheet music” approach presents you with the delightful, but misleading, notion that your eyes can help you become a better musician: we begin to think that the music should sound like the way it looks on the page to be considered well played. This reminds me of that quote attributed to many musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I suggest that your first notion (before you started studying from sheet music) was really the more natural and productive concept of being a musician. To be able to hear music and then reproduce it is the fundamental essence of being a musician. It is a focused circuitry in our brain between what we hear and how we reproduce those sounds with our voice and with our instrument. Of course we should become great music readers. But the reading part should enhance, not get in the way of, our ability to hear music and reproduce it on our instruments.

We must not only hear the music clearly, but we must also have clear mental “shelves” to store the sound concepts and retrieve them when we need to do so. For all musicians, the “shelves” must include the labels and names we give to all the notes and combinations of notes that we hear. For trumpet players, the “shelves” must also include the fingering and the “feel” for playing the notes or combinations of notes that we hear.

There are two main parts of ear training: perfect pitch and relative pitch. “Perfect pitch,” which is sometimes called “absolute pitch,” is the ability to discern specific musical tones just by hearing them. In addition, a musician with perfect pitch can call to mind any pitch and sing it without reference to any other note (e.g., if you were to decide to sing a “C”, you could do that without having heard any tones for quite a while). Most people think that you are either born with perfect pitch or not. I, however, believe that you can improve your sense of perfect pitch with practice.

“Relative pitch” describes the mind’s ability to discern what the ear hears in terms of relationships between notes. For example, if you have a well-developed sense of relative pitch, then you can recognize types of scales (e.g., major or minor), types of intervals (e.g., a perfect fifth or a minor seventh), or types of chords (e.g., an augmented triad, or a minor major seventh), or combinations of all of these.

Although most students work only on relative pitch, I would like to suggest a way to help you work on both relative pitch and perfect pitch at the same time. The first thing that I want you to work on is interval recognition. Intervals are the building blocks of music. To work on most types of ear training, the best method is probably to enlist the help of a friend. The idea here is that you take turns playing things for each other and saying whether it was right or wrong. So, for instance, you would have your friend play a certain interval on the piano. Then, you would try to say what that interval is. And, better yet, what the actual notes are.

There are other ways you can practice ear training without requiring the help of someone else (because really good ear training requires a LOT of time). You can buy ear-training recordings, some of which are quite good, but these can be expensive. There are also many desktop and mobile applications. One of the best hearing tools I have ever worked with is a free desktop application called the Online Ear Trainer 2.0 on the website, I Was Doing All Right (, hosted by someone called Rick (he does not give his last name). I do not know Rick personally, but according to his blog, he is a jazz trumpeter in Atlanta, Georgia. Although there is a mobile version of this app, you can configure the desktop version with a lot more detail, so I recommend working with the desktop version when possible. The great thing about this application is that you can work on so many different ear-training skills with your trumpet, including perfect pitch, tailoring each lesson to your own ability and needs.

SET UP: Although I do not want to get too bogged down into the details of this application, I thought that I might suggest a progressive method of improving your interval recognition using the Online Ear Trainer. Use the Interval tab on the Online Ear Trainer to get to a dialog box with all kinds of options. If you are a beginner, then start with only one interval checked—I recommend starting with the perfect 5th. “Note Direction” should at first be set to “Ascending.” “Sequence Type” should be set to “Melodic” (this means that the two notes will play one after the other). Go ahead and select “Root Note” for “Any.” On the left of this box, set the Tempo to some comfortable speed like 59 bpm (“beats per minute”). Set the “Play Mode” to “Auto L Delay.” Do NOT check the “Show First Note.” This is so that you can start working on perfect pitch while you are studying interval recognition. Check the box “Delay Results.” If you are playing B-flat trumpet, then under the “Key Center” select “Bb: Trumpet/Tenor Sax.”
Do not select “Starting Cadence.” Here is a screen shot of this set up:

Now you are ready to begin learning perfect fifths—in your ear, and on the trumpet. When you hear the two notes, sing them first and then play them back on your trumpet! Later on, if you want, you can drop the singing part if you are very comfortable with the exercise. Nevertheless, if you are having troubles at anytime with your ear training, try singing the example first and then playing it on your trumpet. If the concept of the perfect fifth is too difficult at first, then you may want to write out all of your perfect fifths on a bit of manuscript paper (perhaps you might need to ask an experienced musician to help with this), so that you know all of the perfect fifth intervals intellectually, first. Then, play all of the intervals that you just wrote out on the trumpet. You should practice playing the lowest note first and then practice playing the upper note first. Continue to practice them until you can play all of them without looking at your writing. At this point, you should be ready to go back to the Online Ear Trainer and tackle the ear-training exercise with more confidence.

Work on the fifths until you can play twenty in a row with no mistakes (instead of focusing a lot of your mental energy on counting to twenty, you can use a little automatic counter or move marbles one at a time from one bowl to another; if you make a mistake and have to start over, do not get too frustrated—it just means you have not listened enough times!). When you can do this, move on to the “Descending” note direction. Then combine the two directions (“Random” note directions). Then move on to “Harmonic” sequence types (“harmonic” in this sense means that the notes are played together at the same time). For the harmonic examples, just play the bottom note first and the top note second. Each of these new set-ups must be passed with twenty correct responses in a row. Finally, combine all of these. Set the sequence type to “Random,” so that you are sometimes working on harmonic sequences and sometimes on melodic sequences (which at this point should be set to “Random” also).

When you have mastered the perfect fifth, then you should move on to perfect fourths in the same way. After you have mastered the perfect fourth, combine the perfect fifths and the perfect fourths by checking both of these intervals in the dialog box. Again, twenty in a row correctly played. This curriculum would also work well if you were practicing ear training with a friend, but you would have to have a DEDICATED friend! Proceed in this way by adding intervals in the order on the following table. As you complete each task, you can check the appropriate box.

If you spend about 4-5 days on each interval or combination of intervals, this should take you about three months to complete. If you require more time to really master each interval, then that is completely okay. Don’t worry about the time you spend on ear training, because you are spending time on developing a great ear. As you begin to master these exercises, you will have a really good grasp of interval recognition AND how those notes actually sound and feel on the trumpet. The real secrets to your success in this ear training approach are the quality control (you have to get twenty in a row at each step), the logical progression of working on what you already know to what you are less familiar with (adding one interval at a time), and the necessity of playing the intervals on your trumpet. As you start to master the intervals, you probably will begin to hear melodies in your head that you see on your music—before you actually play them. You will undoubtedly be a more confident trumpeter. You will feel like a real musician.
In my next two articles, I will outline a method of learning chords and melodies with the Online Ear Trainer. Happy listening until then!

About the author:
Stanley Curtis has developed a multi-faceted career as both a modern and historic trumpeter. He not only performs with a variety of ensembles, including the Washington Bach Consort and the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble, but he has also been a teacher at George Mason University since 2003. After studying music at the University of Alabama, the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam on a Fulbright scholarship, he received his Doctorate of Music from Indiana University. Curtis has served as Assistant Principal Trumpet in the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia (in Spain) and as Principal Trumpet with the Evansville (Indiana) Philharmonic. In 1995, he was a prizewinner at the Altenburg Baroque Trumpet Competition. Curtis has composed and arranged more than seventy pieces for a variety of ensembles. He has been a member of the U. S. Navy Band since 1998 and enjoys blogging on

About the Editor: Lisa Blackmore is Adjunct Professor of Trumpet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Adjunct Professor of Trumpet and Horn at East Central College in Union, Missouri where she also teaches Music History and World Music. She is a member of “Cadre” at Missouri Baptist University, teaching trumpet and assisting with the concert band. Lisa earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts (D.M.A.) in Trumpet with a minor in Music History at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, where she received the Graduate College Dissertation Award in Musicology. Dr. Blackmore also holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook. She previously served on the faculty at Lindenwood University and under her direction, the Lindenwood Trumpet Ensemble performed at the 2007 ITG conference at the University of Massachusetts―Amherst. Her private studio teaching has resulted in students performing in the St. Louis Youth Symphony and various Missouri All-State ensembles.

Lisa is a member of the Stonehenge Brass Trio and Confluence Brass. She was a bugler with the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program from 2008-2013 and performed Taps at over 350 military services for Missouri Veterans. She performs with the Compton Heights Concert Band, and she is principal trumpet in the St. Louis Wind Symphony. She serves as a trumpet adjudicator for the Missouri All-State groups.

Lisa lives in Wright City, MO with her husband, Mark (also a trumpeter!) and their two cats, Chet and Ella. In her spare time she makes practice mutes and also enjoys reading and traveling.

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