Why can't I tell whole steps from half steps? | Easy Ear Training

Why can’t I tell whole steps from half steps?

Distinguishing intervals which are close together, like semitone and tone (a.k.a. whole step and half step / major and minor seconds) is a sticking point for many students as they learn interval recognition.

The RelativePitch app begins with these intervals and while the lesson sequence works well for many students, in reality every musician is different and so it won’t always be a smooth learning progression. This is why the “Custom Mode” is always available, so you can adjust the sequence to help you keep progressing.

So when you get stuck with a certain pair of intervals don’t be afraid to adjust your lesson plan to work around it. After improving your ear for other intervals, you’ll find you can return to the problem pair and will find it much easier.

Interval recognition background

With intervals, there are two main things your ear can use to distinguish the types:

  • The first is their characteristic sound (e.g. major thirds sound “brighter” and “happier” than minor thirds).
  • The second is the distance in pitch, or the “size” of the interval. Your ear can hear how close or far apart the notes are from each other.

Both of these aspects help you to recognise intervals.

Because your ear uses both, you may find you have difficulty distinguishing interval types which have similar characteristic sounds (e.g. perfect fifth and perfect octave both sound very stable or “consonant”) or those which have similar sizes (e.g. semitone and tone are both very small pitch distances).

Recognising seconds

So if you’re having difficulty with seconds (semitone and tone) there are two things which can help:

  1. Try working with the harmonic form of the intervals rather than their ascending form.
    This can make it easier to hear their characteristic sound: the semitone will have a dissonant “clashing” quality to it, while the tone will blend better and sound more “relaxed”. Once you get used to hearing this difference you’ll be able to hear it more easily with the ascending/descending forms too.
  2. Try adding in larger intervals.
    You’ll almost certainly find it easier to distinguish a semitone from a perfect fifth, for example, and by gradually working with sets of intervals which are closer in size, you’ll gradually train your ear to judge those differences in size better, until you can hear the difference for semitone and tone too.

More interval ear training help

There are also some general tips for learning intervals which may be helpful, such as using high quality headphones and singing back each interval after you hear it. These two articles have more information:

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • I’m struggling to tell semitone from tone, what can I do?
  • How do you learn to recognise intervals of similar size?
  • How do you distinguish intervals which sound the same?
  • I’m stuck with learning intervals, what can I do?

Posted in: Intervals

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