Intervals and How to Improvise With Them

The Spice Shelf

Each note can have a meaning. We can associate different sound qualities to certain emotions but that is not where it ends, we can think of colors, movements, smells, and spices when we hear different sounds.
One of my favorite teachers of all times used to say “For me the M3 has the flavor of vanilla”.
He would also say “Go home and practice” quiet a lot, but that’s another story. What he meant by the Major 3 interval giving the flavor of vanilla is totally subjective, but it makes one understand such things are certainly possible.
Combination of two notes can have a totaly different meaning than the meaning which the notes individually can have. You might think “brown” with the note Do and “bright” with the note Si. Hearing them together will not sound “bright brown” but to most ears it will give the impression of “disturbing” than a color. Keep in mind, the definitions mentioned above are as subjective as vanilla.
Two different notes heard at the same time or one after the other have a distance between them, which we concider the interval. The distance grows if the notes are far apart, and gets smaller if the notes are closer to each other. We name intervals depending on the distance within two notes. M3 being the example, M shows the quality, and 3 shows the number of the interval. We take the amount of notes in between  to find the “number” and the amount of semitones in between to find the “quality”

How To Hear Intervals

If you pick your violin (or any other melody instrument, including your voice) and start playing different notes while hearing the D drone, you will realize the notes you are playing will start to get different feelings in relation to the note you are hearing in the video. This is a good way to start realizing how two notes can effect each other.

If you don’t know what notes to play, start playing the Re Major scale (reaaaalllyyy slooooowwwllllyyy) to hear each interval well enough to address a scent, color, emotion, fruit name to it.
After this, switch to Re Minor scale (notes of both scales are shown below in case you don’t know them by heart and not have scores at hand) and feel the difference.

Now you can fool around with these notes and experiment combinations. Some melodies that you may play will awaken more tension, while others will be more relaxing, and all this will be amplified thanks to the drone you are relating your notes to.

Intervals are not necessarily made by two notes that are sounding at the same time. If you play one note after another, you are creating an interval as well. So keepin the note Re in mind, if you play Re and playing La after, you are creating a perfect fifth relation as much as if you were playing them at the same time.

So you can have a small improvisation game by yourself, without even a drone:
Play the open string Re, play another note, play Re again, play yet another note, and keep on experimenting like this. Sooner or later you will want to play Re less and less, but as long as you can “drop back” to it time to time, you will feel that Re is the home and everything else is related to it.

How To Calculate Intervals

If you are curious about knowing which notes are creating what interval, keep on reading.

If you encountered a melodic pattern that you liked, you may want to know which intervals caused that flavor the melody gave to you. So that in the future instead of going random and getting lucky, or only being able to play that melody over the note Re, you can analyze what intervals you liked the most by checking their names and keepin them in mind to use in the future.

Number of the Interval

Easy way to measure the distance between two notes is the finger count. If you want to know the interval of Re-La, start lifting your fingers while telling the names of the notes. We count down to up, Re being the first note. First finger is Re, then Mi, Fa, Sol, La. That is a five, so Re-La is a fifth.
Re-Mi is a second, Re-Si is a sixth, check the rest by yourself!

Quality of the Interval

There are five types of qualities an interval can have. Which are Major, Minor, Perfect, Augmented and Diminished. On scores you wouldn’t encounter the names as a whole, and often you can see A4, D5, M6, m3, P5 sort of definitions, which are shortened versions of Augmented 4th, Diminished 5th, Major 6th, Minor 3rd, Perfect 5th.
In Western music, often the smallest unit is a semitone. Do to Do sharp is a semitone, and Do to Re is a tone. You can find the quality of an interval by calculating the semitones in between the two notes. Although this seems slightly time taking to many people, it always is a fine way to make sure you are on a correct path.

Going by the Key

Often counting the semitones gets to be a tiring process. Commonly used intervals are always in the scales you’ve been practicing. If you learn what is the name of the interval on the scale you are playing, you can have a faster way of calculating.
You might’ve realized that when you play a Major scale and a Minor scale starting from the same note, some notes stay the same. This provides a nice fall back plan; the notes that stay the same in between the Major and the Minor scales are the perfect intervals. (Besides the 2nd, which is Major in both, so just memorize that as it is, tough life.) So if you finger count from the lower note, and find the top note to be the 6th, you can think “I play this on the Re Major scale so this is a Major 6th”
The rest of the notes that change from one scale to the other gain the name “Major” in the major key and “Minor” in the minor key.

You will see, any interval that is not fitting to this situation will be named a “minor 2nd” or something augmented and diminished, hence you can cover all the intervals with this easy trick which will help you further on, when you want to recognize the chords.
Once you get a nice hold onto knowing “Re-Sol is Perfect because it appears in the scale” way of thinkng you don’t have to calculate semitones when you see f.e. a Re-La# interval. Since you know La# doesn’t appear in either Re Major or Minor, it must be an “augmented” interval. 

The more keys you know, the better. As you see, the interval names and qualities stays the same from one key to the other. This way you get to see the “flavor” a bit better; altough the notes can be totally different, Re-Fa# and Sol-Si has a lot in common, since they are both M3s.

Play two strings at the same time

If you know how to play double stops you can experiment with one fixed note or an open string always staying the same while changing the note on the other string you are playing. I know this sounds easy if you are used to playing double stops, but in terms of developing awareness this simple exercise is quiet useful. Often we practice looking at the score without considering if the interval we are playing is a M6 or a m6 etc. So fixing one note on one string and doing changes in the other while trying to calculate the distance is a good way to associate the name of the interval with the music you are hearing.
Try to discover the shapes of intervals if you are playing double stops. This way you can go back to that shape without having the need to calculate the notes that must be played to build the interval.

Improvising With These Ideas

Things to do:
-Record yourself with the background drone, couple of takes
-Listen to it, just for the sake of knowing how you sound, no judgement here.
-Record yourself without a background track, limit yourself to max 3-4 minutes to not get lost inside the improvisation and to not get tired of listening.
-Listen to it, to see the difference (you’ll be more experimental in this takes most likely)
-Repeat the two ways and listen, aiming to hear the similarities between the takes, you will discover what is in your comfort zone of improvisation this way.
-Take notes about the bits you liked, maybe try to write them down to create a form.
-Or send them to me, and I transcribe your improvisations for you, then we analyze your favorite ideas and create a solid piece out of it!

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