Lesson activities to help students understand intervals

How good are your students at recognising intervals?

  1. Are they quick to read interval shapes?
  2. Are they quick to aurally identify intervals?
  3. Are they quick to feel interval shapes (in different keys) on the piano?
  4. Are they quick to define what an interval is by telling you that it’s “the distance between two notes”?


I know that the clearer I am about how to teach something, the clearer the student tends to be when learning that particular musical concept. This term in my studio I’ve been focusing on intervals with my students – and realising that, for some students, a deeper understanding is needed.

As a result I’ve been exploring some new lesson activities that I’d love to share with you!

Elementary (Grade 1) level student

Activity 1
Play the G major scale in 3rds, hands separately, consistently using fingers 1 and 3:
G-B | A-C | B-D | C-E | D-F# | E-G | F#-A | G-B (acending and descending)

TIP: to give Ciara time to look ahead and see where her fingers needed to go next, I gave her a simple rhythm pattern which allowed her to play each set of 3rds repeatedly.

Activity 2
Give the student an A3 laminated copy of a piece of music in G major featuring 3rds. Ask the student to circle all the 3rds.

TIP: to check that Ciara knew the difference between a ‘melodic’ interval of a 3rd (notes sounded separately) and a ‘harmonic’ interval of a 3rd (notes sounded simultaneously) I asked her to circle them in different colours of her choice

Activity 3
Play a melody based on the notes of the G major triad (G-B-D), always moving in 3rds (e.g. G B D B D B G), and ask the student to notate it on floor stave using erasers.

TIP: then I asked Ciara to play this pattern as an ascending sequence in the key of G major (i.e. A C E C E C A | B D F# D F# D B | etc.) and notate it on floor stave.

Intermediate (Grade 4) level student

Activity 1
Write out the letter names for a particular interval (e.g. 2nd) throughout the scale and identify the type interval (i.e. major, minor, diminished). For example, F harmonic minor scale in 2nds:

F-G (major 2nd)
G-Ab (minor 2nd)
Ab-Bb (major 2nd)
Bb-C (major 2nd)
C-Db (minor 2nd)
Db-E (augmented 2nd)
E-F (minor 2nd)

Then play these on the piano, using the same fingers consistently (e.g. fingers 2 and 3) and thinking in the key of F harmonic minor (without reference to the any written notes). During subsequent weeks, the student can then play the same scale in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths and 8ths!

TIP: Tom found it helpful to check the ‘quality’ of the interval by working out the semitones (e.g. minor 2nd = 1 semitone | major 2nd = 2 semitones | augmented 2nd = 3 semitones)

Activity 2
Play a short series of intervals (e.g. augmented 2nd, minor 2nd, major 2nd) and ask the student to place ‘homemade’ interval cards in the right order

TIP: Tom’s accuracy increased significantly over a 6-week period, highlighting the fact that students do improve with consistent and persistent practice! Getting Tom to sing back intervals that I played (e.g. major 2nd) also helped develop his ear.

Activity 3
Take a simple piece of sight reading in F major, that doesn’t modulate, and ask the student to play it in the key of F minor. (You’ll find there’s lots of simple, elementary level sight reading pieces in F major).Then give them more of the same for homework!

TIP: whatever interval(s) were being focused upon (e.g. 3rds and 5ths), I asked Tom to find and circle these intervals in different colours throughout the sight reading piece and play the (F harmonic minor) scale in 3rds and 5ths before sight reading.


Using consistent fingering (e.g. fingers 2 and 3 for playing 2nds or fingers 1 and 3 for playing 3rds – don’t get bogged down by the ‘proper’ fingering for playing legato 3rds!) and play staccato. See how many scales you can play effortlessly using intervals of 2nds right through to 8ths.

Playing a D major scale up and down one octave in 2nds, then 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths and 8ths may feel relatively straightforward. Then try E major, F# major or Ab major. Be aware of what feels easy and where you have to think a bit more. Maybe 2nds and 3rds feel easier than playing 7ths?

Then try a few harmonic minor scales. Perhaps D minor, F minor. What about Eb minor?!

It’s often easy to play scales that we have played for years – our muscle memory kicks in and heads back down the well-worn pathway. Playing scales in 3rds or 6ths (or using any other interval) can really help us, and our students, consolidate playing in various keys – because we’re really starting to think in that key.

I really hope that you and your students enjoy exploring some of these ideas!

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