Notes in key vs interval

I have been thinking a lot about the last email regarding Amazing Grace starting on a perfect fourth interval but being the 5 to the 1 in the song. I took an old song I’ve been jamming to lately “Willie and the Hand Jive” and while the interval is a flat 3 it took me a while to figure out it was the the 3 to the 5 and didn’t start on the 1. What I did was grabbed my guitar, found the key (G) and then figured out where the melody was in the barre chord, seemed like they were playing major pentatonic on the solo so used the shape to find the melody and the key. This doesn’t seem like what David wants us to do. I haven’t moved on from singing the numbers 1 and seven worlds 1 because while I am getting better at picking out intervals in the major scale, I suck at knowing automatically what the first note is in the key upon hearing it. Do I need to get all the down first before moving on? Anyone have any tricks that helped them?

Somewhere in the IMPROVISE FOR REAL book, David Reed explains that the exercises are not really a step by step method. You don’t finish one exercise, put it on the shelf, and then move on. Eventually, you’re doing all the exercises all the time, but at deeper and deeper levels.

Personally, I find it very hard to find the tonic in a new piece of music I’m hearing. But while I can’t really do that 100%, I hear the music a lot better nonetheless. And I’m happy I’m making progress. The musical landscape widens for me every day as I continue to practice.

  1. Accept that there in is no “silver bullet” fast track ‘trick’.

  2. “Master Complexity by Studying Simplicity” (a quote I noted during a Masterclass being given by our very own @ImproviseForReal David Reed)

  3. Employ “Attention with Intention” in your practice (I don’t recall where I picked that phrasing up; I very much doubt I invented it!).

  4. Pretty much whatever you’re trying to do, it’s better to slow down and do it right than do it wrong at normal speed. Once you get it right super slow, normal speed will come along in due course.

  5. Do something that’s musical & enjoyable. If an exercise is a drag, leave it aside (at least for now) & move on (there are loads of ideas in the IFR book). As @hender99 pointed out, keep nibbling away, coming round again, and again, to the various ideas. When you come back to that earlier exercise you may find that things have changed? There was a time when I didn’t enjoy playing/improvising along with Jam Tracks - now I love it. :smiley:

So, no I don’t have any tricks. However, I do have a positive & realistic framework of ideas & approaches to support my progress. The essence of that framework is to be found in the IFR book. :smiley:

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I had that same problem at first, and sometimes still do. I think your bar chord method of finding the chord is fine–and something valuable I learned in the ear training workshop with Mireia is the idea of not worrying about whether you can get it right or not, but always making it a learning opportunity. So now you know that that 1-3 sound might also be flat3-5 in disguise, and can try both options.

I can’t always hear the tonic right away, but that “stop the song and sing down” technique from the book sometimes helps me, as does singing the melody until I feel it come to rest. I agree with the tips to move forward when you feel the need to, but plan to always come back.


Up until mid-2020, I had been taking a very mechanical approach to learning to play an instrument, as a result of having a very undeveloped musical ear. Then I started spending a lot of time listening to and singing along with Sing The Numbers 1, 2, and 3. When I started out, I had a really hard time, I felt completely disoriented. For me, the “trick” has been commitment and daily practice/exposure. The notes started to take on a unique identity.

I have not spent much time trying to recognize single intervals. I’ve spent way more time working on “functional” ear training, how each note feels in the context of the key and the current harmonic environment. So I need more context to recognize the first couple notes of a melody. (Although it seems like starting a melody with 5-1 is a very effective way of orienting the listener, whether they are aware of it or not.)

One thing that has really accelerated my ear training is an app called “Functional Ear Trainer”. I have it on IOS. It plays a 1-4-5 chord progression and then plays a random note, and you have to identify it. The buttons can be labeled with numbers, solage syllables, or left blank (I leave them blank). And it has exercises that increase in difficulty, focusing first on just half of an octave of a single key, and eventually working up to every tone on the piano, in random keys. You can configure it to play a resolution of each note in the key (I found I learned best using an “alternate” resolution that works through the 5: b7-6-5-1), and you can increase the tempo as your ear develops. This helped me build a really strong familiarity with the notes outside the major scale, which were confounding to me at first. Oh and there is the same set of exercises for the Aeolian minor key. It was a real struggle at first, but after several months I’m now practicing only the final most difficult exercises in both major and minor at the highest tempo (280 bpm) and currently getting the answers right about 95% of the time. I’m even feeling less reliant on the tonal numbers, I’m recognizing the notes more on their own terms somehow. Anyway, its a great way to train your ear, you can do it when you are away from an instrument, and it seems completely complimentary with the IFR approach.

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It’s 9 years old, but this free video by David is a terrific and really opened my mind (ears?) to finding the key. How to feel the key of the music by ear - Improvise for Real - YouTube

I use that app too, but I’m not as far ahead as you are. Do you find it helps with recognising the note numbers in melodies you hear? Could, for example, sing a tune you know and immediately know what the numbers are for each note?

I am confident that frequent work with the Functional Ear Trainer app and Sing the Numbers tracks has been hugely beneficial for me. When I listen to music now there are times when I can recognize some notes, and every once a while an entire stretch of melody will be completely recognizable. Two years ago I just wasn’t listening to and feeling the notes anything like how I do now.

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@Darren thank you for sharing this app, it looks like exactly what I need! This is so awesome!!! I’ve done Sing the Numbers and Mireia’s workshops but I like to have something that I can dial into for 10 minutes a day to drill these concepts in a more regimented fashion than I get from the IF4 practices, as a supplement. I’ve tried several others I didn’t love, but this looks like exactly what I wanted! I’ve gotten pretty good with the major scale but have a little room for improvement and also working on the 5 extra notes. I use “Chord Crush” for chord progressions (it has pros & cons) but I love having one for melody. At first I couldn’t switch solfege to #s but I see that after the intro unit, you can.

Thank you SO MUCH for sharing, you just made my day!!

And back to the original idea about how well all this works… I sat down a few nights ago with my Beatles fake book and could play along with melodies for all the songs I know well, without even thinking about numbers. Not perfectly, but decently, and this is something I could not do AT ALL in the past. And Beatles have some tricky chromatic melody lines at times. It felt like a real accomplishment.

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Oh and I also found a program that really drills in the #s on every key on piano–if anyone is interested I’m happy to share info on that too.

That’s awesome @Angela!

There were times working with this app that I felt really frustrated, I was so confused by the outside notes. Four things helped me work through my challenge: trying to remember that every mistake offers an opportunity to learn, focusing on being present and attentive only to the experience of the sounds, custom levels that let me focus on two or three confusing tones, and practicing 2 or 3 times every day.

My ear training is still a work in progress. I’m looking forward to spending more time actively exploring and initiating these sounds myself by improvising over the IFR jam tracks, but I’ve been intentionally holding off because I first wanted to really “own” the feeling of all the tones, so I can audiate the sound of any tone before I play it. I want my interaction with my instrument to be lead by audiation.

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That is what I’m doing but I hadn’t put it into words- holding off with playing with IFR jam tracks until my ear training is better, just singing- I had a busy year so far and I guess I also wanted to own the feelings of the tones! Another thing I’ve been doing is going back and transcribing all of Mireia’s suggestions from her Melody course. I have made bunches of playlists and plan to make and laminate acapella cards- only with the #'s for each of the songs…definitely a work in progress. There is more frequent times when I can listen and sing, but not able to play. A lot of these songs I had not really heard-or paid much attention to before- it was interesting finding the key and where we were in the key…as well as all the lyrics! Thanks for all of your suggestions-what a great trip!

Angela, I am a piano player, and am curious what program you are talking about.