Intervals Versus Solfa: Which Is Best?

Playing by ear and improvisation are two of the most sought-after skills in music. The key to learning these skills is to train your ear to effortlessly recognize the relationships between notes – and the answer doesn’t necessarily lie in learning intervals! Musical U founder Christopher Sutton talks about the intuitive solfa method for recognizing notes and why it works.

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Hey, Christopher here from Musical U. This weekend I was invited to join Glory St. Germaine, over at the “Ultimate Music Theory” Facebook page to do a Facebook Live all about how to make ear training so fun and easy – that you’ll actually do it!

We had a blast, it was a really fantastic conversation, talking about improvisation and playing by ear and solfa vs. intervals and how to learn to sing – all kinds of good stuff.

I wanted to share just a little bit with you today, and if you enjoy it, head over to the Ultimate Music Theory Facebook page where you can watch the full replay.


Glory: So tell us about how we can do ear training that’s gonna really make it enjoyable for us.

Christopher: Sure. Well, I think let’s begin by just addressing front on why isn’t it enjoyable? I think that is often people’s experience and I think teachers often struggle because they haven’t really been equipped with ideas or frameworks for teaching ear training in a way that will be fun and easy for their students.

What we’ve found is that the fundamental problem is that ear training is taught in a way that’s separate from everything else the student is doing typically. And, Glory, when you were on the musicality podcast last year, I think you and I bonded over the fact that music theory is often handled in a similar way, and it’s kind of put in a little box and people study it because they’re meant to, but actually they don’t make the connections to the things they truly care about in music, like their instrument, like the music they’re playing, like the music they’re listening to. So it becomes this kind of duty, and a chore, and it’s all very dry and abstract.

This goes for music theory and it goes for ear training, and fortunately because there’s that kind of root cause, the solution is also quite simple. Not necessarily easy. It requires some creative thought, but fundamentally the way to make ear training fun and easy is to connect it to the stuff in music that is fun and easy for you. Connect it to the things you care about and are passionate about. And we can definitely talk a little bit about how teachers can do that in the context of a lesson, because that is what transforms ear training from being … For me, it was a week before the exam, you better learn these aural skills, let’s learn the reference songs for intervals and hope you pass.

And of course, nobody did, because suddenly aural skills were a thing out of nowhere that made no sense to anybody. And if that’s your only experience of ear training, you’re not going to get very far and you’re not going to see the value and you’re not going to enjoy the benefits. That’s really what we’re trying to get away from.

Glory: Well, and when you think of the ear training too, that when you do learn to hear those intervals, I mean, even think about if you’re out and about and you hear a song that you really love, you need to recognize what is the distance? Is that ascending or descending? And if you can hear that, you can actually just go over to your instrument and play it. Sometimes that’s how … You wonder, “Well, how can just play that by ear?” Well, because I can hear it.

And in developing sort of our ear training, I guess there’s two different approaches when we’re learning to hear things. Are we learning by intervals? Or by solfa? I want you to talk a little bit about maybe what’s the difference and then what do you think is the better approach or how is it different? I guess depending on the student, sometimes that makes a difference, too, right?

Christopher: It can be a very personal thing. Yeah. If you went back a few years, I would have been very diplomatic and said they’re both good approaches, they’re both solid, choose whichever one works best, you can use them together. At this point, I’m actually a little bit more opinionated about it.

And the crux of it really is what we’ve been talking about that you don’t want to do ear training in a vacuum. And I think if you approach this topic of intervals and solfa from a purely theoretical perspective, they both work, they both make sense. You can analyze the relative pitch distances between notes based on the note that came before, which is the interval. You’re just going note to note, what is the interval each time? Or in terms of solfa, which is the same thing, but always coming back to the tonic. What’s the relationship to the tonic? The note of the key or the scale.

And so in theory terms, both of those tell you what is the picture of the note and so they should be equivalent. What we found, and I think what is quite consistently the case, is when it comes to actually applying these skills, there is a clear winner, and yes, you can use intervals for playing by ear as you just described, Glory, and you can use them for improvising and you can sit down with some blank manuscript paper and use intervals to figure out how to write down the melody you’re imagining in your head. You can. What we found is that it’s hard work.

To set the context, we started our company, which is called Easy Ear Training, with an interval training app. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-intervals, but what we kept finding was that people would get in touch and tell us the same thing I had found myself, which was you can get very good at recognizing intervals and still really struggle to write down a simple melody or play it by ear.

Glory: Yes, that’s true.

Christopher: And the reason is that basically your brain can’t recognize intervals quickly enough to apply it in that musical context. When you hear a whole string of notes, if you can stop and pause and take them one by one and listen to the individual pairs, yes, you can use intervals to work them out. But in the real musical context, if you’re in a jam session or you’re hearing a song on the radio, of course you don’t have that opportunity. You need to be recognizing them immediately as you hear them.

Glory: Yes, yes, that’s right.

Christopher: And so what more and more we’re kind of taking a stand and saying is that although you can use intervals for those practical applications, solfa tends to be a much better approach for people. And the reason is simply that this is basically how our brain already interprets music. If you think about this a little bit, you’ll kind of instinctively feel it to be true. We interpret the notes we hear based on the tonic. We have this sense of the key and what are the notes in the scale and what’s my harmonic context.

And when we hear a note, its musical function, its musical role, the kind of character it has in a melody or a harmony – is based on its relationship to the tonic. Our ears are already interpreting notes that way, and what solfa does is it just makes that explicit and it gives you names to put on those notes, so that when you hear them, you don’t just hear what they sound like. You actually recognize and identify them, and that’s super cool because it means you’re not dependent on the note before. You can hear any note from a melody and immediately know what it is. And of course, that makes playing by ear or improvising or transcribing or writing your own music vastly easier because you have that instant recognition of what is the scale degree.

Glory: Yeah, and I think that is such a wonderful, wonderful skill that can be obviously developed.

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