Tuning Intervals

In the previous section, we worked on matching pitch. Now we’ll go for a different kind of matching: instead of singing the same note you hear, you’ll sing something in tune with it. Again, we urge you to start with your voice here for its relatively direct connection to the brain and ability for continuous pitch changes, but if your brain-voice connection isn’t great, you might get similar benefits from working with an external instrument such as a fretless string instrument or a theremin.

Because we’re working with two notes (one you’re tuning to, plus your own sound), we’ll work here with two-note intervals. We’ve put a bunch of links to videos and demonstrations below in the “activities” section to help you hear these; there’s also lots of advice online about how these intervals tend to “feel,” like a sense of “purity” in the perfect intervals, “sweetness” in major thirds, etc. You’ll have to see how things sound to you, but if you hear the intervals in these ways, we encourage you to start by practicing tuning the intervals that tend to sound the “purest”: the octave, the perfect fifth, and the perfect fourth. From there, we add the typically more complex-sounding intervals of 3rds and 6ths, and then finally the dissonances. Your instructor may or may not think it’s important to get through all of these.

As you work on tuning, don’t forget to activate your internal auditory imagery, or sound imagined in your head. When trying to sing in tune, see if you can find your desired pitch internally, and only then actually make a sound. If you have difficulty generating this internal auditory imagery, don’t worry: we’ll work in the next few sections on ways of making it stronger and more reliable.

What does it mean to be “in tune”? As you may know, instruments with fixed pitches such as the piano and guitar are typically tuned in “12-tone equal temperament,” a tuning system where the relationships of notes within a key are the same in all keys. But when working with an instrument with adjustable pitch such as the voice or fretless strings, we can often get a “purer” sound by adjusting this tuning a bit. If you’re interested in the details of tuning systems, there are websites where you can learn more. For now, we’ll simply note that there are different approaches to tuning, we’ll give you some examples of different tuning systems below, and you’ll have to base your approach on your and your instructor’s goals.

Activity: Getting used to the sounds of intervals

Goal: Develop the ability to tune two notes together based on the sounds of different intervals.


  1. First, choose an interval to work with. We recommend starting with the “perfect” intervals of the octave, perfect fifth, and perfect fourth; then moving to thirds and sixths; and only then adding other intervals.
  2. Open one of the links below relevant to your chosen interval, and listen to it. Come up with a verbal description of the “quality” of what you hear.
  3. Play the interval again, and this time hum or sing along with the top note or the bottom note. Repeat, matching the other note.

Once you have developed some familiarity with a few intervals, move to the activity below and practice generating them. You are encouraged to move back and forth between these activities as you add more and more intervals to your skill set.


Perfect intervals:

Other intervals:

Activity: Tuning intervals

Goal: Use internal auditory imagery to tune intervals.

Before you start: Choose whether you will use your voice or an external instrument, and make sure you have it available.


  1. Begin by choosing an interval.
  2. Have a classmate or instructor play or sing a pitch somewhat low in either your vocal range or your instrument’s range (depending on which you will be using), or sound that pitch with a tone generator such as this one. (If using a tone generator, first double check that your volume is not too loud.)
  3. As you hear that pitch, imagine the appropriate sound to create the upper note of the interval. Imagine it as vividly and in-tune as you can.
  4. Sing or play that upper pitch, adjusting its tuning until it feels “just right” with the lower pitch.

Once you are comfortable with this, you can experiment with starting with the upper note of the interval and adding the lower note. This is more difficult for most people.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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