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HIIT Playlist: 10 Songs That Make Interval Training Easy

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While it’s easy to overcomplicate interval training, all it really requires is slow and fast movement. To simplify this even further-and up the fun factor-we’ve assembled a playlist that pairs speedy and slower songs together so that all you need to do is follow the beat.

RELATED: 8 Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training

The songs here alternate between 85 and 125 beats per minute (BPM), providing two different ways to use the playlist:

1. For a low/mid-rep workout: Use the beat of the songs below. You’ll be going 85 BPM half the time and 125 BPM the other half.

2. For a mid/high-rep workout: Use the 85 BPM songs at double the pace.* You’ll be going 125 BPM half the time and 170 BPM the other half.

*You can double the pace of a song by doing two movements per beat. For example, if you’re running and hear a beat with each step, doubling your pace will mean you hear a beat with every other step.

In addition to the varying the beat, the tracks below incorporate a variety of genres-with B.o.B., Karmin, and Bassnectar holding down the low end and Nicki Minaj, The Ready Set, and Swedish House Mafia pushing you into high gear. Here are the songs, when you’re ready to start:

Lil Wayne & Cory Gunz – 6 Foot 7 Foot – 85 BPM

Avicii – Hey Brother – 125 BPM

Karmin – Acapella – 85 BPM

Nicki Minaj – Pound the Alarm – 125 BPM

Bassnectar – Bass Head – 85 BPM

Kesha – C’mon – 125 BPM

Coldplay & Rihanna – Princess of China – 85 BPM

The Ready Set – Give Me Your Hand (Best Song Ever) – 125 BPM

B.o.B. – So Good – 85 BPM

Swedish House Mafia – Greyhound – 125 BPM

To find more workout songs, check out the free database at Run Hundred. You can browse by genre, tempo, and era to find the best songs to rock your workout.

  • By Chris Lawhorn

SoulCycle has amassed a devout national following, driven by their use of music to fuel intense indoor bike workouts. Biking to the beat not only feels good, but studies galore have proven time and again that music — especially music with a driving beat — can improve your ability to work out more efficiently. Costas I. Karageorghis, Ph.D, professor of Sport & Exercise Psychology at Brunel University in London and author of “Applying Music in Exercise and Sport” has conducted a bunch of them.

“Music has a sort of a metronome effect (on exercise),” explains Karageorghis. “If I were to use an analogy, imagine we’re in the suburbs of New York and we’re driving into the center of the Financial District (which is in lower Manhattan). Every time you get to an intersection, it’s a green light and you can fly straight through without having to stop and waste time and fuel. That’s the sort of effect that music can have over time. It can spread out your effort and make you more efficient. The gain of efficiency when using music synchronously (with exercise) is around 6 to 7 percent in continuous rhythmic-type activities, such as running, walking, cycling indoors, or working out on a rowing machine.”

Karageorghis says this is due to something called the “entrainment mechanism,” where different “pulses” within the body tend to entrain to the rhythmical qualities of the music. “When I say ‘pulses,’ it might be the respiratory rates, it might be the heart rate, and it might be brain waves,” he explains.

How I figured out how to motivate myself and others

April 17, 201803:18

No wonder people think SoulCycle is such a great workout. The rhythm, or beats per minute (BPM) of the song you choose almost literally fuels your routine — but to a point. “Everyone assumes, the harder you work out, the faster the music should be. But I found there to be a ceiling effect at around 140 beats per minute. If you speed music up beyond that while you’re working harder and harder, there’s no associated benefit,” says Karageorghis. “One reason is that most recorded music is around 105 to 135 BPM, so we develop a familiarity towards that, and there can be a negative aesthetic response to music faster than 140 BPM.”

And, along with a driving rhythm, the simpler the lyric or piece of music, the better. It’s very hard to engage in syntactic processing — to process lyrics — at very high intensities of exercise, explains Karogeorghis. “Beyond 75 percent of aerobic capacity, your brain is forced to process what we call ‘interoceptive cues,’ or fatigue-related signals that travel from the working muscles to the brain,” he says. This is also why Karageorghis discourages outdoor cyclists from using music the same way — it can be a little too distracting.

Music can boost your workout in more ways than just efficiency. Karageorghis says it can be used as a “psych-up tool” before working out, to reduce anxiety before a particularly stressful event or championship, to enhance your mood while it’s playing in the background (even without consciously synchronizing to it), to expedite your recovery at the end of a workout, and even between bouts of exercise such as HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, to assuage the negative emotions that one experiences during the high intensity form of activity — as long as it’s a little more mellow than the music heard during the workout.

“You might think, intuitively, with a high-intensity type physical activity such as HIIT, that you would need relatively high-tempo music during the recovery bouts, but what we have found is that it’s actually medium tempo music that results in the best psychological responses during recovery,” Karageorghis explains.

What’s more, music literally mutes your sense of fatigue during and after you work out. “When music is playing, the regions of the brain that are responsible for communicating fatigue are somewhat inhibited,” he says. “This might explain why, when people exercise and listen to music, they experience such a reduction in perceived exertion and an elevation in our mood.”

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During one of his studies using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure electrical activity in the brain, Karageorghis noticed how clusters of neurons in the brain fire in response to music during exercise. Though each cluster of neurons fired with a slightly slower frequency, they’d fire with greater amplitude. “It seems that when we’re working out with music, neurologically, there is less conscious effort required to produce whatever motor pattern you’re engaged in, be it running, cycling, swimming, walking, or whatever,” he says.

This feeds into Karageorghis’ theory: “Owing to a psychological phenomenon known as the ‘affective memory,’ which is how we remember feeling, we’re more likely to stick to an exercise routine if we remember it as positive,” he says. “Similarly, there’s another phenomenon called ‘affective forecasting,’ which is how we predict we’re going to feel. This is an approach that I’ve been testing systematically to see whether making the exercise experience more pleasurable is likely to result in people adhering to exercise regimens, and benefiting from habitual physical activity.”

A science-backed workout playlist for summer

To help us get moving, Karogeorghis shared a selection of recent songs that fall within the ideal workout window of 120-140 bpm, or beats per minute. He says: “I think it was William Congreve who said, ‘Music has charms to soothe the savage beast.’ It certainly has charms to soothe the savage workout.”

“Go Bang,” by PNAU

“There is an energizing feel to this track and the lyrics will help you to immediately enter ‘the zone,’” he says. “She ran past the limit, We come past the limit to flow.”

“If I Can’t Have You,” by Shawn Mendes

A captivating groove raises your spirit and the sing-along lyric, with its strong dissociative qualities, takes your mind right off the pain,” Karageorghis says.

“Bibia Be Ye Ye,” by Ed Sheeran

“With faint echoes of Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al,’ this is a feel-good track for a new generation. Your mood will be totally elevated and nothing can stand in your way,” he summarizes.

“Can You Feel It,” by Tiesto & John Christian

Karageorghis says, “If you want to place your foot firmly on the accelerator, this pulsating dance track will turbocharge your workout with a thoroughly immersing interplay of synthesized sounds.”

“Sweet But Psycho,” by Ava Max

“For the apex of your exercise routine, when you want to push yourself real hard, Ava Max’s immersive smash hit is sure to take you to the max,” Karageorghis says.

CORRECTION (July 29, 2019, 4:51 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the gain of efficiency when exercising with music. It is 6 to 7 percent, not 67 percent.

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Reluctant to Try HIIT? Music Could Be a Game-Changer

Matthew Stork is a post-doctoral research fellow in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Canada. Stork is an expert on the psychology and psychophysiology of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which consists of short bouts of intense aerobic/anaerobic exercise that are separated by periods of rest/recovery and repeated a specific number of times.

Dr. Matthew Stork is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan. Source: UBC

Stork’s primary focus has been on studying “insufficiently active” populations and identifying best practices for motivating people to get more physically active and to stick with it. Previous research (Stork et al., 2015) led by Stork examined the effects of motivational music during HIIT with a cohort of recreationally active people.

Stork’s latest paper (2019), “Let’s Go: Psychological, Psychophysical, and Physiological Effects of Music During Sprint Interval Exercise,” was published online this month in Psychology of Sport and Exercise. For this project Stork relocated to London to team up with Professor Costas Karageorghis at Brunel University London, where the data was collected. Dr. Kathleen Martin Ginis of UBC (who was Stork’s Ph.D. supervisor) is the paper’s additional co-author.

Karageorghis is world-renowned for his pioneering research on motivational music and physical activity. Two decades ago, he co-created The Brunel Music Rating Inventory (BMRI) for assessing the motivational qualities of music in exercise and sport. (Karageorghis, Terry, and Lane, 1999). The BMRI has been redesigned and updated over the past 20 years; the most recent version is BMRI-3.

Source:

For Stork et al.’s recent study on motivational music and interval training, the low-volume HIIT protocol consisted of three 20-second “all-out” sprints followed by a two-minute recovery period under three different listening conditions: (1) with motivational music, (2) podcast control, (3) no-audio control. Each HIIT workout also included a warm-up/cool-down and took a total of 10 minutes.

Although HIIT is a time-efficient way to reap the psychological and physical health benefits associated with physical activity, because HIIT workouts require vigorous exertion, one major drawback is that many people perceive it to be disagreeable and unpleasant.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect (1898states: “Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.” Based on the “Law of Effect,” if HIIT workouts are viewed as being unpleasant, there is a greater likelihood that one would avoid completing HIIT again in the future. Consequently, researchers like Matthew Stork and his colleagues have begun to investigate how motivational music can enhance people’s pleasure during HIIT and subsequently help encourage future participation.

Until recently, little was known about the nitty-gritty details of using motivational music as part of HIIT protocols explicitly designed for insufficiently active individuals. From a psychological perspective, the primary goal of Stork’s most recent study (2019) was to investigate how motivational music influenced the affective valence, enjoyment, and performance of a low-volume HIIT workout for individuals who were deemed to be insufficiently active.

The title of a news release about this research sums up the findings: “Upbeat Music Can Sweeten Tough Exercise: Insufficiently active people might benefit from choosing the right tunes.” As the authors explain in the paper’s abstract, “The application of music during has the potential to enhance feelings of pleasure, improve enjoyment, and elevate the performance of for adults who are insufficiently active, which may ultimately lead to better adherence to this type of exercise.”

How Do You Choose the “Right Tunes” for Making HIIT More Pleasurable?

After reading the headline of this news release, the million-dollar question I wanted to ask Dr. Stork was geared towards learning more about how someone can go about “choosing the right tunes” to make a HIIT workout less unpleasant and to share that information with Psychology Today readers.

In an email to Stork I asked, “When classifying an ‘upbeat and motivational’ song did lyrical content or ’emotional valence’ seem to matter or was it more about the beats per minute (bpm) and overall energy of the song?” I was also curious to learn more about how they chose the “right” motivational music used during their recent HIIT experiments with insufficiently active adults.

For the preliminary phase of this experiment, Stork recruited a panel of young British adults to rate the motivational qualities of 16 fast-tempo songs that fit the “epoch” of their generation, meaning that the music was no more than a decade old.

“Music is typically used as a dissociative strategy. This means that it can draw your attention away from the body’s physiological responses to exercise such as increased heart rate or sore muscles,” Stork said in a recent statement. “But with high-intensity exercise, it seems that music is most effective when it has a fast tempo and is highly motivational.”

During our phone conversation, Stork explained to me how he studied the British charts and tried to pick songs in a variety of genres (e.g., pop, rock, and hip-hop) so that study participant could self-select a type of music they gravitate towards prior to doing a HIIT workout in the exercise lab.

As soon as a study participant was about to begin his or her workout, Stork would say, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got my iPod with me today, so I’ll put on some music. What type of music do you prefer – pop, rock, or hip-hop?” If someone didn’t indicate a preference, the pop music selection was used as a default. Of the 24 (12 male/12 female) study participants, eight selected pop, six selected rock, and two selected hip-hop; eight participants did not indicate musical genre preference.

Of the original 16 songs, the three songs with the highest motivational ratings based on the four-factor structure (association, musicality, cultural impact, and rhythm response) on the BMRI-3 scale were used for the study. The top choice for each genre was (1) “Let’s Go” by Calvin Harris and Ne-Yo for pop music; (2) “Bleed It Out” by Linkin Park for rock music; and (3) “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Ray Dalton for hip-hop.

We discussed the role that tempo (in beats per minute ) plays in making these songs motivational. The introduction of Stork’s paper (2019) points out that, “there is evidence that it is ideal to match high-intensity exercise with fast tempo music (135–140 bpm; Karageorghis, 2017; Karageorghis et al., 2011).” Stork noted that upbeat electronic dance music (EDM) songs tend to have faster tempos of about 128 bpm; but, given the all-out nature of the exercise, the motivational songs used in this study were slightly edited to fall within the range of 135-142 bpm.

While tempo is one musical characteristic that is relatively easy to standardize, Stork emphasized, “There’s an array of complex musical properties that come together to make music the powerful stimulus that it is.” Musical components such as beat, rhythm, lyrics, and vocals can also have a meaningful impact on people’s emotional responses to music. For example, Stork highlighted the effect empowering lyrics can have.

Along this line, I said to Stork on the phone that sometimes slow-tempo songs that strike a certain emotional chord wind up being unexpectedly perfect for increasing the “satisfyingness” (Thorndike, 1917) of my HIIT workouts. Stork said that, even if a song has a slower tempo, it can still be an effective motivator on a personal level, especially if the associations that someone has to the lyrics are attached to inspirational visual imagery or strong emotions.

For example, the title of this paper is “Let’s Go” which is a “meta” shout-out to the lyrics from the Calvin Harris song used in the study. During our phone conversation, Matt recited some of the lyrics and pointed out their motivational message. As you can see and hear in the video below, Ne-Yo sings, “Let’s go! Make no excuses now, I’m talking here and now, I’m talking here and now. Let’s go! Your time is running out, I’m talking here and now, I’m talking here and now. It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s about what you doing. It’s all about where you going. No matter where you’ve been, let’s go!”

I’ve always loved the message and video for “Let’s Go” and was psyched to see the song featured in this study. During our conversation, I also discussed the importance of “epoch” with Matt. I have a hunch that because I graduated high school in 1984 that Top 40 music from my adolescence in the early-80s usually strikes a powerful emotional chord with me. And, I suspect, that most older adults find inspiration in the music from their high school days.

For example, a guilty pleasure from the summer of 1983 that I still love is “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” This motivational music is a go-to HIIT song for me. In addition to Giorgio Moroder’s upbeat tempo, the cinematography and message of the “underdog protagonist” in the movie (played by Jennifer Beales) prevailing against all odds through blood, sweat, and tears inspires me to push myself harder during HIIT.

Of course, there are some iconic songs like “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky 3, which transcend generational epoch boundaries because this motivational music (e.g., “We Are the Champions”) becomes so ingrained in the public consciousness as workout anthems that it almost becomes cliché. Although this classic Rocky song came out in 1982, and used to be motivational for me, I’ve heard it way too many times. I can’t listen to “Eye of the Tiger” anymore. Along this line, Stork described a “Goldilocks” sweet-spot where a perfect song for HIIT needs to be familiar enough to sing along with but not something that’s been overplayed and seems mundane. (See, “Neuroscience-Based Research Explains Why Overplayed Songs Become Tiresome.”)

Another example of two very different motivational songs for HIIT that Stork and I shared came from athletic advertising campaigns. Surprisingly, my choice completely breaks the mold of a song needing to be “uptempo” in order to be good for HIIT because it’s very slow bpm. Nevertheless, sometimes I like to watch the YouTube clip below on my iPhone while I’m doing interval training on stationary equipment at the gym. This clip is from the “Rule Yourself” Under Armour ad campaign that aired just before Michael Phelps made his big comeback at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

In an email after our conversation, Matt sent me a link to the video from the “My Better Is Better” Nike ad campaign that features the likes of superstars Steve Nash and Kevin Durant training intensively that never fails to inspire him. The imagery and motivational music used in this commercial became a staple for Stork’s high-intensity workouts. Maybe this song will be inspiring for you during HIIT, too?

As you can see from these various examples, choosing the “right tunes” to make your HIIT workouts more pleasurable is extremely personal and individualized. These songs will also evolve over time, especially if you overplay one of your go-to anthems.

Once you begin to play around with songs that make you feel good during your HIIT workouts, keep your antennae up for other uptempo songs that sound like they’d be motivational during HIIT. But remember, if a song has a powerful motivational message and the lyrics strike a deep, inspirational chord—that song could be just the “right tune” to make your HIIT workouts more pleasant and enjoyable, even if it has a slower tempo.

DISCLAIMER: Please use common sense and consult with your primary care physician before beginning any new physical activity or kickstarting a vigorous exercise regimen that includes HIIT—especially if you have not done any high-intensity physical activity recently.

7 Minute Workout

The 7 Minute Workout.

When we asked our Tabata Songs listeners what other workouts they do that could use some programed music and instruction (a la Tabata Songs), the overwhelming response was… The 7 Minute Workout! Well, you asked for it and we listened! The 7 Minute Workout, a scientifically driven sequence of movements made famous by this New York Times article, has gone viral among young professionals with heavy work schedules.

Our listeners’ feedback stated that The 7 Minute Workout, just like Tabata, can be difficult without help of a timer and/or instruction. So we made our first 7 Minute Workout Song based off of our most popular Tabata Song (“Deep Orchestra Tabata”).

Watch fitness trainer Inger Houghton (@ingerinDubai) demonstrate the entire 7 Minute Workout while listening to “The 7 Minute Workout” by Tabata Songs. Get the song HERE.

The 7 Minute Workout consists of:

• Jumping jacks • Wall sits • Push-ups • Abdominal crunches • Step-ups onto a chair • Squats • Triceps dips on a chair • Planks • High knees/running in place • Lunges • Push-ups and rotations • Side plank Left • Side plank Right “…the extremely intense activity (of the 7 Minute Workout) must be intermingled with brief periods of recovery. In the program outlined by Mr. Jordan and his colleagues, this recovery is provided in part by a 10-second rest between exercises. But even more, he says, it’s accomplished by alternating an exercise that emphasizes the large muscles in the upper body with those in the lower body. During the intermezzo, the unexercised muscles have a moment to, metaphorically, catch their breath, which makes the order of the exercises important (New York Times).” But here is the 7 minute catch… the workout actually takes over 8 minutes!?! (We thought we were absolutely losing it while trying to figure out the math behind the music to make it work! The actual “work” within the workout is highlighted as being less than 7 minutes, while the resting intervals are the cause of the additional time.

Inger Houghton, an athlete and fitness instructor from Norway, co-owns the Scandinavian Health & Performance center in Dubai (shpDubai.com) with her husband, Ian. SHP provides direct to client services which, based on individual assessment, support and assist clients and their goals toward improved health & fitness, athletic performance, pain management & more.

Check out Tabata Songs on Spotify.

10 Interval Training Mobile Apps to Download Right Now

It’s time to amp up the intensity. Circuit, HIIT, and Tabata training produce killer results in little time. Circuit training involves moving from one workout directly to the next, HIIT is short bursts of intense exercise followed by quick rest, and Tabata (a form of HIIT) is strictly 20 seconds of intense work followed by 10 seconds of recovery for eight cycles. These workouts help burn fat, increase endurance, and improve overall fitnessAerobic and anaerobic changes with high-intensity interval training in active college-aged men. Ziemann, E., Grzywacz, T., Kuszczyk, M., et al. Department of Physiology, Academy of Physical Education and Sport, Gdańsk, Poland. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research, 2011 Apr;25(4):1104-12.Circuit training provides cardiorespiratory and strength benefits in persons with paraplegia. Jacobs, P.L., Nash, M.S., Rusinowski, J.W. Department of Neurological Surgery, University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, FL. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2001 May;33(5):711-7.Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. Tabata, I., Nishirmura, K., Kouzaki, M., et al. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1996 Oct;28(10):1327-30.Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises. Tabata, I., Irisawa, K., Kouzaki, M., et al. Department of Physiology and Biomechanics, National Institute of Fitness and Sports, Kanoya City, Japan. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1997 Mar;29(3):390-5..The only tricky bit is making sure to keep on top of those timed intervals while also getting on a high-intensity sweat. Forgo fumbling with a watch while staying accountable (yep, rest for only 30-seconds!) and try one — or all — of these cool mobile apps.

Circuit Training Apps

Photo: Circuit Training Timer for iOS

Circuit Training Timer. When a workout calls for 30 seconds of military presses, 20 seconds of calf raises, and a mere 10 seconds of recovery, who has time to worry about keeping time? Luckily, users can plug in their circuit workout to a “T” and let Circuit Training Timer let them know when it’s time to stop n’ go. Cost: $0.99, compatible with all iOS devices.

Intervals. From squat to sprints, users can easily customize intervals and circuits for the perfect heart-pumping workout. Features include various audio settings, warm up and cool down options, and a CrossFit WOD timer. Cost: $2.99, compatible with iPhone and iPod Touch.

Interval Training Apps

Photo: Bit Timer for iOS

Bit Timer. Probably the sleekest application of the bunch, Bit Timer cuts out the bells and whistles and goes for simplicity. Users plug in three main settings: work, rest, repeat. But heads up: The app only allows for a maximum of four-minute intervals — so Bit Timer is more fitting for intervals and Tabata training than longer circuits. Cost: $0.99, compatible with all iOS devices.

A HIIT Interval Timer. This no frills app is a simple way to time all those interval runs without fumbling with the buttons on a treadmill. Set custom workouts and follow the color-coded interface to know how many sets are left till it’s time to hit the showers. Cost: $1.99, compatible with iPhone and iPad.

HIIT Workout Timer. For a slightly busier (and cheaper!) app, Workout Timer has customizable options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced workouts, low and high intensity intervals, and of course — time for rest. Cost: $0.99, compatible with all iOS devices.

Seconds. Any app that includes “time wizards” is a winner with us. Customize infinite workout timers, assign music for specific intervals, and share your workout with other Seconds users. The sexy, easy-to-use interface might even help people want to run intervals every day. Cost: $4.99, compatible with iPhone and iPod touch.

Interval Run. Want a virtual coach in your ear buds? Then try out this app that tells users when to start running and when to (finally) take a breather. In addition to Tabata workouts, the app let’s users customize longer running workouts, from 5K plans to hour-long runs. Cost: $1.99, compatible with iPhone and iPod touch.

iSmooth Run. What’s cool about this app is users can plug in the pace and heart rate zone they want to achieve during each interval. The simple interface will make any workout, well, run smoothly. Cost: $4.99, compatible with iPhone.

Tabata Training Apps

Photo: Tabata Pro for iOS

Tabata Pro. Twenty seconds on, 10 seconds off. Simple enough, right? While this app won’t make those squats burn any less, it’ll take users’ minds off of worrying about timing a Tabata. Just set the number of cycles and hit start, and you’re good to go! Cost: $2.99, compatible with all iOS devices.

Tabata Trainer. What’s great about this Tabata app is that it comes preloaded with nine full Tabata routines, along with a customizable option to create your own. It’s sleek and simple too, and you can share your workouts on Facebook for a tech-savvy humblebrag. Cost: $1.99, compatible with all iOS devices.

Do you use any apps for interval training? Did we miss any? Share your picks and experiences in the comments below!

The Ultimate Guide to Interval Ear Training

Musicians are often told they should “learn intervals”. We are told this by our instrument teacher to help us pass exams, by course professors at music college, by ear training tools and websites…

But why? What is so important about intervals – and if you do want to learn them, how exactly do you do interval ear training?

An interval is simply a pair of notes. More specifically it’s the distance between those two notes.

Here’s a note:

Here’s another one:

Put them together and you have an interval:

So what’s the big deal?

When you first encounter them like this, intervals can seem pretty dull! They seem like an abstract (and apparently pointless) part of music theory. Not only that, but when musicians start trying to learn them, most find it repetitive and frustrating…

So why do you always hear the advice to “learn intervals”?

In this guide we’re going to explain intervals from the very beginning.

We’ll explain:

  • What intervals are and why they matter,
  • What it means to “learn intervals”,
  • Three different methods you can use to learn them, and
  • How learning intervals will actually help you as a musician.

There’s a lot to cover! That’s why for each of the points covered in this guide you’ll find the full explanation, and then a simple short summary below marked in blue like this:

An interval is the distance in pitch between two musical notes.

Feel free to read the full explanations, read only the short summaries, or do a mix of both depending on which parts are most interesting and relevant to you.

Let’s get started!

About Intervals

What is an interval?

Every note in music has a pitch: how high or low it is. That means that between any two notes there is a difference in pitch. Some notes are the same pitch or close together while others are further apart.

Think of a piano keyboard. The leftmost notes are low in pitch, the rightmost notes are high in pitch. The further apart two keys are physically, the further apart their pitches are.

We call the pitch distance between two notes the interval between them. You can learn to recognise these different distances by ear, which is called “learning intervals” or “learning interval recognition”.

An interval is the distance in pitch between two musical notes.

What’s the point of learning intervals?

Intervals are often recommended as the place to start with ear training. Unfortunately students are rarely told why they should bother learning interval recognition. When intervals are taught in a dry, music-theory way, they seem like useless abstract things.

This is a pity because learning intervals is powerful. What you need to know is that they’re a means to an end. Recognising a pair of notes as a “perfect fifth” might be a neat party trick but it’s not all that useful. However when you learn to recognise intervals like that you are developing your core sense of relative pitch.

Relative pitch is what lets you to judge the distances in pitch between notes. In melodies, in chords and progressions, even in complex orchestral arrangements.

Have you ever wondered how musicians can play songs by ear, improvise powerful solos, and write down the music they hear in their head or in the real world?

The answer is they’re using a well-trained sense of relative pitch.

Intervals are the building blocks of relative pitch. So learning interval recognition will give you that core musical instinct for pitch which lets you do all kinds of exciting practical things in your musical life.

(Still not convinced? Read our full article: Interval Ear Training: what’s the point?)

Intervals are the building blocks of your sense of relative pitch, which lets you hear the pitch distances between notes. Relative pitch is how you play by ear and improvise.

What is “interval recognition”?

“Recognising intervals” means that when you hear a pair of notes in music you know the type of interval between them. Each “type” of interval has a name and by recognising the type of interval, you are actually recognising how far apart two notes are in pitch.

When people say “interval ear training” they are referring to this process of learning to recognise intervals.

As you first practice recognising intervals it starts out as a very abstract theoretical exercise. You play a pair of notes and try to judge what interval (i.e. pitch distance) is between them. Over time as you get better at this it becomes more automatic and instinctive, until you can hear a whole set of notes (e.g. in a chord, or one-by-one in a melody) and know what the notes are without necessarily thinking through the name of each interval.

Recognising an interval means that you hear a pair of notes and you know how far apart in pitch they are. There are different names for the different distances.

What are the different types of interval?

As discussed above, the names of the different “types” of interval are simply a shorthand for different pitch distances. For music theory reasons, instead of saying “this one is 1 unit of pitch from that one”, “that interval one is 3 units of pitch”, etc. we actually give the interval types more distinctive and useful names.

Specifically, we name interval types by their degree in the musical scale and their “quality” which produces names like “Major Third” and “Perfect Fifth”. Each name has those two elements: quality and degree.

  • The degree is simple numbering from one to seven, for the seven distinct notes in a major or minor scale.
  • The quality of an interval is most commonly “major”, “minor” or “perfect” but can also be “augmented” or “diminished”.

Here’s the full list of the most common interval types you’ll encounter. The number is the number of “pitch units” (actually called “semitones” or “half steps”) each one represents. Some have different names in different countries or traditions – choose whichever you prefer or is familiar.

  1. Unison
  2. Semitone, Half-Step, or Minor Second
  3. Tone, Whole Step or Major Second
  4. Minor Third
  5. Major Third
  6. Perfect Fourth
  7. Tri-Tone
  8. Perfect Fifth
  9. Minor Sixth
  10. Major Sixth
  11. Minor Seventh
  12. Major Seventh
  13. Perfect Octave

Some pitch distances actually have multiple names from a music theory perspective, but for recognition and listening skills you don’t need to worry about that.

There are 13 main types of interval, named for the scale degree they correspond to (e.g. “third”, “fourth”, “fifth”) and their “quality” which is normally “major”, “minor” or “perfect”.

What music theory do I need to know?

There’s a lot of music theory behind intervals. You can go deep into where they come from, how they relate to keys, scales, chords, and progressions, how to invert intervals, how intervals are used in harmony, composing and arranging, and so on.

But to actually make use of interval recognition in a practical way you need to know almost none of that.

One common rabbit-hole is worrying about the “spelling” of intervals. For example, trying to memorise that a perfect fifth above a C is a G, and a major third below a C is an A♭, how to work out the interval name from a pair of note names etc.

This is a useful skill at times, particularly if you’re working a lot with traditional notation (e.g. trying to sight read music in choir). However, don’t make the mistake of feeling you need to memorise the spelling of every interval in every key to progress with interval recognition.

If you learn the basic music theory behind intervals you can always work out the answer to those kinds of question methodically, and you can start using intervals in your playing without knowing all the spellings. For example, see the explanations below about how to use intervals to improvise or play by ear.

Learn the spellings and deeper theory only as you need it.

Just learn the names of each interval type. You can learn lots of detailed theory and how to “spell” each interval in each key, but you don’t need to in order to benefit from learning interval recognition.

What are “melodic” and “harmonic” intervals?

These are two terms you may hear and it’s important to understand that they are simply different ways of playing the same type of interval.

  • An interval in “melodic” form means its two notes are played one after the other. An example would be the first two notes of a musical tune, or the beginning of a scale you play on your instrument. Naturally, the first note can be above or below the other, so melodic intervals can actually be “ascending” or “descending”.
    Here’s an ascending perfect fourth:

    Here is the same interval descending:

  • An interval in “harmonic” form means its two notes are played at the same time. An example would be two notes of a chord, or two singers singing a note at the same time in a duet.
    Here is the same interval as above, in its harmonic form:

When you learn interval recognition you should practice with all three forms. Fortunately, studying each form helps with the others. For example, as you get better with harmonic major thirds, you will find that ascending and descending major thirds get easier to recognise too.

“Melodic” means played one note at a time, either ascending or descending in pitch. “Harmonic” means both notes are played together.

Learning Intervals

How is it possible to recognise intervals?

There are two ways that your brain learns to recognise different types of interval:

  1. By hearing the characteristic sound of the interval. For example, “major” intervals tend to sound happier and brighter than “minor” intervals. Example: Major third:

    Minor third:

    There are also other aspects which can make intervals distinctive, for example some have a clashing, uncomfortable sound, while others sound comfortable and at rest.

  2. By directly estimating the distance in pitch. For example, most musicians could tell you that the notes of a major sixth are further apart than the notes of a major second: Major second:

    Major sixth:

    You can refine this ability to judge pitch distances by practicing interval recognition.

These two approaches work together. At different stages of your training and in different circumstances you’ll use one skill more than the other.

For example, the characteristic sounds tend to be helpful when first starting out but mostly for harmonic intervals. Judging pitch distances can be hard for adjacent types of interval (e.g. major third vs minor third) but this skill gets stronger with practice and is ultimately the more useful and instinctive version of the skill. It’s like having an innate pitch ruler in your head.

Your ear recognises different types of interval by their distinctive sound and/or by the raw size of them.

How can I learn to recognise intervals?

There are three ear training methods musicians use to learn interval recognition.

  1. The first method is “reference songs”. This means that for each type of interval, you memorise a song melody which has that interval as its first two notes. You normally choose songs which are already familiar to you. The idea is that when you hear the interval, your brain automatically fills in the rest of the melody after, and by recognising the melody you recognise the interval.

    This method is the one usually used when music students are forced to learn interval recognition just for the “aural skills” section of their instrument exams. It’s actually a great way to get started, but you will quickly realise it is very limited for real music applications where you can’t recognise each song for each pair of intervals quickly enough. It’s also not great for harmonic intervals.

  2. The second method is “solfa”. This is the “do re mi” approach made famous by the childrens song in The Sound of Music. But don’t let that fool you. Solfa (also called “solfege”) is probably the most powerful and versatile framework there is for learning relative pitch. There’s a bit of a learning curve but if you’re truly dedicated to developing your musicianship solfa is a great choice.
  3. The third method is to just do it, by drilling interval recognition exercises and listening carefully to hear how the different types of interval compare. This is the most common approach among musicians. It’s a “brute force” approach, meaning it can be a bit dull – but it is simple and effective.

You can learn more about all three approaches in our full article How to learn intervals.

There are three methods for interval ear training. Start with reference songs, then move on to solfa (do-re-mi) or pure recognition drills.

What are the most important intervals?

As you saw in the list above, there are 13 types of interval and they come in three different forms (ascending, descending and harmonic). In fact there are even more types than that (see “compound intervals” below).

So how do you know what to focus on?

You don’t need to worry about mastering them all. In fact, just half of those 13 types are the most important.

  1. Start by learning major and minor seconds, because they are the “stepping stones” the other intervals are built from and they’re the most common interval used between notes in melodies.
  2. Learn major and minor thirds because they’re important for chords and harmony (and also common in melodies).
  3. Learn perfect fourths and fifths because they’re important for harmony and especially for chord progressions.

The octave is important too, but most musicians find that comes fairly easily.

You should study all three forms, and it’s normally best to practice with the different forms of one type of interval fairly close together. For example don’t ignore all the intervals’ harmonic forms until after you’ve mastered them all in melodic form. It’s normally easier if your plan has you practicing the harmonic form soon after the melodic, or vice-versa.

Naturally it is helpful to eventually learn every type of interval but focusing on the types listed above will help you get practical results from your practice as soon as possible.

Learn seconds for melodies (and everything), thirds for chords and fourths/fifths for chord progressions.

What are “compound” intervals
and do I need to learn them?

You might hear about “compound” intervals or wonder if there are more types than listed above. Simply put, compound intervals are the ones bigger than an octave.

It tends to be jazz musicians who talk about these the most, as they’re often thinking in terms of extended chord voicings which use them.

Most musicians don’t need to worry about compound intervals. Firstly because recognising compound intervals doesn’t arise all that often. And secondly because when it does, you can typically use your interval recognition skills for the types listed above to recognise those bigger intervals too (because they sound similar, just in a different octave).

Compound intervals are bigger than an octave. You probably don’t need to worry about them, especially if you’re just starting out.

Where can I find good interval reference songs?

The traditional interval reference songs tend to be a bit dull. Lots of Christmas carols, folk songs, and examples from old music you may never have heard of.

The good news is you certainly don’t need to limit yourself to those standard examples! You are free to use any song which starts with the interval as your reference song for that interval.

Example: Use “Friday” by Rebecca Black to remember the descending major second:

If you do a Google search for “interval reference songs” you’ll find plenty of lists to give you ideas. Here are some to get you started:

  • JustinGuitar.com
  • vcu.edu
  • ChoralNet
  • fromthewoodshed.com
  • YouTube videos like this one

We also have our own set of modern interval reference songs.

Everybody has different musical tastes though, so if you find yourself lacking songs for certain intervals, try to figure out your own. This is a great exercise in itself:

  1. Play an example of the interval on your instrument, and see if any song pops into your head.
  2. If not, try another random example of that interval type. It can help to play the corresponding major chord first, to give your brain a harmonic context. For example play a C major chord, and then the interval starting from C.
  3. Try adding a random third note after the interval to help prompt your brain to fill in the rest of a tune.
  4. Alternatively, start from your 10 favourite songs and figure out what the corresponding interval is for each.

After exploring the links above and trying these exercises you should be able to compile your own personal list of interval reference songs for the ascending and descending form of each of the 13 intervals.

Google “interval reference songs” or follow the links above to find interval reference songs that appeal to you. Figuring out your own reference songs is a useful exercise in itself.

How can I learn intervals with solfa?

The solfa framework for relative pitch gives each note in the scale a name: “do”, “re”, “mi”, etc. You can learn all about it in this tutorial series.

So how does that relate to interval recognition? Well, the idea is that you learn the pair of note names which correspond to the interval. For example, you learn that a major third is “do mi” ascending, and that going from “la” up to “do” gives you a minor third. All the intervals have one or more handy solfa equivalents.

This means that all the practice you do recognising solfa notes by ear helps you recognise intervals and vice-versa. You can reinforce the connection by singing exercises where you sing the two notes with their solfa names, followed by those same two notes with the interval name, e.g. “do, mi, major, third”. For example:

Here are some more examples of solfa interval exercises you can practice with.

You learn the syllables which correspond, e.g. “do” up to “so” is a perfect fifth. There are exercises you can use to practice this.

How can I learn intervals by just doing it?

To learn intervals with the “pure recognition” or “brute force” approach you need an easy way to hear lots of examples, organised into sensible groupings. For example, starting out with just ascending major and minor seconds. No other interval types included until you get the hang of those.

At first you use these examples to listen carefully and try to hear the differences between different interval types. Then you can start to test yourself, by guessing the interval type and checking your answer.

You have three options here:

  1. Instrument Practice: Just sit with your instrument and play examples for yourself. Depending on your instrument this may require some knowledge of interval spelling but is a fantastic way to make sure you’re always relating interval recognition back to practical instrument skills. Guitarists can actually do interval ear training on guitar without knowing the spellings.
  2. MP3 Practice Tracks: These are MP3 files which play a series of example intervals and announce what type each was. Each MP3 typically represents a “lesson” i.e. a certain set of interval types.
    For example here’s a track for ascending major and minor thirds:

    Here are some more free interval tracks to get you started.

  3. Interactive Software: You can get desktop software and mobile apps which will let you practice interval recognition in an interactive way, quizzing you on the different intervals. This can be highly customisable and convenient. There are also websites which provide online interval training and even interval ear training games like those from Theta Music.

Download some training MP3s which demonstrate and test you on recognition. Or use interactive software: there are options for web, desktop and mobile.

Do I need to master certain intervals before moving on?

There are three reasons you might think that you should progress through learning the intervals in order, mastering each before moving on.

  1. If you’re following a course to learn interval recognition you’ll probably find there’s a set sequence of lessons to follow.
  2. From a music theory perspective there is a logical ordering of the intervals by their size.
  3. Repetition is required for you to learn recognition skills, so you do need to persist for the brain to learn what it needs to.

However, mastery of each interval type is not necessary. It’s not necessary before moving on with your training, and it’s actually not necessary to start using intervals in your music-making either.

In fact, allowing yourself to be flexible will typically accelerate your training by letting you skirt around obstacles and sticking points. When you return to them later you normally find your improved sense of relative pitch has already removed the problem.

So don’t be afraid to move on before 100% perfect mastery of certain interval types. Aim for 80% or “normally right”, then come back later and polish up any problem spots.

Mastery is not necessary. Be persistent, because it does take time and repetition to teach the brain new skills – but if you’ve been stuck for a while, moving on to something else can actually accelerate your overall progress.

What if I get stuck learning intervals?

Learning intervals takes time. Most musicians can get to a good intermediate level within a few months of regular practice, but that journey can feel slow-going, and going further to truly master and apply interval recognition will take patience.

So when you feel stuck, what can you do? The answer is to mix things up a bit. The wonderful thing about learning relative pitch is that the skills you practice are all complementary. So changing your approach from the straight-line you probably initially planned can actually be a good thing rather than an admission of defeat.

Here are a few examples of how to mix it up in a useful way:

  • Change the instrument. Either the actual instrument you’re playing if possible, or just the instrument sound used in your training examples.
  • Change your approach. If you’ve been using reference songs, give solfa a try. If you’ve been drilling hard with practice exercises maybe you’d find some reference songs helpful. And so on.
  • Change the intervals you’re studying. For example, skip ahead a lesson or return to some you’d already mastered and refresh your memory and skills. Changing form from melodic to harmonic can also be a great way to keep making progress.
  • Change your training, specifically by switching the kinds of exercise you do. If you’ve been doing pure practice drills, try applying your interval skills for improvisation or playing by ear, or using them to write music of your own.

Finally, if you’re making slower progress than you hoped to and you aren’t singing your intervals it’s time to start. Read on to find out why.

Need more ideas for getting unstuck? You can also check out our dedicated articles on Interval Ear Training Help and Interval Tips and Tricks.

Mix it up. Change the interval types you’re practising, change the instrument, find a new way to practice. Also, sing!

Why does singing intervals help you learn them?

When our students at Easy Ear Training and Musical U get stuck learning intervals, the first thing I always ask is: “Are you singing as part of your practice?”

It doesn’t matter if you’re “a singer” or not. If you aren’t using your voice to train your ears then you’re overlooking one of your most powerful tools.

The brain has a deep connection to both the ears and the vocal cords, and all three work together in your musical instinct. Getting better at pitching notes with your voice means you get better and judging those pitch distances by ear too.

Singing also gives you a kind of “playground” you can use when figuring out intervals. This lets you try out different things and give your ear more to work with. For example you can transform a harmonic interval you just heard into its melodic form by singing back the two notes.

There’s an intimate biological connection between brain, ears and voice. By singing intervals you teach your brain to judge their distances in a new and effective way. Also, having accurate singing pitch makes you a better musician.

Using Intervals

How will intervals help me recognise chords and progressions?

Many musicians feel like intervals are too simple to be useful. What they actually want to do is play chords by ear, or work out melodies, or improvise solos. These all seem like more bigger musical elements than a simple pair of notes.

As explained earlier, intervals are the “building blocks” of relative pitch. That means they’re the easiest way to build up to those more sophisticated skills.

Intervals help you recognise different types of chord (e.g. C Major vs. C Minor vs. C Seven) because you start to hear the pitch relationships between the notes of the chord. Each pair of notes in the chord is an interval and you can learn the intervals for each chord. For example, learning that a major third combined with a perfect fifth gives you a major chord.

Intervals are also helpful for chord progressions, as they let you hear the movement of the root (base) note of the chords. For example, to recognise a C-F-G progression you hear that it sounds a bit like a perfect fourth (C up to F) and then a major second (F up to G). Or that the final chord sounds like a perfect fifth above the first one (C up to G).

These examples are a good reminder of the fundamental point: interval recognition builds your sense of relative pitch and that’s what lets you do all the interesting and exciting activities in music.

The intervals between the notes in chords can help you recognise the chords. The intervals between the root notes of chords can help you recognise a progression. Fundamentally, intervals build your core ability to identify all the notes you hear.

How will intervals help me improvise?

Improvisation can be thought of as the ability to imagine new music in your head and then bring it out through your instrument.

Intervals help you to improvise by letting you understand the music you imagine in concrete terms. You know how the second note relates to the first, and the third to the second, so that when you want to actually play those notes, you can. You know how far above or below each note the next one should be.

One caveat here: often people working on intervals and improvisation worry that they can’t get fast enough recognising intervals to actually use it at improvisation speed.

There are two solutions here.

The first is that as you get better and faster at interval recognition, it becomes an automatic instinct rather than a thinking process. This is related to the “innate pitch ruler” idea discussed earlier.

The second solution is that typically a musician won’t choose each note to improvise completely at random from all possible notes! They operate within a framework such as a scale. This greatly reduces the number of possible notes to those notes which will sound good and musical. Then they use interval recognition to know which notes from that framework they are choosing in their head.

When you imagine the next note you want to play, intervals let you judge how far you need to jump from your last note to hit it.

How will intervals help me play by ear?

When you listen to music with interval-trained ears you hear in a much more structured and precise way. This means that you can apply your interval recognition skills to work out the notes you’ve heard. You can then write them down or play them on your instrument.

To play exactly the notes you heard, you generally do need one known note to base all your other relative judgements on. For example, you might look up the key of the song, or just dabble on your instrument along with the recording to identify the tonic note. Once that one note is known, all the rest follow from the intervals between them.

Like improvisation, this begins as a slow thinking process. You will really be “working out songs by ear” rather than directly playing them. But over time, and with the use of frameworks (e.g. knowing about I-IV-V chord progressions) this gets faster and faster until it’s immediate and easy.

When you hear notes in music, interval recognition lets you judge how far apart they are from one another. So once you know the identity of one note (e.g. the melody starts on a C) you can figure out all the notes by ear.

So there you have it! All the essential information about learning intervals, condensed down into bite-sized chunks.

You should now understand what intervals are and why they matter. You know which ones to focus on, and three methods for doing interval ear training. Perhaps most importantly, you know how to start using intervals in your real musical life for tasks like playing by ear, improvising, transcription and writing your own music.

Want more? You can find even more interval resources on our dedicated Intervals page or explore the interactive interval training modules available at Musical U where you can get personal help and support to create a training plan to conquer intervals in an easy, fun and effective way which perfectly fits your musical life.

Did we miss anything? If you still have unanswered questions or you want to share your own advice or interval tips, leave a comment below!

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