Put simply, an interval is the difference between two pitches. When our choirs sing, it is the interplay between these intervals that creates harmony.
A singer’s understanding of intervals will vary depending on musical knowledge and background. While our singers, particularly those learning by ear, don’t need to become experts on the subject, a basic understanding will help them to start identifying patterns in the music they sing and feel more confident about pitching their parts in an arrangement.
The singers in my contemporary choir learn by ear and most have no musical training. Even though they don’t need to understand the theory behind the music they’re singing to enjoy it and perform it well, it’s useful for them to have a basic grasp of intervals.
Here are some easy warm-ups you can try with your choir:
Starting on middle C, ask your singers to sing up a scale using numbers 1-8 and back. Once they have done that, start working through the same scale but introducing intervals by returning to the first note after each new number. The pattern will go like this: 1-2 / 1-3 / 1-4 / 1-5 / 1-6 / 1-7 / 1-8. Your singers will then start to hear each note in relation to number 1.
Start this exercise slowly, building up pace as your singers get more confident. Keep an ear on the pitch to make sure that the intervals are accurate. If you have an accompanist or keyboard available, playing the notes can really help. You can also reverse the pattern, climbing down the scale returning to the number 8 each time, which goes like this 8-7 / 8-6 / 8-5 / 8-4 / 8-3 / 8-2 / 8-1.
Start your rehearsal with some beautiful harmony using major third and perfect fifth intervals. Split the choir into three groups, which can be their voice sections or another mixture. One group starts by singing a root note, ‘1’, then the others join on ‘3’ and then ‘5’, creating a basic triad. If your singers are confident without using numbers you could sing on ‘ah’ or other vowel sounds. Vary which group is singing ‘1’ (tonic), ‘3’ (mediant) and ‘5’ (dominant). Point out to the choir that the ‘3’ and ‘5’ don’t have to be higher in pitch than the ‘1’. The chords can be inverted.
A nice variation on this exercise is to get the choir singing a chord (tell them to breathe and resume when they need to), then ask everyone to move up a semitone, then back to the original notes, then down a semitone, then back again.
Once the choir is confident with triads, try splitting them into four groups, building the triad as before, then adding in a second, sixth or seventh note to create more interesting chords.
Major and minor thirds
Choral singers often struggle to make major thirds sufficiently ‘bright’ in pitch, so this exercise is good for drawing attention to tuning major and minor chords. Ask your choir to sing a major arpeggio (1-3-5-8-5-3-1, either using the numbers or a vowel sound) followed by a minor arpeggio, then move up a semitone and repeat. Start slowly to make sure the tuning is spot on.