Great choir warm-ups for interval training

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:

Climbing scales

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.

Building chords

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.

Comments on Great choir warm-ups for interval training

  1. Avatar Lauren says:

    One that I’ve been trying this year is:
    S: 1-2-3-4-5—7—8—-
    A: 1-2-3-4-5—4—3—-
    T: 1-2-3-4-5—5—5—-
    B: 1-2-3-4-5—5—1—-

    They simply sing the numbers, move it up or down in half or whole steps.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Good idea Lauren

  2. Avatar Langley Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing
    Merredin Community Choir
    Western Australia

  3. Avatar Sunnie says:

    I also do with my SSA group the 1-3-5, but then have a individual random groups go up or down by half AND by whole steps, creating lots of interesting chords.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Sunnie,

      I can’t wait to try out this version with my choir and create some different chords.

  4. Avatar jennifer says:

    An exercise called Cathedral – is similar to the one Christine mentions about having the three groups build a chord on the 1-3-5 and then having each group go up a tone and then back to the 1-3-5 and then down a tone. In Cathedral, instead of going up only one tone together – the choir leader uses his/her hands to direct each group separately in going up or down a tone at a time in the scale. Singers get to hear chords that are discordant and others that are more in sync. With new singers, you can start with just two groups on the 1 and 3 to keep it simple – it might take a few tries to have them nail the notes – and should be practised over several weeks as part of the warm-up, but it can sound very beautiful (especially once you have three tones) and is a great listening exercise.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Jennifer,

      This is a great variation on my 1-3-5 idea, I will have to get practising to try this myself. I love exercises which you can expand and make more complicated as the choir gets to grips with them. I think that way they can really gain confidence in their progress.

  5. Avatar Pato Podo says:

    Very useful. Thanks!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Pato

  6. Avatar Amy Tattersall says:

    That’s great thanks. I find warm ups the hardest thing about leading my choir. It’s difficult trying to think of new things each week. One thing I do often is a tongue twister which goes down well. We start on c and move up the scale singing the tongue twister. There are loads of options so you just adjust the rhythm to match whatever you’re singing. Irish wristwatch and toy boat are good ones and very difficult!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Amy,

      This sounds lots of fun, I’ve never tried working up the scale with a tongue twister or adjusting the rhythm but will be trying out both!

  7. Thank you for those Victoria and Christine – the semi tone one is a great reminder for me and the minor third brightening.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Laura,

      Glad the article was helpful.

  8. Avatar Jamie Serafi says:

    Wow thanks Christine this article could not be any more timely! I started doing some similar pitch exercises last week with Cool Choir. I am going to try these this week! ???

    1. Avatar Kate Swadling says:

      Get them holding 1,3,5,8 in parts and then moving one group up and down ie 3td to 4th, 8 to major 7th in the chord then flattening to -7 (listening to the dominant chord). And of course the major 3 to -3rd. 5th to 6th is lovely, 8 to 9. Great also to get them to walk around holding their own interval but listening to other notes as they pass by.

      1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

        Fantastic ideas Kate, I’m so glad I wrote the article as now I have some new ideas to try out as well!

    2. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Jamie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *