How to Play Intervals on the Piano or Keyboard

By Holly Day, Jerry Kovarksy, Blake Neely, David Pearl, Michael Pilhofer

Playing piano can be like having a choir at your fingertips. You have a ten-member group, some are shorter and some are taller, some like to show off and some prefer to blend in, and one or two really don’t take well to being singled out.

As the conductor of the fingertip chorale, you have control over how each “voice” in your choir responds to your direction. You can bring up the bass, hush the choir while the soprano has a solo, or lift up every voice for the full-out finale.

Here are some exercises to gain command over each finger combination so that when you’re playing two notes together you have the strength and control to balance and blend. These interval exercises also let you scrutinize the many combinations of fingers, intervals, and positions on the keyboard to get to know how each finger responds. Special attention is given to strengthening those fingers that need it the most.

Playing seconds with different finger combinations

Seconds are any interval combination on adjacent keys, white or black. Because of the keyboard layout, that means a variety of hand and finger positions to work on.

Each of these finger combination exercises includes a study for the right hand and the left hand separately. Play through these exercises a few times slowly at first — concentrating on each hand — listening carefully to adjust the balance and timing of each finger combination. Curve your fingers and keep the finger joints firm to play the seconds evenly. Then gradually increase your speed each time you play the exercise.

As you increase your speed and accuracy, play these exercises as a series, starting with the right and left hand in the first finger combination, moving on to the right and left hand in the next finger combination, and so on.

As you play the seconds with each finger combination, imagine the two fingers moving together as one unit. In the first combination, for example, finger two and finger three move together to strike each interval in a synchronized motion.

Finger combination: Two and three

Start your 2nd and 3rd fingers. Adjust your attack and your timing to play the seconds evenly while changing hand positions. Listen to the two and three finger combination.

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Finger combination: Three and four

Try to eliminate excess movement by keeping your hand close to the keyboard.

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Finger combination: One and two

You may find playing the seconds evenly difficult to do with this finger combination. Your first two fingers are such different lengths! Bring your fingertips close together, like you’re forming an “O,” before striking the keys.

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Finger combination: Four and five

Work on building strength in your 4th and 5th fingers by keeping the joints firm to make the accents strong.

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Playing thirds with different finger combinations

These exercises improve your agility as you maneuver both major and minor thirds. The different finger combinations keep all your fingers nimble.

Finger combination: One and three

Make sure you have a nice, high arch to your hand, and let your fingers hang down and your fingertips lightly touch the keys.

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Finger combination: Two and four

This next exercise is a good one to play with both staccato and legato articulation.

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Finger combination: Three and five

Balance the thirds so the two notes are the same volume. Make sure your thumb stays relaxed and isn’t playing louder than the other fingers.

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Finger combinations: One and four, two and five, one and five

Here’s an exercise for the thirds. Keep your wrists up high, and lift your fingers up like spider legs, bringing them down evenly in twos. And not too fast — stay relaxed and melt into the keys.

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Playing fourths with finger combinations

Practicing fourths is really good for finger independence. The different finger combinations keep your muscle coordination sharp.

Finger combinations: One and four, two and five

This one is especially good for the 4th finger. Work on keeping it curved, and prepare it directly above the key that it’s going to strike.

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Finger combinations: One and three, one and two

You’re stretching here. Maintain a good shape in your 5th finger; don’t let it go flat as it reaches to play its note. Help your pinky by letting go of the fourth interval and moving your hand out, arched, toward the pinky.

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Playing fifths, sixths, and sevenths

Your hand is open wider, and you’re moving your hand across the keyboard while maintaining a nice, rounded hand shape. Watch for twisting.

Exercise in fifths

12/8 time is counted as 12 eighth notes to a measure, with each eighth note getting one count. Each measure can have a rhythmic pattern of four strong beats, on one, four, seven, and ten, with three eighth notes inside each strong beat. Keep both fingers five and one pointing down into the keys.

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Exercise in fifths and sixths

As you play this exercise, fingers four and five are round, but not stiff. Give these fingers some power and flexibility by bouncing your wrist lightly: “down-up, down-up” as you count “one-and, two-and …”

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Exercise in fifths, sixths, and sevenths

Give this fifths, sixths, and sevenths exercise a bluesy, rhythmic feel with a fairly deep wrist bounce on the strong beats in 12/8 time. (That’s one, four, seven, and ten.)

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Performance piece: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”

This familiar old ballpark favorite, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” is arranged with — you guessed it — different interval combinations in each hand. Play each interval pair by using a single, confident hand move.

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