Use Songs You Know to Learn Your Musical Intervals
One of the most difficult elements of both sight reading and ear training in music is the mastery of intervals. Once you know your intervals, almost no piece of music is out of your ability, and you will soon be able to sight read or transcribe any piece you hear. The best way to learn your intervals is to think of them in the context of songs that you already know. Once you associate a Perfect 4th, for instance, with the first interval in “Here Comes the Bride,” you’ll never forget it. Here are a few mnemonic devices you can use to remember each of the intervals you need to know.
Minor 2nd (Ascending) – There is perhaps no more foreboding interval than the ascending Minor 2nd, as you can associate it with the first two notes of the theme from Jaws. If you want to think of something a little happier, however, the first interval (between the 2nd and 3rd notes) of “Ode to Joy” also does the trick.
Minor 2nd (Descending) – Think of the end of a wedding. The bride and groom have just started kissing and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March starts playing as they head back up the aisle. The first two notes of this march form a descending Minor 2nd. You can also think of the first two notes (which are repeated several times) in the classic song “Fur Elise.”
Major 2nd (Ascending) – Solfege has never been as popular as it was in the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, The Sound of Music. Think of Julie Andrews singing “Do-Re-Mi” to the children. In the line “doe a deer,” the interval between “doe” and “a” is an ascending Major 2nd. Another option to think of is the first interval in “Frere Jacques.”
Major 2nd (Descending) – Think back to your school days and nursery rhymes. In “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the interval in the word “Mary” is a descending Major 2nd. It is also the first interval in “Three Blind Mice.”
Minor 3rd (Ascending) – You’ve already thought of The Sound of Music once, so why not try it again. This time think of the kids saying goodbye on the stairs and singing “So Long, Farewell.” The interval between “so” and “long” is an ascending Minor 3rd. If musicals aren’t your thing, however, and you’re more into hard rock, think of the first interval in Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for another example.
Minor 3rd (Descending) – The Beatles immortalized the descending Minor 3rd with the first two notes of “Hey Jude.” If you’re feeling particularly patriotic, however, you can also remember it as the first two notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” (in the middle of the word “Oh”).
Major 3rd (Ascending) – You may never get it out of your head again, but think of the theme song from the Disneyland attraction “It’s a Small World.” The first interval of the chorus, between the words “a” and “small” is an ascending Major 3rd. Otherwise, if you want to get into the holiday spirit, think of the first two notes of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Major 3rd (Descending) – Moving from Christmas to the Gershwins’ hit “Summertime,” the first two notes (in between “sum” and “mer”) will give you a descending Major 3rd. An alternative to remember this interval is the first two notes of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Perfect 4th (Ascending) – The ascending Perfect 4th is one of the most recognizable intervals in music. Think of a wedding, as you did earlier, but this time, picture the bride coming down the aisle. In “Here Comes the Bride,” the interval between “here” and “comes” is an ascending perfect 4th. You can also think of the first two notes of the Jeopardy theme song or the first two notes of “Amazing Grace.”
Perfect 4th (Descending) – Return to your school days once again and think of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” The interval between “I’ve” and “been” as well as “work” and “ing” is a descending Perfect 4th. If you prefer to think of Christmas carols, you can also remember the first descending interval in “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
Tritone/Augmented 4th/Diminished 5th (Ascending) – While it goes by many names, the tritone is one of the hardest to forget intervals because it sounds so ugly. The ascending version of the tritone was made most famous in the song “Maria” from the musical West Side Story. The interval between the syllables “ma” and “ri” is an ascending tritone. You can also think of the vocal introduction to the theme song from The Simpsons.
Tritone/Augmented 4th/Diminished 5th (Descending) – The descending tritone doesn’t feature very prominently in that many songs, but there are a couple you can try to use to remember it. Going back to the old standby, The Sound of Music, this time think of the titular song. As the song draws to a close, Maria sings “My heart will be blessed with the sound of music, and I’ll sing once more.” The interval between “I’ll” and “sing” is a descending tritone. Another option from musical theater is the song “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In the first line of the song, “Close every door to me,” it is the interval between “door” and “to.”
Perfect 5th (Ascending) – While the tritone may have been one of the hardest intervals to remember, the ascending Perfect 5th is one of the easiest thanks to John Williams. Think of the first ascending interval in the main theme from Star Wars and you will never forget the ascending Perfect 5th. If you just can’t think of anything besides Christmas songs, however, you can also remember the first interval in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
Perfect 5th (Descending) – Pop and rock fans rejoice, because you can easily remember this interval without having to think about musical theater or Christmas songs. If you think of the song “My Girl” by The Temptations, the bass line that starts the song is a series of repeating descending Perfect 5ths. You can also think of the first two notes of the theme song from The Flinstones.
Minor 6th (Ascending) – Perhaps the trickiest interval to associate with a song, the ascending Minor 6th hasn’t been used too often. If you go back to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the first two notes of “Close Every Door” (between “close” and “ev”) use this interval. You can also think of the new rock anthem “We Are Young” by fun. In the chorus, “So let’s set the world on fire,” the interval in the word “fire” is an ascending Minor 6th.
Minor 6th (Descending) – Older people will have no problem remembering the song “Love Story.” In the opening line “Where do I begin,” the interval between “where” and “do” is a descending Minor 6th. For those of you who still can’t get enough of Christmas music, remember that in the song “The 12 Days of Christmas,” in the line “three French hens,” the interval between “three” and “French” is also a descending Minor 6th.
Major 6th (Ascending) – No TV network beside NBC has a clearly recognizable theme song, and the interval between the “N” and the “B” in “NBC” is the ascending Major 6th. You can also think of the first two notes of the song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”
Major 6th (Descending) – Your choices for the descending Major 6th are either very depressing or very perky. First, there is the song “Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera. In the opening line, “Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation,” think of the interval between “night” and “time.” Your other option is the song “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. In the chorus, the interval between “sweet” and “car” is the descending Major 6th.
Minor 7th (Ascending ) – West Side Story is prime source material for the more bizarre intervals. First there was the tritone in “Maria,” and now there is the ascending Minor 7th in the song “Somewhere.” Think of the first line, “There’s a place for us,” and the interval between “there’s” and “a” is the one to remember. Another option for those who don’t like musicals is the Abba song “The Winner Takes it All.” The interval in the middle of the word “winner” is also an ascending Minor 7th.
Minor 7th (Descending) – Christmas carol fans, rejoice. Think of the song “White Christmas” and the last line, “And may all your Christmases by white.” The interval in the word “Christmases” is a descending Minor 7th. Jazz fans can also think of the main descending interval in the song “Watermelon Man.”
Major 7th (Ascending) – Keeping with the jazz theme, think of the Norah Jones hit “Don’t Know Why.” In the first line, “I waited till I saw the sun,” the interval between “I” and “wait” is an ascending Major 7th. Fans of 80s music can also think of the A-Ha song “Take on Me.” In the chorus, the interval between “take” and “on” will also suffice.
Major 7th (Descending) – It’s time for one last Christmas song. Think of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the last line “And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” The interval between “have” and “your” is a descending Major 7th.
Octave (Ascending) – The last interval is the octave, and it’s one of the easiest to recognize. Think of the hit song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. In the middle of the word “somewhere,” Dorothy jumps up an octave. Another option is the first two notes of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Octave (Descending) – Think of the Gershwins’ song “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The last line of the chorus sings the title of the song, and the interval between “watch” and “ov” is a descending octave. Another jazz standard, “My Funny Valentine” offers a similar ending to its chorus. Think of the line “Stay little Valentine, stay. Each day is Valentine’s Day.” The interval you want to remember is the one between “stay” and “each.”