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One of the most valuable skills a musician can have is being able to identify musical intervals by ear. Once you can comfortably pick out musical intervals as you hear them, you are officially on your way towards the upper echelons of musical ability. But, let’s step back for a moment.
What is an interval?
An interval is simply the distance between two notes. We classify intervals in two ways— by quantity and by quality. Quantity tells us roughly how far apart the notes are on the scale; and quality tells us more about the unique sound of the interval or which scale it’s pulling from.
Whether you’re a vocalist learning to sight sing from sheet music or an instrumentalist working on transcribing songs, arranging for an ensemble, or even composing new musical material, learning to identify intervals by ear can be useful across almost any situation. Plus, if you can identify intervals by ear, who needs perfect pitch?
The best way we’ve found to practice identifying note intervals by ear is to associate each interval with a familiar song or melody that you could likely sing in your head already. All you have to do is commit a piece of the melody to memory, and voilà, you’re on your way to interval recall!
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We’ve already covered this with ascending intervals, so let’s look at how to identify descending intervals using popular songs and melodies. Wherever possible, we’ve offered more than one example, in case you’re not familiar with the first. Ready?
Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Für Elise” provides us with the first example of a minor second, and it can be found in the first “seconds” of the piece — in other words, the first two notes are a descending minor second apart.
We have George Frideric Handel to thank for the next example, in a melody that would later be adapted as the holiday standard, “Joy to the World.” The minor second interval here appears with the lyrics “joy” and “to” at 0:04 in the version below. Easy enough!
The Beatles’ classic “Yesterday” is where we can find a handy example of the major second. Just listen to the syllables “yes” and “ter” around 0:05.
Another simple-to-remember example is the nursery rhyme, “Three Blind Mice.” The first two notes in the melody are what you’ll want to focus on, at 0:00.
Everyone can sing this tune off the top of their heads! Listen to “Frosty the Snowman,” and focus on when the lyrical syllables move from “fros” to “ty” at around 0:12.
And since we’re here, we may as well bring it back to the Fab Four again. The Beatles‘ “Hey Jude” starts on a minor third interval, once again at 0:00.
It seems we can always turn to a popular old melody for some familiar sing-along action. The lyrics of this tune have a bit of an icky past, harking back to the American Civil War, but like most public domain songs to stand the test of time, the simplistic melody often reminds us of childhood. In “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” you’ll find the major third at 0:04, on the lyrics “Shoo” and “fly.”
But don’t get too comfortable with that one, here’s perhaps the most well-known melody of the bunch: the first two unique notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The most classic-est of classic major thirds.
For a descending perfect fourth, look no further than the traditional “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” as the lyrics “I’ve” and “been” at 0:00 feature this interval.
The tritone is a mainstay interval of heavy, dissonant rock riffage. In a most classic example, Black Sabbath’s self-titled song “Black Sabbath” (off the self-titled record, Black Sabbath) hits us with this massively dissonant tritone as soon as the band enters at 0:36, first jumping an octave before descending a gnarly diminished fifth, aiming to invoke the unequivocal power of the devil. The first time features a fast trill on the guitar, with a cleaner example of the interval at 0:47.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake, Opus 20” contains a very distinct melody that you might not think you’d recognize until you hear it. At 0:03 of Act II, the oboe solo clearly establishes the perfect fifth in a beautiful descending line.
Alright, this one is another melody you’ve definitely heard before, whether you think you have or not. Francis Lai’s theme song to the film Love Story actually opens with two notes ascending a minor sixth, but if you skip ahead to 0:24, just after a short horn fanfare, those two notes reverse briefly before entering the meat of the run. Either way you play those two notes back, it’s a minor sixth interval, but train your ears to hear it as a descending melody to recognize the gap as such.
This minor sixth interval wastes no time, jumping in right at the top of the tune. It’s a bit tough to pick out of the dissonant, bluesy context that D’Angelo sets up with the rest of his opening riff, but if you can isolate just those first two notes, you’ll have a perfectly handy minor sixth to memorize.
Here’s one of my favorite on the list! One of Michael Jackson’s most uplifting melodies ever, his lyrical ramp up to the title refrain in “Man in the Mirror,” actually gets a jump start with a downward interval of an enormous major sixth gap! At 1:06, when he sings, “I’m” and “start,” you can hear how energetically it leads into the ascending melody. Top-line composers, take note!
Herbie Hancock’s funky anthem, “Watermelon Man,” from Head Hunters, was originally painted with lighter colors as a piano-driven jazz tune in 1962. While it opens with some rocking back and forth on two chords, at 0:15, the first two notes of the lead melody take us a minor seventh down.
Cole Porter’s standard, “I Love You,” sung below by Sarah Vaughan, provides a broad, sweeping plunge into the major seventh interval. Listen as Vaughan sings “Love” and “You” after briefly holding on the “I” around 0:21.
Lastly, for the television-savvy listener, the sort-of-famous theme music to the sort-of-famous ’90s sitcom, Doogie Howser, M.D. (written by Mike Post) can also serve as a handy reminder of the descending octave interval. Bop along with the synth at 0:00.
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