If you’ve gone through traditional interval training, you’re probably about as thrilled with your Interval Reference Songs as you are with the other “IRS”: the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
The old pre-internet interval recognition songs include such exciting fare as nursery rhymes, folk songs, old music you never heard of… But this equivalent of the IRS doesn’t actually have to be so taxing!
An interval reference song can be any song, as long as it starts with the desired interval.
At first it might seem like you need a lot of songs. 11 pairs of ascending and descending intervals (if we knock out the unison and the octave)—that’s 22 interval reference songs to find! But when you stop to think about it, how does that compare with all the songs you know? And each one starts with an interval…
How do interval reference songs work?
Whether you’re just starting interval training, or you’ve been drilling away at solfa or the just do it method that we talked about in How to Learn Intervals, finding a bunch of interval reference songs will put the intervals in a musical context, help you gain confidence in interval recognition, and it’s lots of fun!
While most of the time we tend to pick the interval between the first two notes in the song, any prominent interval in the song will do. Remember Rebecca Black’s “Friday”? Every time she sings “Friday” in the chorus it’s a descending major second!
Where to find good interval reference songs
A simple Google search on “interval reference songs” will come up with plenty of lists. Try this set of modern interval reference songs or any from the lists included in the Ultimate Guide to Intervals.
These sites are an easy “in” to the world of interval reference songs, can give you lots of ideas, and they’re a lot more fun than the old pre-internet lists. It’s also very helpful to hear any given interval in many different musical contexts.
When cruising these sites, first look for songs that you know already. These will be the ones you’ll remember best, so they’ll be most useful to you when you’re trying to identify random intervals.
Find Your Own Interval Reference Songs
Even with all the choices out there, the best Interval Reference Songs are the ones you will remember. Figuring them out for yourself is an exercise in itself that will add even more power to your interval recognition skills.
There are three basic ways to find your own interval reference songs:
1. Interval First
Play an interval on your instrument. Listen to it with a relaxed mind. What is the first song that pops into your head? Make sure you double check it by playing or (even better) singing it a few times. If you’ve made a mistake, you can always use that song for another interval.
Sometimes, nothing comes when you hear that first interval. This may be because you are used to hearing the song that goes with that interval in another key. Try playing the same interval, but starting on a different note, and repeat the process.
If you still come up with zip, try adding a third random note and see how that pokes your brain into figuring out the rest of the tune.
2. Add a Little Harmony and Rhythm
Invite a little company to cheer up those lonely intervals! This method is basically adjunct to method one. Try any of the above, but play a major chord before sounding first pitch in the interval. For example, if the interval starts on D, play a D major chord, followed by the interval. This harmonic context can trigger your brain to fill in the rest of the melody.
Also try different rhythms. You can start with whatever random rhythms come to mind, or devise a list of rhythms to go through. In order to be a good interval reference song, you’ll not want it to be so fast that you can’t grab the pitches with your mind. Similarly, when the song is too slow, the focus is more on the held note with its emotion and timbre, rather than the movement between the notes.
3. Song First
Make a list of your ten favorite songs. Then listen to them and figure out the first two notes on your instrument. Play those notes and determine the interval.
Remember, you don’t have to restrict yourself absolutely to the first two notes. However most contemporary music, by design, places the most memorable melodic material at the beginning of the opening of the melody and and the opening of the chorus.
If you get stuck trying to find a song for any interval in particular, you can always fall back on the internet lists to inspire you. Going through some of those songs may even jog your memory on one of your own.
The More the Merrier
Traditionally, interval students make a definite list of specific songs, one for each interval. That can certainly bring some clarity to the process. But why stop there?
Yes, having a definite tried-and-true list to fall back on is always a good idea. But musical context, such as harmony, rhythm, and timbre, can disguise intervals quite well.
Hearing the same interval in different songs can help you to fish your interval out of the rolling musical seas.
Your Interval Reference Songs
So where are you going to start with interval reference songs? Each one of these methods of finding them has distinct advantages that will expand your learning. In fact, it’s probably better to mix it up a bit: they all work together and help each other.
If you’ve gone through the process of searching out your own interval recognition songs, you know that certain intervals are much more easy to find than others. It’s no coincidence that these will be the most important ones to learn first. We’ll talk about this and other ways to make your interval training more effective, meaningful, and fun in Interval Ear Training Tips.