If you are freaking out about having to learn your pitch interval, then fear not, it is definitely not magic. For years I used to think people either had perfect pitch or they didn’t and I mostly didn’t. Wrong!
Pitch Intervals were part of the Aural Test in my grade 4 sax exam and I totally freaked out when I heard I had to know them, until a friend uttered the word ‘mnemonics‘ in my ear. I managed to learn them all in a week and get a perfect score on my Aural test. So no excuses.
What’s a Pitch Interval?
A pitch interval is the difference in frequency between two notes. This can be measured in semitones (half steps) but in music speak it goes like this -
- Unison = Same Pitch
- Minor 2nd = Difference of one semitone
- Major 2nd = two semitones
- Minor 3rd = 3 semitones
- Major 3rd = 4 semitones
- Perfect 4th = 5 semitones
- Tritone (augmented 4th) = 6 semitones
- Perfect 5th = 7 semitones
and so on. There are 12 different intervals in an octave and depending on the grade, you may need to know them all.
What’s a Mnemonic?
By definition mnemonic is a technique used to remember stuff. There are many different types mnemonics to remember all sorts of stuff.You may for example use a phrase like ‘Richard of York Gave Battle In Vane’ to remember the colours of the rainbow. For remembering Pitch Intervals what you need is part of a memorable song, or rather 10 songs if you need to learn a full octave. Assuming you can tell when two notes are an octave apart.
If we take the Minor 2nd, there are two notes which are one semitone apart like C and C#. If you were to play these over and over, I’d guarantee you’d start to hear the theme tune to Jaws. If you do then you have your first mnemonic to remember the Minor 2nd. And there you have it.
Now you just need to find a tune ‘WHICH YOU CAN REMEMBER’ to represent every interval in the octave. I can;t stress how important it is to make these your own. Some like Jaws and Star Wars for the perfect fifth are easy, but others like the tritone are harder to find tunes for. I’d suggest you write down several songs for each interval and workout which one jumps out at you when you hear the two notes.
My mnemonics for pitch intervals
- Jaws – Minor 2nd
- Happy Birthday – Major 2nd
- Brahms Lullaby – Minor 3rd
- While Shepherd – Major 3rd
- Wedding march – Perfect 4th
- Purple Haze or The Simpsons – Tritone
- Star wars – perfect 5th
- Chopin Valse op 64 no 2 – Minor 6th (like I said some were tricker than others)
- My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean – Major 6th
- Star trek original – Minor 7th
- Take on Me (A-Ha) – Major 7th (craping that barrel)
- Octave – Somewhere over the Rainbow
Once you have a selection, then I’d recommend making a playlist on your preferred digital music player, iPhone or in my case Spotify
Then stick it on shuffle and try to guess the interval for each tune. I found having a few crappy tunes you don’t like is not such a bad thing and may even speed up the process as your brain works overtime so you can skip it to the next song. A good idea to have your list written down so you can quickly check if you are right. This is a great little exercise to do while cooking and you don’t get many of those when learning the saxophone.
Ear Trainer App (Pitch Interval test)
Once you feel you know the songs and can tell the interval, then it’s time to move to the next level. Unless you have someone who can test you, the get your hand the Ear Trainer for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. It will create a little quiz for you, where it plays a middle C and another note. You then have to play the two notes on a little piano keyboard. The move on to the next two and so on.
If you can guess..I mean identify the intervals in your song list and get the questions right on the Ear Trainer most of the time, then success is guaranteed.
If all this is still way too confusing, then watch this guy on You Tube, he’s very funny and you’ll feel a lot better about taking his on.