There's already a question similar to this here, but most of the answers raise questions like, "If you can throw an object a certain distance but not tell precisely how far you threw it, how do you expect to know the quality of an interval when you can only simply recall a melody?"

I'm NOT asking why we can't tell the exact frequency difference between two notes (as if we had pitch identification superpowers) or why we can't magically name the quality of intervals without learning a little bit about intervals first.

I'm asking why it's very easy to remember the SOUND of the melody "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (without giving ANY thought to pitch or intervals or quality or music theory or any of that other stuff) and why it seems so much harder to remember the SOUND of the tritone or other interval (also without giving any thought to pitch/intervals/quality/music theory/etc.)—especially when the latter only consists of two notes.

For example, I can quickly recognize and identify the melody of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in any key after a few seconds of hearing it, but I can't do the same for a simple melodic interval without diligent practice. Why is that the case?

Again, I'm not asking why we don't "understand" intervals at some sort of "intellectual" level or something even though we can recall the melodies to our favorite songs (like so many answers in the aforementioned question brought up).

I'm asking why can't we remember the SOUND of an interval just like we remember the SOUND (and, perhaps, feeling) of the melody of a song we are familiar with.

  • Compare trigonometry. Two points of reference, can't tell where the far point is, even in 2D space. Three points & you can. More points & you can also get elevation….
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 18:54
  • Say by yourself. OP. I learned intervals and perception on totally abstract means, sight-singing these topics, not using melodies as mnemonic devices. When you learn how to feel in your body/larynx the difference between intervals, you begin to automatically identifying them. Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 0:16
  • If I had a pound for every time I've heard someone mispitch the octave leap in "Happy Birthday to You"… A melody is a sequence of intervals; you can't reproduce a melody without recognising and reproducing its intervals. Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 16:02
  • The question calls to mind those puzzles that show an extreme close-up of a familiar object, or a portion of a familiar object but out of context. I wonder if the (in)ability to recognize one or the other involves similar cognitive processes as with individual intervals versus melodies..
    – Aaron
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 23:39
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? If someone can sing a melody, why can they not also recognize the intervals within that melody?
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 5:31

6 Answers 6


A melody is way more remarkable than an isolated interval.

A melody like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star you listen to it even before you're born. So, it's ingrained in your ear. It's one of the principles that keep alive systems like The Suzuki Method.

Often time when doing ear training we use melodies as a reference for recognizing intervals. A complete melody awakes many sensations in our body. Thus, it's easier to remember.

You can listen/play a song once and once again, each time you listen to it it it further ingrains in your mind, this repetition process is what gives you the capacity of recalling the correct intervals that shape the melody

  • Melodies are made of notes with intervals between them. Therefore, you also listen to intervals before you're born.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 14:43
  • Great point and complements very well what I've said. Yet intervals aren't as remarkable as melodies are.
    – Juan Luis
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 15:52

It would be easier to remember intervals if they let us remember intervals like we remember melodies: we don't need to immediately generalize them in all keys, they mentioned their names in tight association with their musical appearances more often, we didn't get subjected to stressful practice drills with no sheet music by teachers trying to get us to remember them, we were allowed to make mistakes remembering them and improvise on top of them, we were allowed to make fun of their appearance in any piece other than the original compositions they were found in, we did not have to continually dissociate them from their instrumentation and recordings, and we were allowed to associate them with having a really pleasurable time instead of being forced to remove them from any emotional context.

But at least in the Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus, intervals are expected to be remembered in any key, they appear in the ear testing portions of piano exams in a format similar to a practice drill, you are expected to name the interval in a timely fashion and do not get several minutes to figure out the name (let alone the help of Music Fans Stack Exchange), and one identification mistake or semitone slip suddenly turns the interval into a different interval.

It's very possible that trying to remember an interval the same way that you remember a melody actually does help you recall it better and faster. It's also very possible that the popular method (and one successfully used on me) of using the beginnings of popular melodies to help remember intervals better taps into just that.


Unlike intervals, which just describe ratio of pitches, melodies have also rhythm. Rhythm is a very important component of music.

A melody played with a different rhythm might be completely unrecognizable. You may even have trouble to recognize the original harmony, since if strong and weak beats change, the melody may suggest different chords.

On the contrary if you play a melody with the right rhythm and right melody shape (up and down movement) but incorrect interval values, there's a good chance you will still recognize it.


I have a simple answer: Repetition. Melodies usually contain repeated elements and are usually repeated themselves. Bare intervals are more atomic structures that do not inherently contain any repetition or content.

And that leads to another difference: Emotion. Famous melodies are famous because of the mood and/or emotion they evoke. Cognitive research tells us that our brains are better at remembering emotions than data (perhaps it would be more accurate to say the context of an emotion is recalled, more than the emotion itself, but perhaps the two go hand in hand).

"Twinkle Twinkle" is a pretty good example. Each note is repeated and the pattern of note repetition is repeated. The second melodic figure is repeated, then the introductory melody is repeated at the end.

Another way that we remember some melodies like "Twinkle Twinkle" is remembering the words. Even melodies without words have some alternate sounds we can make with our mouths beyond the notes. For example, if I write: duuuuh-dut duuuuuh-dut duh-dut duh-dut duh-dut... many reading that will recall the shark theme from Jaws (or perhaps an excerpt from Dvořák's 9th symphony). That is a much more evocative way to recall that than writing "imagine a repeated ascending minor second played by the celli and basses".


As @Brian THOMAS alludes to in a note, you do recognize intervals - in the case he mentions, the octave leap in Happy Birthday. Or consider the famous third in the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Or in fact the fifth in the opening notes of Twinkle.

Perhaps the issue here is not so much recognition as nomenclature - we use user-friendly names for tunes (like HB and Twinkle) but notions of fifth, octave, minor second, etc. take a bit of explaining (i.e. basic interval theory).


I think the issue may be about idiom versus "correct" but unnatural grammar.

A language metaphor may help.

"Put your toys away" would be an idiomatic expression.

"Reposition the toys you played with to the toy storage container" is grammatically correct and has the same meaning, but is unnatural.

If you listened to and were asked to repeat back a series of phrases like those, the idiomatic ones would be much easier to repeat, because the idioms are familiar to you from constant use. In part the idiomatic memory is already there, you just recall it. The unnatural sentence would require new memorization with very little supporting idiomatic patterns.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star uses melodic "idioms:" tonic to dominant, dominant to neighbor submediant, descending scale dominant to tonic. Those three short units can be found in lots of other melodies. Importantly when a few of those units are combined it will quickly establish the tonality.

In other words you aren't hearing and remembering - ascend P5 ascend M2 descend M2 descend M2 descend m2 descend M2 descend M2, which is the abstract order of intervals - but rather - ascend tonic to dominant, ascend to submediant, descend scale - which are "idioms" of a major key.

...much harder to remember the SOUND of the tritone or other interval...especially when the latter only consists of two notes.

This sounds like the typical ear training test. I'm suggesting it's difficult, because there is no real musical context, you cannot recognize the interval "idiomatically."

...I'm not asking why we don't "understand" intervals at some sort of "intellectual" level...

Right. People can do this without understanding anything technical about music. Play an ascending major triad and it's easy for a person to sing it back. Ask them to sing an ascending major third and then an ascending minor third and they probably won't understand those terms, even though they understand them with their ears as a musical "idiom."

I'm asking why can't we remember the SOUND of an interval just like we remember the SOUND (and, perhaps, feeling) of the melody of a song we are familiar with.

It's interesting your choice of words "sound" and "feeling." If you consider my suggestion about idiom and context, then "sound" and "feeling" are not fixed abstract qualities. The tritone is a good example. The abstract interval is d5 or A4, but that isn't a "sound" or "feeling." You need context for that. In one context, like diminished seventh chords in a major key, the tritone is discordant. But, in another context like a half diminished chord in an Impressionistic or jazz setting, it's mellow. Or in the dominant seventh chords of blues the tritone is "earthy." Abstract intervals aren't musically expressive until they are put into context. Clearly you would like to "remember" by feeling, but in a ear training test they are usually presented abstractly without context.

Another thing to consider is the memory interaction between word and melody. The two reinforce memorization. In part a song melody is more easily recalled using the words that go with the melody.

This presents a possible strategy for ear training: put intervals into context and use solfege syllables to sing them in lieu of song lyrics. So, don't just sing a tritone, sing the syllables "TI", "FA." Also, play with some extra context. Start with "DO", "MI" and then connect those tones/syllables to those of the tritone "DO", "TI" and "MI", "FA." Then maybe try "DO", "MI" followed by "TI", "FA" and vice versa before finally just singing "TI", "FA" in isolation.

  • I don't think it's that hard to detect instances of the BACH motif or the DSCH motif just by listening to a piece (after listening to these motives). Given how easily these motives change harmonic contexts or can be placed in (relatively) atonal pieces, this means that people either remember actual notes or raw intervals--not scale degrees.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 12:45
  • or, you are describing something that comes after a lot of practice, probably more practice than the OP has put in. Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 13:14
  • I don't even practice motif detection that much - all I need to improve my ability to detect any motif by listening is to be warned that the motif could be present. I've ended up detecting "the lick" and a certain note-minor 2nd above-minor 3rd below motif in a similar fashion (the latter motif, while part of the DSCH motif, is also prominent in Ridley's theme from the Metroid series and certain Kirby-series boss themes).
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 13:46
  • Are you talking about video games? Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 17:21
  • Yes, for the last part, I am talking about video games.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 19:39

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