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I am at the beginning of my journey to learn singing. To master interval recognition, my teacher and many people recommend using reference songs (the first 2 notes of the song corresponding to the interval).

I have a nagging worry that this method makes it much faster on the short-term to perform this task, but slower in the long term, because my brain does not jump from sound to interval name, but it needs to go sound -> song -> interval name.

A little bit in the same way that when you learn multiplication tables, you can be faster on the short term by using tricks (9 * N is 10 * N - N), but this becomes slower in the long term.

While many online resources recommend using reference songs, this website seems to caution slightly against it:

The first method is “reference songs”. [...]

This method is the one usually used when music students are forced to learn interval recognition just for the “aural skills” section of their instrument exams. It’s actually a great way to get started, but you will quickly realise it is very limited for real music applications where you can’t recognise each song for each pair of intervals quickly enough. It’s also not great for harmonic intervals.

Are there some scientifically grounded evidence that could help answer that dilemna?

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  • Have you mastered simple pitch reproduction yet? Interval recognition comes after that, whatever method you use.
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 20, 2022 at 8:45
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    Yes, I am doing a lot better. I am now exactly on the right note 90% of the time. And within 20 cents the remaining 10%. I started way off, but there was just a blockage in my brain, and this was quickly resolved.
    – DevShark
    Jun 20, 2022 at 8:47
  • In addition to being opinion based, this question is an effective duplicate of What are the most effective ear training methods?.
    – Aaron
    Jun 20, 2022 at 8:51
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    While I see how this can seem like an opinion based question, I’d like to suggest that since cognitive science and university ear training professors generally agree on effective methods to learn interval recognition, it can be objectively answered as well as most questions on this site. Perhaps adjusting the wording to focus on whether to avoid reference songs based on that one web site would make it more focused and less subjective Jun 20, 2022 at 12:41
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    Regarding tricks such as "9 * N is 10 * N - N": I still use tricks such as, for multiplying by 15, "15 * N is N * 3 * 10 / 2". To a certain extent, I'd therefore rather stop worrying about any long-term slowdown (if any) such tricks may inflict.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jun 20, 2022 at 16:58

2 Answers 2

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I definitely used reference songs, and the caveat is definitely well made.

One advanced technique is to use different reference songs for the same interval depending on the harmonic and melodic context. For example, the list I just consulted offered "Greensleeves" for the minor third. In that melody, the first two notes are the first and third degrees of the minor scale (or Dorian, depending on which variant of Greensleeves you know). But sometimes a minor third is the third and fifth degree of the major scale, for which I would use Henry Purcell's Fairest Isle. You might also find an ascending minor third between the seventh and second (a.k.a. ninth) degrees of the major scale.

You might also need examples for descending intervals. Both the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams and Lennon' and McCartney's Hey Jude start with a descending minor third, but in a different harmonic context. To my ear, therefore, they sound somewhat different.

Start with reference songs suggested by others, but plan to develop your own set. Look at the intervals in your own favorite songs. You too may find, as I do, that you start to judge intervals relative to the tonic note, so, to use another example, the various major seconds in the major scale feel different from one another.

I have a nagging worry that this method makes it much faster on the short-term to perform this task, but slower in the long term, because my brain does not jump from sound to interval name, but it needs to go sound -> song -> interval name.

Brains are good at developing shortcuts. You'll bypass the song soon enough. Young children learning to read start out by looking at individual letters and determining which word they represent, but, very quickly, they learn to identify common words as a unit, all at once. The same will come for you.

In fact, when I'm sight singing, I don't even think, "aha, that big interval coming up is a major sixth"; rather, the mental shortcut goes straight from the page to the pitches. This skill arises from repetition, and before you develop it, you'll need some other tool to get from one step in the mental process to the next. Don't worry about it. You'll find that you no longer need to rely on reference songs in fairly short order.

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    +1. I've always felt that to use song portions as interval aids only works when the lower note is the root. If there's an anacrucis, say 5>1, making P4, it doesn't really make the sense it should (to me at least). And you're right about intervals in the middle of something - I don't think we think 'there's a 6th coming here' - after a while we just 'know' what it's supposed to go to - vox or instrument. But knowing and exploring them for a while prior is king.
    – Tim
    Jun 20, 2022 at 11:07
  • I voted up this answer even though I see a contradiction between the first sentence and the start of the second to last paragraph. Anything that helps the beginning of learning that can then be “bypassed” is a valid (even preferred) learning technique. The fact that we can start with reference songs and then learn to not need them suggests the caveat is not well made, IMHO Jun 20, 2022 at 12:40
  • Thanks a lot for your answer. That's great to hear. I'll start with the shortcuts then, and will move on later to stop using it.
    – DevShark
    Jun 20, 2022 at 14:19
  • It's interesting that you mention children learning the alphabet. That's the analogy that occurred to me when questioning the value of a mnemonic. We teach children "A, apple; B, ball," often with pictures of an apple and a ball. We don't really expect them to look at the glyph "A", associate that with a piece of fruit, and that with the phoneme, and certainly not every time or for very long. It's just that those associations form a "safety net" or support structure to help resolve moments of uncertainty. Apr 3, 2023 at 13:19
  • @AndyBonner interesting. I always thought of apple, ball, etc., as examples more than mnemonics, that is, to demonstrate the purpose of the shape A or B rather than to help remember it.
    – phoog
    Apr 3, 2023 at 16:25
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First and foremost - each interval will have at least two different names, so just listening to two notes won't give an exact answer: the tritone 1.♭5 sounds exactly like 1>♯4, for example, 1>m3 the same as aug2. So you're not going to get all the way there aurally.

The other factor is that usually, intervals are calculated from lower to upper note. I know they can be worked out the opposite way, but somehow it's easier (and more logical) that way.

Using two notes from a known song: I find this awkward, for the reason that unless the lower note is the root of that song, it can be deceiving. The oft used trick is to take the first two notes of a song, and call that whatever interval. That then skews all the other notes (and intervals) in that song, as we tend to hear that first note as root, which obviously it isn't.

Finding songs that do indeed start on root and go straight to another, forming a specific interval, will work better. And just taking two notes from the middle will work, when one pretends the lower note is in fact the root. I f that makes sense.

So, I recommend just listening to two notes, either played consecutively, or together, and getting used to their sound blend. Bearing in mind, as already mentioned, any interval will have more than one name. Writing down the two notes will help to make sense of this.

Writing C>A♯ will look very different from C>B♭. The former is an augmented 6th, the latter m7, but both will sound identical. That's the next step: what key are those notes from, as that factor will be critical in deciding what the interval gets named.

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