Intervals by Association
In our newest course, TheoryWorks II: Sight Singing & Harmony Essentials, instructor Amy Stewart talks about a lot of ways that singers and singing actors can improve the speed and fluency of their sight-singing abilities. There are tons of stories of actors asked to sight sing sides on the fly, or who have trouble holding a difficult harmony in a callback or music rehearsal, etc.
Here's a trick: really great sight singers aren't looking at each individual note as they read. They're looking at the relationships between pitches. Those relationships between notes are called intervals.
An interval is just the distance between pitches. Smaller intervals feel closer together vocally, and larger intervals are a little trickier to find. There are only 11 distinct intervals (12 distinct pitches, and 11 spaces between them). Get fluent in what those sound like, match that up with what's on the page, and you'll be sight singing in no time.
If that already sounds intimidating, I'm about to make it even easier, because we're going to use melodies you can already probably sing in your head.
1. Minor Second: Jaws Theme
The minor second is your quintessential evil villain approach sound — mostly because John Williams made it so.
2. Major Second: Happy Birthday
The major second is all over the place, but I like to use the second and third notes of "Happy Birthday." The first note and second notes are the same, so it’s really that difference between “py” and “bir” that you’re looking for.
3. Minor Third: Greensleeves
Christmas songs always end up being popular examples of these intervals because so many of us know them. The first two notes of "Greensleeves" provide all your minor third needs (and yes, the rhyme can help you remember).
4. Major Third: When the Saints Go Marching In
The major third is a common happy song sound, so you hear it in a lot of feel-good songs. I like to use the first two notes of "When the Saints Go Marching In."
5. Perfect Fourth: Here Comes the Bride
That first leap in the melody of "Here Comes the Bride" is so recognizable — it’s a really easy one to remember.
6. Tritone: Maria (from West Side Story)
The tritone is one of those nutty intervals that people used to believe was spawned by the devil because it’s so uncommon and dissonant. Naturally, Leonard Bernstein used it as the basis for almost every theme in West Side Story. You can hear the tritone most obviously in the song "Maria," in the first two syllables of her name (“Mar-i”).
7. Perfect Fifth: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
It’s hard to forget a perfect fifth when you think of the opening notes of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
8. Minor Sixth: The Entertainer
The main melody of the ragtime classic "The Entertainer" starts with two pickup notes that are minor seconds, and then bounces on three minor sixth intervals in a row that are super memorable.
9. Major Sixth: NBC Theme
The first two notes of this iconic theme give you a major sixth in about as explicit fashion as you could ask for. The other one I sometimes use is “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”
10. Minor Seventh: Somewhere (from West Side Story)
Not surprisingly, we’re stuck on West Side Story. The classic song "Somewhere" is built around the leap of a minor seventh in the first two notes of the melody. That reaching feeling the interval creates helps establish the dreamy, aspirational quality that’s at the heart of the piece.
11. Major Seventh: Take on Me
The major seventh is another slightly dissonant interval that asks for resolution. The chorus of the ’80s classic "Take on Me" by A-ha starts with a soaring major seventh interval (“Take on”) before resolving to the octave (“me”).
Jeremy Young, editor-in-chief of Flypaper