There are many reasons I dislike "interval reference songs."
And I may be unpopular for saying so: interval reference songs are one of the most popular ear training methods.
The concept is simple: if you want to remember what a minor 2nd sounds like, think of the Jaws theme. If you want to remember a perfect fourth, think: "Here comes the bride!" Perfect fifths? "Star wars!"
While this works to a certain extent, I have so many complaints about it.
But my biggest complaint is that they take musical intervals completely out of context.
Consider the examples in this excerpt from my four-page reference guide, "Teaching Musical Intervals Through Disney Music: A Source Sheet for Teachers."
Example #1, from Snow White, begins with a perfect fourth. But it's not simply a perfect fourth: it's a cadential leap from the dominant to the tonic, energetically launching us into the beginning of the melody. This is the same opening gesture that music theory students learn when they associate "Here Comes the Bride" with perfect fourths.
But how different it is from Example #2!
Example #2 begins with this same opening gesture, a perfect fourth leaping from the dominant to the tonic. BUT, then it has another perfect fourth just a couple bars later: from 6 up to 2. Unlike the opening 5-1 gesture, which relieves tension, 6-2 increases tension. While 5-1 completes a cadence, 6-2 initiates a cadence. In short: while both are perfect fourths, they feel, mean, and sound very different.
Example #3 adds a descending 4th into the mix. But it's not simply a descending 4th. It descends from 5 to 2, from the dominant to........... just quite NOT the tonic. It delays resolution. In a sense, it's exactly the opposite of "Here Comes the Bride," which resolves tension by moving from the dominant up to the tonic. Here, the dominant, moving downwards, is stopping just short of the tonic.
So why don't I like interval reference songs?
The truth is, I do agree that they can be very useful...... but we need to learn how to use them in context. If a student is in the middle of a dictation exercise, and they encounter a perfect fourth from 6 up to 2, then thinking about "Here Comes the Bride" is just as likely to confuse them as it is to help. And if it does help, the student is likely to lose their sense of the melody as a whole, requiring the teacher to replay it for them.
But what if we conceptualized interval reference songs differently?
What if, instead of learning a song to pair with "perfect fourths," we learned a song to pair with "the perfect fourth from 5 up to 1?" And a different song to pair with "the perfect fourth from 6 up to 2," and yet another for "the perfect fourth from 5 down to 2?"
"Here Comes the Bride" is a GREAT reference for perfect fourths when they're used as an opening gesture from 5 up to 1.
Example #3, from Moana, is a GREAT reference for perfect fourths when they're used as a teasing gesture from 5 down to 2.
Examples #2 and #4 are GREAT references for perfect fourths in sequential contexts.
Using interval reference songs in this way requires, in some sense, a paradigm shift in how we think about musical intervals.
Instead of treating them as isolated sounds – this note to that note – we should treat them as musical gestures that serve particular functions within a musical context.
What do you think?
I invite you to download my four-page guide, "Teaching Musical Intervals Through Disney Music: A Source Sheet for Teachers," and give some thought to the examples it includes. How can you use these to improve your teaching and learning? What other examples could you draw on, if you shift your focus from isolated intervals to intervals in context?
To pass the time during my cancer treatment, I did a live stream on Twitter about the history of Disney music. Why not, right? :-)
Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com