I remember the exact moment in my teaching career when I realized that I was old.
This is some feat considering that I am in my very first year of teaching at the age of 24!
I was handing out potential pieces for my 6th Grade chorus to learn for their spring “pop” concert, and I had chosen the piece “Go The Distance” from the Disney favorite Hercules.
A student asked the fateful question: “Why do we only perform old music?”
I protested vehemently that this was not “old music”! I flipped to the front cover and proclaimed that it was from 1997. I did some quick mental math (okay, not so quick… As you know, musicians mainly count to four!) and realized that Hercules was released 16 years ago – several years before my 6th graders were even a gleam in their mama’s eye!
I frequently find that my cultural references fall flat when using them in vocal and choral demonstrations. Thus, the Julia Child impression (which I had thought so nicely encapsulated the open tone I aim for) has had to be replaced by encouraging my students to “sing like a British owl”. I’m not sure why it works, but for young singers, it is much less of a reach than referencing a television cook who was off the air even before I was born.
The fact is that this generation is living in an entirely new culture, and in order to keep up with this changing culture, we must meet the students where they are and learn their ways.
Pop Culture References
There are few examples of stale cultural references as prevalent and far-reaching as the old chestnuts we voice teachers use to teach intervals.
Naturally some melodies are timeless enough that they will likely work forever (“Here Comes The Bride”, for instance) but some are so dated that they are not only irrelevant to this generation, but even to the two or three generations before the current one!
So while “Love Story” is one of the most famous melody examples for that dastardly Minor 6th interval, you would be hard pressed to find a student today who has heard this song, much less one who can hum it!
I asked three students today about “Love Story” and they all referenced the Taylor Swift song…
As it turns out, we need some new references to give our students – and maybe for ourselves too – interval songs that are instantly recognizable to younger generations, incorporating contemporary pop hits we hear on the radio as well as the classics! “Willow Weep” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” are all well and good, but it’s time we get more creative.
A heads up: in many of these examples, the target interval lies between the first two notes. However, in some, the interval comes later in the phrase or melody – look for the bolded syllables to tell you where the target interval is. Reference songs where the target interval is found between the first two notes, or at the very beginning of the melody, can often be easier to hear as they’re the first notes to reach your ear.
Here’s a suggested list of some new, modern interval reference songs you can use to learn intervals:
“She Will Be Loved” – Maroon 5
“I don’t mind spending every day”
To hear this interval, you need only sing the first two notes of a major scale – “do-re“. However, it’s helpful to contextualize this interval in popular music as well, so you can recognize these notes anywhere.
“Today was a Fairytale” – Taylor Swift
“Time slows down” (major 2nd interval is between first two words)
“Happy birthday to you” (the interval between the first two notes is a perfect unison, while the target interval – major 2nd – is between the second and third notes!)
“Friday” by Rebecca Black
Any one of the bazillion times she sings the word “Friday” in the chorus.
“Lullaby and good night“
Katniss and Rue’s whistle signal in “The Hunger Games”
First two notes of four note pattern
(G – Bb – A – D)
“Poker Face” – Lady Gaga
“Can’t read my, can’t read my poker face”
“Firework” – Katy Perry
“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” (Minor third ascending interval between first two words, minor third descending interval between “ev-er“)
“Some Nights” – fun
“Some nights I stay up” (also in the “Whoa – oh”)
“Today Was A Fairytale” – Taylor Swift
“Today was a fairy tale” (major 3rd interval is between first two syllables)
“Rolling in the Deep” – Adele
“I could have had it all“
“Here comes the bride”
“Amazing grace” (perfect 4th interval is between first two syllables of “amazing”)
The Simpson’s Theme Song
“Cool” – Gwen Stefani
“It’s hard to remember how…”
“Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix
Opening guitar riff
“YYZ” – Rush
Opening guitar riff
Star Wars Theme Song
Opening melody, first two notes
“Bad Romance” – Lady Gaga
“Ra ra ro ma ma”
A-B-C-D / Twinkle Twinkle Little Star / Baa Baa Black Sheep
“A B C D E F G”
“Johanna” – from Sweeney Todd
“I feel you Johanna”
“We Are Young” by fun
“So let’s set the world on fire“
“Yeah” – Usher
In repetitive synthesizer tune, it is the second wide interval. It goes perfect 5th, then minor 6th.
“Call Me Maybe” – Carly Rae Jepsen
“Hey I just met you and this is crazy”
“Man in the Mirror” – Michael Jackson
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror” (major 6th interval between first two words)
This may seem like a cop out, but your students may simply have to learn “Somewhere” from Westside Story…! It is the most modern prominent example of the minor 7th that I have been able to find in my travels.
“There’s a place for us” (interval between first two words)
“Away in a Manger”
“The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay”
“Don’t Know Why” – Norah Jones
“I waited ’till I saw the sun” (major 7th interval between first two words)
“Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
“Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.”
Party Rock Anthem – LMFAO
“Party rock is in the house tonight”
“Custom” Interval Reference Songs
The songs featured in this article are just to get you started thinking about interval reference songs – in order to make this interval recognition method as effective as possible, the student themselves should discover the reference songs that are most easily recognizable to them.
It’s a great idea to think of songs that immediately come to your mind when hearing each interval – you’ll likely be able to come up with many songs where the target interval lies in the first two notes and this “first two notes” method is an easy and effective way for finding your own reference songs. Even passively listening to music while keeping an ear out for intervals will, little by little, help you build your custom interval reference song library.
Hopefully a few of the reference song examples will come in handy for you – or inspire you to start collecting your own set of reference songs! Learn more tips and techniques for learning intervals in the Ultimate Guide to Interval Ear Training, or explore interval training modules at Musical U.