Singing Scale Degrees

Question: Thank you very much for this website – it has helped me tremendously. My question goes for the Intervals lesson, where you stated that to learn the intervals in a scale, one should sing the actual numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. In order to remember the intervals, how would I be able to go from a B major scale to a C minor scale and remember every sound in my mind by using the same numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5?

And I would also like to ask how long do you think I should spend practicing getting the scale sounds in my mind? I’ve spent almost two weeks trying to remember the B major scale sound in my mind’s ear, and after a few hours of not practicing the scale I seem to forget how the scale sounds completely. Thank you for your time.

– Tammy (Lancaster, California, USA)

Albert’s reply: The purpose of singing and hearing music in terms of scale degrees is to develop relative pitch rather than absolute pitch. (The latter is more often called perfect pitch.) The difference is that perfect pitch involves absolute pitch recognition, meaning that you can name the exact pitches you hear as soon as you hear them. If you hear an A, you know immediately that it is an A, and so on. This holds regardless of its musical context: You can be in a key that does not contain A, or in no key at all (in the case of an atonal work), and it doesn’t matter. You still hear the A as an A.

While perfect pitch might appear to be an ideal for musicians, it is far more important to develop good relative pitch. This means that you know where you are in the musical scale. You can tell the major mode from minor by ear, and from there it doesn’t matter whether you’re in C major, D-flat major or any other major key; as long as you can recognize which note of the scale you are currently hearing (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), your relative pitch skills are working in your favor.

Regarding B major vs. C minor in particular, this means that you don’t at all need to memorize the actual pitch of each note. Instead, all you need is to hear the first note of the scale (scale degree 1), and then you should be able to construct the rest of the scale in your mind’s ear. I recommend playing the first note of any scale, then singing a major or minor scale using the scale degree numbers and then checking your pitch accuracy.

Finally, you don’t need to spend any time trying to memorize exact pitches at all. (There are some strategies for doing so if your goal is to learn perfect pitch, but they are uncertain and I would only ever recommend attempting them once you already have excellent relative pitch skills.)

A very good ear training exercise is to challenge yourself to sing lines in the music you practice. You’ll no doubt be able to sing the melody, but most likely you’re not consciously listening to the inner voices, or sometimes also the bass voice. For this exercise, I recommend using solfège syllables.

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