Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part III)

We’ve discussed the major and natural minor scales, as well as the harmonic minor. It’s time for another variation of the minor scale.

Melodic Minor

The melodic minor is created by raising the 6th and 7th scale degrees of the natural minor.

C Natural minor:  C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

C Melodic minor:  C   D   Eb   F   G   A   B   C


It sounds like this:

Now I must admit that I’ve already lied to you. The scale written above is technically only the first half of the melodic minor scale. That is only how you play the scale while ascending. While descending, you play the natural minor scale. Therefore, the proper melodic minor scale in C is written as:


The ascending portion of the scale is better known as the jazz minor scale, which is the portion of the melodic minor that we primarily use today, whether we play it ascending or descending.

“Woah, woah, woah…why is the full version different depending on which direction you’re playing the notes?”

I don’t personally know the precise story behind this (perhaps someone can comment with a reliable source), but from my understanding this concept was developed in the classical music era. Composers found that the interval between the 6th and raised 7th of the harmonic minor scale was a little awkward to sing, so they decided to either raise the 6th or lower the 7th by a half-step in order to provide a smoother transition between the notes. The raised 6th was found to work best when the scale was ascending, forming the ascending melodic minor scale (or jazz minor). The lowered 7th worked better for descending melody lines, forming the descending melodic minor scale (which is identical to the natural minor).

That being said, the use of the ascending or descending patterns in classical music differs from composer to composer, and in most modern music the jazz minor is often referred to as the melodic minor, and is played whether the melody is ascending or descending. So in other words, don’t worry about it.

“Okay, well now I’m bored and this scale doesn’t seem to be much fun.”

Yes, the idea of the melodic minor scale is a bit confusing, and when you listen to the audio example above it may sound kind of strange, but that’s the beauty of it. If used in the right context this scale can sound incredibly interesting and unique. Here are a few videos to both inspire you and get you more familiar with the sound of the scale.

Listen as Tom Quayle from switches between major and melodic minor scales:

Or take a look Andrew Wasson’s thorough explanation of melodic minor from

To me, the melodic minor scale has a mysterious and ambiguous sound. At first it clearly sounds like a minor scale with it’s lowered 3rd, but the rest of it sounds incredibly major. It sounds like a scale that is trying to be two things at once, giving it a sense of ambiguity.

Scale Summary

Okay, so I’ve covered four of the most common scales used in modern music, how they’re formed, and what they sound like. Here’s a real quick summary in case you’ve forgotten:


What it looks like as a C scale:


What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Happy, standard, basic

What to listen for: Think about solfeggio (do re mi fa so la ti do).

Natural Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:


What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Sad, melancholy, sigh

What to listen for: It can be thought of as the major scale starting on the 6th note (or in solfeggio: la ti do re mi fa so la). You hear it begin with a major 2nd interval, which is the same as the major scale, but then you hear the lowered 3rd. Once you hear the lowered 3rd, you know it’s some sort of minor scale, at which point you listen to the 6th and 7th notes. If both the 6th and 7th notes sound lowered, it’s the natural minor.

Harmonic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:


What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Dark, intense

What to listen for: The gap between the lowered 6th and natural 7th note is very obvious, giving the scale a distinct sound. The 7th note will lead back to the root nicely because it is only one half-step away. This creates a more intense sound than the natural minor scale, which isn’t as powerful.

Melodic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:


What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Mysterious, ambiguous

What to listen for: At first it sounds like a minor scale, but the second half sounds like a major scale.

Once again, please check out the exercises at Try the scale ear training exercises and see how well you do!

Next post:  Identifying Basic Chords

Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part II)

In my last post I discussed the standard major and natural minor scales and what they sound like. Now I’d like to focus on the harmonic minor.

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor is made by raising the 7th scale degree of the natural minor.

C natural minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

C harmonic minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   B   C


It sounds like this:

This is done to build tension within the scale, making the resolve back to the root more powerful. It’s fairly easy to identify due to the large, minor 3rd gap between the 6th and 7th notes. It’s very often used while playing the V chord in a minor key.

“Why? And what do you mean by the ‘V’ chord?”

When talking about chords built off of certain scale degrees, we usually use roman numerals. I go over this topic in How to Know Which Chords to Play. In that post, I talk about building chords off of each scale degree in a major scale, in order to determine which chords “fit” within a particular key. The example I use in that post is a C major scale, which has a G major as it’s V chord. If you were to play a G major chord whilst playing in the key of C, it will sound like it really wants to be followed by a C chord. When you look at the notes in a G major triad, it makes sense.

G   B   D

The B is one half-step below C. Since your brain processes the note C as the foundation of the key, you get a sense that you’re almost there. This is what we like to call tension. If you were in A major, the same thing would go with an E major chord.

E   G#   B

The G# is one half-step below A. These “almost there” notes are called leading tones. Technically, any note is a leading tone to the notes immediately surrounding it, but this term is generally applied to the 7th scale degree leading back to the root.

Note: This effect is magnified when you add the 7th to the V chord (G   B   D   F), but that’s for another post.

In minor land, it’s a little different. Take a look at the chords built off of a C minor scale. Remember, all you do is stack thirds on top of each note, and add the accidentals that occur in a C minor scale (which are Bb, Eb, and Ab).


Notice that the v chord is minor instead of major (remember, lowercase roman numerals are used for minor chords). It’s made up of:

G   Bb   D

Bb is a whole-step below C, so you don’t really have the same, “almost there” kind of feeling. Because of this, composers will often opt to play a G major in place of the G minor by raising the Bb to a B.

Listen to the difference between the two examples below. In the first example, a C minor chord is played, followed by a G minor, then back to C minor. In the second example, the G minor is changed to a G major.

C minor – G minor – C minor: 

C minor – G major – C minor: 

They both work musically, but the chords in the second example sound darker. The extra tension adds a little more intensity.

I’ll leave you with the second example above, but with the harmonic minor scale played on top of it. Pay attention to the raised 7th note, and how well it resolves when the C minor chord is played the second time. This is the harmonic minor sound. Get it in your head!

Move on to part III!

Train Your Ears – Identifying Intervals (Part II)

In the first part of this post I discussed the intervals from unison to the perfect 5th, and references to identify them with. Check it out if you haven’t already! Let’s take a look at the next set of intervals.

Don’t forget, all of my MIDI piano examples start on a C. The song examples I give may not necessary be starting on a C, so don’t let that throw you off. Hopefully this will help you learn to identify them no matter what the starting notes are. It’s the space between the notes that you care about, not the notes themselves!

Minor 6th



The minor 6th, to me, is a sort of dreamy sounding interval. Perhaps this is because one of the ways I like to remember it is through “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. You can hear it in the lyrics:


Check it out:

(Audio taken from this video)

Keep this song in mind, as it’s going to show up two more times in this post!

Major 6th



There are two references that I like to use for the major 6th. The NBC chimes are a perfect example:

(Audio taken from this video)

You can also listen to the line before the minor 6th in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.


Listen here:

(Audio taken from this video)

Minor 7th



For the minor 7th we can once again refer to the West Side Story musical. This time from the song “Somewhere”.

You can hear the minor 7th in the beginning of the line:


Listen here:

(audio taken from this video)

Major 7th



The major 7th is one of my favorite intervals. It almost has an inherently jazzy sound to me, mostly due to the fact that jazz chords and melodies utilize the interval quite a bit. It’s also similar to the tritone in that it’s ALMOST a perfect interval (it’s ALMOST an octave, as the tritone is ALMOST a perfect 5th), so it has that off sound but in a soothing sort of way. Take Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” for example. You can hear the major 7th in the first two words:


Listen here:

Craving a more 80’s synthpop/rock example? Try “Take On Me” by A-Ha.


Check it:




Finally we come to the final interval I’m covering for this mini-series, the octave. This one represents 12 semitones and is the 8th note in a standard scale (thus the prefix, “oct”). Scientifically, an interval of an octave is what you get when you double the frequency of a note. For example, the A note above middle C has a frequency of 440 Hz. The next A note (or the A one octave higher) has a frequency of 880 Hz. The A after that is 1760 Hz, and so on.

Let’s once again refer to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which begins with the iconic:


Listen here:

Now to make my fellow guitarists happy, a little Hendrix. The intro to “Purple Haze” has Jimi repeating two notes an octave apart. This example is special, though, because if you listen closely you can hear that the bass is playing a tritone instead of an octave underneath the guitar. Two intervals for one.

Listen up:

That’s right, Jimi Hendrix and Judy Garland in the same section.

So there you have it. A few examples for each interval from unison to octave. Again, I only covered the intervals going in the upward direction, so I may make a post for intervals going down later (let me know what you think). Obviously there are plenty more examples for each interval, but I did my best to stick with classic examples that more people are probably aware of.

fantastic link that you should check out for interval ear training (and ear training in general) is Specifically the interval ear trainer. By fiddling with the options you can set which intervals you want to practice, whether they are ascending or descending, and more. Test yourself and try to improve. If you get a score you’re proud of, brag about it in the comments.

Do you have your own examples for each interval? How do you like to memorize them? Let me know!

Next post in the series: Identifying Scales

Train Your Ears – Identifying Intervals (Part I)

For those of you that don’t know, an interval is simply the distance between two pitches. Here is a list of intervals along with the number of semitones (or half steps) they represent. I also give examples of which notes are separated by that interval (second note is always higher than the first note).

Unison = 0 semitones (Same note played twice)

Minor 2nd = 1 semitone (examples:  C to Db, B to C, G# to A)

Major 2nd = 2 semitones (examples:  C to D, A to B, F# to G#)

Minor 3rd = 3 semitones (examples:  C to Eb, G to Bb, F to Ab)

Major 3rd = 4 semitones (examples:  C to E, Db to F, A to C#)

Perfect 4th = 5 semitones (examples:  C to F, A to D, Bb to Eb)

Tritone = 6 semitones (examples:  C to F#, G to C#, E to A#)

Perfect 5th = 7 semitones (examples:  C to G, Eb to Bb, D to A)

Minor 6th = 8 semitones (examples:  C to Ab, B to G, E to C)

Major 6th = 9 semitones (examples:  C to A, F to D, Ab to F)

Minor 7th = 10 semitones (examples:  C to Bb, D to C, A to G)

Major 7th = 11 semitones (examples:  C to B, G to F#, B to C#)

Octave = 12 semitones (Same two notes played one octave apart)

You could continue on to even larger intervals (9ths, 11ths, 12ths, etc…) but for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with the intervals contained in one octave. The diagram below may help you visualize these distances.


(NOTE:  If you’re unsure of what those notes in parenthesis are doing there, refer to my post on basic scale theory.)

The space between each of those lines is a semitone. From B to C you have one semitone or a minor 2nd, from D to A you have seven semitones or a perfect 5th, and so on. 

Of course, using this diagram is cumbersome and not very practical while actually playing or singing music. What you’ll want to do is memorize as many of these intervals as you can (the perfect 4ths and 5ths are a good place to start, as they are linked to the circle of 4ths/5ths, and are very useful in general). Find the intervals on your instrument, find them in written music, make flash cards, or use any other method you want.

“But this post is about ear training, not staring at diagrams and flash cards!”

Right, while the theory is important, don’t get too caught up in it. Balance the theoretical studying with some actual ear training. Let’s go through each interval in detail and actually listen to them. I’ll give you some pointers on how to recognize them by ear, including references to some popular songs. Let us begin.

Disclaimer:  I will be focusing only on tips for identifying intervals in the upward direction in this post. Depending on the response I recieve, I may make a post where I discuss intervals going downward as well. So if you think this post is swell, let me know! If not, let me know how I could make it better. Also, the MIDI piano examples all begin with the note C. The audio examples I give may not begin on the same note, so don’t let that throw you off. Remember it’s the space between the notes you care about, not the notes themselves.


Things couldn’t start off any simpler. If the distance between two pitches is described as unison, they are the exact same note. It’s as easy as that.

Minor 2nd



The minor 2nd is the smallest interval between two different pitches that exists in a scale (well, at least in the 12-tone equal temperment scale we commonly use today). This is the interval between every single note in the chromatic scale. Familiarize yourself with that scale and you’ll be able to identify this interval by ear fairly easily (just be careful not to mistaken it for the major 2nd).

For a classic reference, just listen to the tense theme from Jaws.

(audio taken from this video)

Major 2nd



Perhaps a little easier to identify, the major 2nd represents the whole step. A good song to think of is the lullaby, “Frère Jacques (Are You Sleeping?)”. The interval between the first two notes (as well as between the 2nd and 3rd notes) is a major 2nd.

First part of “Frère Jacques” melody:

Minor 3rd



I personally recognize this interval by hearing the minor triad in my head. It’s the distance between the root note and the lowered 3rd. Here is a clip of a C minor triad, first arpeggiated then played all together.

Minor 3rd triad:

Remember, a minor triad is made up of a root note (in the above example it’s C), a lowered 3rd (in the above example it’s Eb), and a 5th (in the above example it’s G). The interval between the root note and the lowered 3rd is, not surprisingly, a minor 3rd.

Also, how about a little “Smoke on the Water” for my guitar playing readers? Listen between the first two notes of the riff.

Major 3rd



The major 3rd can be described as more “uplifting” than the minor 3rd. You could think of the major triad in your head to help identify this interval, but another way is to think of “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

You can hear the major 3rd in the first sentence of the lyrics:


Listen to Louis sing it here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 4th



I can’t hear the perfect 4th without thinking of “Here Comes the Bride”:

The interval between the first two notes is a perfect 4th.




Does this interval sound particularly menacing to you? You aren’t alone. According to The New Oxford Companion to Music by Dennis Arnold, the tritone adopted the nickname, “Diabolus in musica” (the Devil in music) in the Medieval era due to its dissonance (lack of harmony). While other intervals sound dissonant as well, this one is often considered the most awkward to sing.

However it has become an increasingly popular interval to experiment with over the years. One of the most notable songs to feature the tritone is Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story.

You can hear the tritone between the first two syllables of “Maria”.


Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

Perfect 5th



The perfect 5th is a very strong, confident sounding interval. So incredibly powerful that it has been used in such works as the Superman theme and, of course, Star Wars.

Listen here:  

(audio taken from this video)

I’ll cover the remaining intervals in Identifying Intervals (Part II)! Feel free to comment!