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"The Melody Game"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, January 1999.

Here is an ear-training exercise that will help you hear and play melodies more clearly. I call it the Melody Game (AKA solfeggio). It involves singing, but it's not just for singers, it's for everybody.

Round 1: Sing the Major scale, i.e. the familiar "doh, ray, me, fah, so, la, tee, doh" pattern. Start on any pitch you like. Many people are surprised they can do this even though they've never practiced it. (If you don't know the scale, ask someone to teach you.)

After singing the scale forward (low to high), sing it backward (high to low), or "doh, tee, la, so, fah, me, ray, doh." If the "doh, ray, me" syllables confuse you, try using numbers: doh = 1, ray = 2, me = 3, fah = 4, so = 5, la = 6, tee = 7, doh = 1. In the exercises below, I'll write scales tones by combining the number and the first letter of the corresponding syllable, so you can sing along using whatever you prefer: 1d, 2r, 3m, 4f, 5s, 6l, 7t, 1d.

Now sing the Major scale starting on different pitches. For each new pitch (or 1d), sing the whole scale up and down. No matter where you start, the scale pattern is the same. It's like a tune, which we recognize no matter what key it's in (i.e. which pitch it starts on).

Round 2: Sing this pattern of scale tones: 1d-2r-3m, 2r-3m-4f, 3m-4f-5s, etc. Continue to the top of the scale, then reverse the pattern and come back down (e.g. 1d-7t-6l, 7t-6l-5s, etc.).

Now try this one: 1d-3m, 2r-4f, 3m-5s, etc. (ascending thirds). And this one: 1d-3m-5s, 2r-4f-6l, 3m-5s-7t, etc. (ascending triads). Make up your own patterns, too. Be sure to sing them ascending and descending. Sing them in the car, or while folding your laundry — anywhere. If you get lost, sing the scale again to orient yourself. Whether you see yourself as a singer or not, this game really strengthens your ear, and warms you up for...

Round 3: Sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" All the notes in "Mary" are in the same Major scale. The Game now is to figure out what scale tone (i.e. 1d? 2r? 3m?) each melody note is. Start by finding which melody note is 1d, then "sound out" the other notes using that 1d as a reference. Sing "Mary" through and listen for which note sounds most like "home base" for the whole song (hint: it's not the first note). Don't read on until you've made your choice.

It's the last note. That is, the pitch of the last note is 1d for the scale that contains all the melody notes in the song. Starting there, sing the scale up and down a few times. Now start singing "Mary" again, and see if you can figure out what scale tone it is. If you find this difficult, listen for whether the first note of the song is higher or lower than 1d. Try alternating between the two. How far apart are they? If you have trouble alternating between them, sing the whole song, hold the last note for a bit, then begin the song again, and notice whether you go up or down to get the first note.

You go up, therefore the first note is higher than 1d. How much higher — i.e. how far up the scale is it? Sing up the scale 1d one note at a time until you find the first note of the song. It's 3m. And the second note — is it higher or lower than the first? Sing it. It's lower. Is it as low as 1d? Not quite... it's 2r. And the third note... does it sound familiar? It's 1d.

So, the first three notes of "Mary" are the first three tones of the scale, in reverse order: 3m, 2r, 1d. Sing them out loud, saying "3, 2, 1" or "me, ray, doh" instead of "Ma-ry had."

On to the fourth note. Is it higher or lower than the third pitch (1d)? By how much? Don't guess — use the scale as a ruler by singing it up or down until you get to the note in question. Do the whole song this way, writing the #'s or syllables for the tones as you go, then read on.

Here's the whole song: 3m-2r-1d,2r,3m-3m-3m, 2r-2r-2r, 3m-5s-5s, 3m-2r-1d-2r-3m-3m-3m-3m-2r-2r-3m-2r-1d. Sing it through, substituting numbers or syllables for the words.

Try other songs. Pick only tunes with that "happy" Major scale sound. Here's a head start on "This Old Man": 5s-3m-5s, 5s-3m-5s. Or "Frere Jacques": 1d-2r-3m-1d, 1d-2r-3m-1d.

The Melody Game can be hard, but it's worth the effort! Try it on your instrument, playing the scale tones as you sing them. Improvise this way. You can play any scale-based pattern if you can hear the scale tones it's made of. Enjoy!

Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).