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"The Melody Game Revisited"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, November 2000.

I thought I'd share my "Melody Game" again, for those of you who missed it a few years ago and want a fun, powerful ear training exercise. The Game is to sing an old, familiar song and figure out how the notes of the song fit into a scale.

For example, many songs are in the major scale, which is that classic "melody" everyone knows, "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do." Sing it a few times and get comfortable with it in your voice. Sing it up and down. We're going to use this scale to "sound out" simple songs, i.e. to figure out how a song goes in "Do, Re, Mi" terms. Some people prefer using numbers for the scale instead of syllables because they can more easily tell where they are: Do=1, Re=2, Mi=3, Fa=4, So=5, La=6, Ti=7, and Do=1 again (an octave higher than where you started). In the exercises below, I'll combine the two methods in one shorthand code: D1, R2, M3, F4, S5, L6, T7, D1. This way, you can feel free to use syllables or numbers, whichever you prefer.

Let's sing a song we all know: "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Sing it several times. All of the notes of this song are in one major scale. One of the notes is D1, i.e. "Do" or "1," the first note of the scale. Which one do you think it is? Which note sounds like "home base" for the whole song? HINT: It's not the first note.

Yup, it's the last note. This is common in older songs because it gives the melody a feeling of completion. D1 is used more than once in "Mary." Sing it again and see if you can find it anywhere else. If you decided on the third note of the song, you're right; that's D1, too.

OK, so what about the first two notes of the song? They're higher than D1, but by how much? Starting on D1, sing up the scale until you get to the first note of the song. What is it? If you identified it as M3, you're right. Now sing the scale again and identify the second note. Can you hear that it's lower than the first note (M3) but higher than the third note (D1)? It's R2.

So, now we have the first three notes: M3, R2, D1. Continue into the song for a few more notes. Anything sound familiar? The next few notes are the same notes we sang before, but in reverse order. Here's the first five notes of "Mary," written as scale tones: M3, R2, D1, R2, M3. Figure out the scale tones for the whole song, and write them down. If you have trouble finding the "identity" of a note, return to D1 and sing up the scale to find it. Take your time and do your best to sing the scale in tune, so you don't drift off course. It's a slow process at first, but it gets easier as you go.

Here's the entire song: M3, R2, D1, R2, M3, M3, M3 / R2, R2, R2 / M3, S5, S5 / M3, R2, D1, R2, M3, M3, M3, M3, R2, R2, M3, R2, D1.

How did you do? This is a great way to train your ear to hear the scale patterns that make up songs. Try these songs, too: "Frere Jacque," "This Old Man," and "London Bridge." All of them end on D1, but only one starts on D1. (OK, I'll tell you: it's "Frere Jacques.") Use the scale as your guide. HINT: You can sing the scale up OR DOWN to find the tone you're looking for. The answers are below.

A fun variation on the game is to improvise your own tunes, singing the scale tones. Start with simple sequential patterns: D1, R2, M3 / R2, M3, F4 / M3, F4, S5, etc. Do the same thing backwards, starting on a high D1 and coming down: D1, T7, L6 / T7, L6, S5 / L6, S5, F4, etc. Try skipping around: D1, M3, S5 / R2, F4, L6 / M3, S5, T7, etc. Take your time. As you get more comfortable with it, you'll be able to sound out more and more complex tunes.

Here are the answers to the songs above:
"Frere Jacques": D1, R2, M3, D1 / D1, R2, M3, D1 / M3, F4, S5 / M3, F4, S5 / S5, L6, S5, F4, M3, D1 / S5, L6, S5, F4, M3, D1 / D1 S5 D1 / D1 S5 D1. The S5 near the end is actually lower than D1, which is common. If you had trouble finding it in the scale, remember that you can sing the scale up or down to find the note you're looking for.

"This Old Man": S5, M3, S5 / S5, M3, S5 / L6, S5, F4, M3, R2, M3, F4 / M3, F4, S5, D1, D1, D1, D1, D1, R2, M3, F4, S5 / S5, R2, R2, F4, M3, R2, D1.

"London Bridge": S5, L6, S5, F4, M3, F4, S5 / R2, M3, F4 / M3, F4, S5 / S5, L6, S5, F4, M3, F4, S5 / R2, S5, M3, D1.


Copyright 2000 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).