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Learn to Identify Musical Intervals from Seasonal Music: Religious Christmas Songs

Updated on June 6, 2016

Musicians who can hear musical intervals with the mind's ear have a tremendous advantage over those who don't.  Some college music departments offer courses in sight-singing, and a part of the curriculum is comprised of learning to identify intervals by sight and by sound.

A music interval is a measurement. It is the tonal distance between pitches, and it is named by the distance in steps between the two tones, counting each of them. For example, from C to F would be a fourth - four tones, counting both the C and the F:  C D E F.  The interval may be major (M), minor (m), diminished, augmented, or perfect (P).

Some intervals are pretty recognizable, such as the interval of an octave. An ascending (or rising) fourth is also easy. Think of the first two notes in "Here Comes the Bride" and in "Amazing Grace."

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Some rights reserved; attribution; no derivative works | Source

If you can learn to associate specific intervals with music you already know well, then you will probably - with some practice - be able to retrieve the correct sound from your memory when you need it. Seasonal songs may be particularly helpful, because they are usually fairly well known, they are usually sung for a longer time (that is, for more years) than a lot of popular songs, and because the feelings associated with them are often positive, uplifting feelings, and that will reinforce the learning process.

Knowledge of the sound of intervals is used in two basic ways (with some variations on both of them).  One is to identify what you are hearing.  If you hear a new song, or if you hear a tune in your head that you would like to write down, or if you hear something and want to know the distance between the notes so that you can play it back on an instrument, then the ability to identify the interval will help you to figure out how to play or sing or write or describe the music.

The second basic way to use your knowledge of the sound of intervals is in reading music.  You look at a manuscript of standard notation and you can see the little notes moving up and down, across and around the staves. Knowing how the intervals should sound will help you know how to sing the music; it will help you, if you are playing an instrument, to have a good idea of whether you are playing the piece correctly or not; and it will help you to read (and hear) music in your mind, when you look at new music away from an instrument.

Have you heard that the students at Juilliard School of Music are assigned more music to learn than they could possibly have time to practice?  That is done with intent, to force the students to learn how to learn music by sight.  This information may be an urban legend, but it is a revealing one.  What it reveals is that the better you become as a musician, the more will be expected of you. One of the skills that will help you to develop and become better is the ability to hear the music in your mind while you are looking at the notes on the paper.

When it comes time to pull the sound of a specific interval from your storehouse of knowledge, you may need to sing a bit of the song where you first learned to recognize the interval, in order to reassure yourself that you are, in fact, singing or hearing or playing what you intended.  When an unidentified interval occurs in a context different from what you expect, it may not be immediately recognizable.  All you have to do is to sing or hum to yourself the two pitches of that interval; then sing the same two pitches using the words or syllables that fit the suspected interval in the reference song.  Does it sound right?  The more you practice naming the intervals that you hear, the easier and faster the process becomes.

It's usually best, but not always possible, to learn to identify an interval as the first two notes of the song. The next best option is to learn the interval as it occurs in some place in a song that is easy to remember and recall.  Most musicians also find it helpful to learn the interval's sound both ascending and descending, since the same two tones can give slightly different impressions, moving in opposite directions.

Intervals in Religious Christmas Songs

Song Title 
 asc m2
O Little Town of Bethlehem 
 [O little] town of [Bethlehem]
desc m2 
O Little Town of Bethlehem 
 [O lit-] tle town [of Bethlehem]
desc m2 
Joy to the World 
Joy to [the world] 
asc M2
Silent Night
Si - i - [lent] 
desc M2
Silent Night
 [Si -] i - lent [night]
desc M2
Away in a Manger
 [A-] way in [a Manger]
asc m3
O Little Town of Bethlehem
 [O little town] of Beth- [lehem]
desc m3
Silent Night
 [Si - i -] lent night
asc M3
 Once in Royal David’s City
Once in [royal David’s city] 
desc M3
 Go Tell It on the Mountain
 [kept their watch-] ing o’er [silent]
desc M3
 Angels from the Realms of Glory
[come and] wor-ship [first repetition] 
asc P4
 Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Hark the [herald] 
asc P4
O Come All Ye Faithful 
[O come,] all ye [faithful] 
desc P4
 O Come All Ye Faithful
 [O] come, all [ye faithful]
desc P4
 Hark the Herald Angels Sing
 [Glory to the newborn] King. Peace [on]
asc tritone
 From a Distant Home *
 [ Heaven's wondrous] light, o [ never cease ]
desc tritone
asc P5
 Noel Nouvelet (Sing We Now)
 Sing we [now of Christmas]
asc P5
Joy to the World
 [the Lord is] come, let [earth re-]
asc P5
We Three Kings of Orient Are 
 [of Orient] are; bear-[ing gifts]
asc P5
 Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming
 [from tender stem hath] sprung; Of
desc P5
Bring a Torch (Love Has Come) 
Bring a [torch, Jeannette] / Love has [come] 
desc P5
Isn’t He Beautiful? 
 [Isn’t He] beau- ti- [ful? Beautiful,] is-n’t [He?]
desc P5
O Little Town of Bethlehem
[Fears of all the years are] met in [thee] 
desc P5
Hark the Herald Angels Sing 
 [Joyful,] all ye [nations rise]
desc P5
 O Come All Ye Faithful
[O come, all ye] faith- ful, [Joyful]  
asc m6
 Angels from the Realms of Glory
[An-] gels from [the realms] 
desc m6
O Little Town of Bethlehem
 [town of Beth-] le- hem [How still]
asc M6
O Little Town of Bethlehem
[How still we see] thee lie. [Above]  
asc M6
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear 
 It came [upon a midnight clear]
asc M6
O Come All Ye Faithful 
[O come, all ye faith-] ful, Joy- [ful] 
desc M6
Some Children See Him 
[The Lord of] Heav’n to- [oo earth come down] 
asc m7
Go Tell It on the Mountain 
 [there shone a holy] li-----ight.
asc m7
Away in a Manger
[down where He lay.] The lit- [tle Lord] 
asc m7
 What Child Is This?
[watch are keep-] ing? This, [this] 
asc m7
Birthday of the King 
[Al-] le- lu- [ia] 
desc m7
 Star Carol
 [shone bright] While in [a stable a wee baby]
asc M7
desc M7
asc octave
desc octave
Words and syllables in brackets are for reference only. The notes of the interval are sung to the words or syllables that are not in brackets.

* "From a Distant Home" is probably not familiar to many.  It is a Puerto Rican carol (De Tierra Lejana Venimos) found in The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990).  It is included here because it gives an example of the tritone, the unusual and uncommon interval that splits an octave exactly in half.  The tritone is sometimes considered the most difficult interval to sing, but context and surrounding harmonies make a big difference in the ease or difficulty of hearing and singing it.


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    • Aficionada profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Thanks for the comment, shai77. I hope this is helpful.

    • shai77 profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for the info :-)

      WONDERFUL HUB! Thumb up :-)

    • Aficionada profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Thanks for your comment, Brother Dave. I agree that it is a different skill to be able to play by ear vs. reading notes. Some musicians believe that we sort of lose the ability to play by ear, as we learn and practice note-reading (which is emphasized in traditional music lessons). So, I try to include some playing by ear in the lessons I teach. Good for you in being able to do so well with it. What a wonderful gift!

      In the choirs I've directed, I have always known that some of the singers couldn't read music, and so I have tried to assist their learning by ear, at the same time as trying to help them learn some of the principles of note reading. I'm hoping to write some Hubs on this topic as time goes along.

    • Dave Mathews profile image

      Dave Mathews 

      9 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

      I have sung with church choirs for 48 years now. I cannot read a single note of music but once I hear a song once or twice I can sing it and after a few more times listening, I can feel the music and what it is trying to express and how. People say I sing by ear, and have near perfect tone and pitch. God Gifted me with this. I can also sit down at a piano and pick out a song, and then transpose it into the "Key of 'C'" something most people who can sight read music find difficult to do.

      Brother Dave


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