Tonal Trends Pop Music Theory for Songwriters

Songwriting and Music Theory Vlog youtube-icon twitter-icon facebook guitarate guitar curriculum

Guitarist looking for something to play or teach? Visit our other site:

Get Updates:

Click Here for a List of the latest Songwriting and Music Theory Vlogs

"The Major Seventh Interval in Melody"

So, originally, I wanted to do a vlog about a popular melody that uses every single interval—and when I say every interval, I mean every interval within an octave—so: m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, tritone, P5, m6, M6, m7, M7, and a perfect octave…


I didn’t find one. Mainly because I didn’t end up looking super hard, because I got distracted by the fact that there was one interval that was conspicuously missing, more than any other. It’s like, take the Super Mario Bros. theme, I was sure I could probably find them all in that one, but I didn’t. Which one didn’t I find? You guessed it: the M7 interval.


So yeah, it was at this point I thought, why not change gears, and do a vlog specifically about this illusive, most interesting, interval of curiousness. Alright, so, why is this interval so hard to find? There’re three primary reasons: Diatonics, Dissonance, and Distance.


Okay first: Diatonics—so, if you don’t already know, “diatonic” is just a fancy way of saying “regular” or “common” notes in a tonality. That’s basically the gist of what people mean when they use that word. So in Major keys: “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do,” those are diatonics. I won’t go much deeper into the definition here, except to say that when you use only diatonic—or common-regular notes—for your melody, there are only seven possible intervals that are 7 steps apart. Here let me show you, we’ll do all the possible 7th intervals in G major.


Okay, who wants to guess how many of those, were M7’s as opposed to m7’s? If you guessed 2, you’re right! Only two out of seven diatonic intervals, that’s 28%. So yeah, not a lot of M7’s compared to m7s.

Okay, which ones are which? Well, that changes depending on which diatonic scale you’re using, but in major, like I just played in G, the first pair starts right away, going from the 1^ to 7^ or the reverse, and then the other one is if a melody maker were to ever jump from a 4^ up to a 3^ or the reverse of that.


And hey why not look at G’s relative minor too since people use that tonality a lot as well: so, in the key of E minor, the relationships are 3^-2^ & 6^-5^. But yeah, again, no matter how you slice it, and no matter what diatonic mode you’re in, only two intervals out of the 7 possible, are M7’s.


Okay, next thing this interval’s got going against it is Dissonance. Dissonance, is a word that basically translates as, a sound that sounds ouchie to our human ears. And the reason for the ouchieness lies in the battling, conflicting sound-waves each note produces. So, real quick, let’s compare and contrast.


I’ll play my E string open, and then my E string up here on 12th fret, and that’s an octave, pretty much the least dissonant note pair you can play. I’ll play these two notes at the same time, and it sounds fine, because the wavelengths are easily divisible. See how the string length is exactly half when I play these two notes again? Like the distance from here to here is the same from here to here. The ratio is 2 to 1: and it’s the same for the wavelengths, 2 to 1.


Like here let me draw it: 2 waves fit into 1 just perfect, super easy to listen to. It’s like if you and your buddy have only one donut, and you just split it in half and it’s no problem. But now, what about a M7’s wavelengths? Now it looks like this. There’s around 15 times or so you have to split it up, to even get it close to fitting, and yeah human ears don’t like that. It’s like, now your whole football team has to slice up that donut so everyone gets the same amount of donut, and it’s just a big old crummy mess! That’s dissonance.


But yeah, after all that, I want to clarify that dissonance isn’t like: bad. There’re other so-called “dissonant” intervals out there that are actually pretty common. Like for instance, take the M7’s inversion, the m2: mathematically, they’re almost the same dissonance—in fact, the M7 is even a teensy bit less harmonically dissonant than the m2. So there’s that, but also, since they are inversions of each other, they have the same diatonic ratio: remember, 2 out of the possible seven choices. But then so: if they’re both pretty much equally dissonant and they both have the same diatonic possibilities, why is the m2 interval used way more often? Well, this leads me to my 3rd point.


Distance. So, remember, the m2 is just as ouchie to our ears as the M7. What makes them so different is that the m2 is just one semitone, or half-step, apart, and the M7 is like 11 semitones apart. This means, that the closer m2 is much easier to get right singing, or playing on an instrument. And you could even argue it’s easier to compose for composers or songwriters. I mean, all wave-theory and diatonic-theory aside, it’s just more physically intuitive to move just one half step, rather than eleven.

It’s like: there’s no ketchup at your table, so are you going to ask to borrow the ketchup from the table next to you, or the table on the other side of the cafeteria?


Okay—Finally. Here we are at the examples:

First, for ascending M7’s, we got Jesse Harris’ “Don’t Know Why” sung by Norah Jones, on that album everyone was listening to on their shockproof jogging CD players back in like 2003 or whatever. It’s like “I – waited till I saw the sun.” And in this example, I want to point out that the dissonance is tastefully mitigated by the short pause, in between intervals. It’s very nice.


Next one is from “Pure Imagination” in the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It’s in the middle of the line, like: “Come with me and you’ll be in A WORLD of pure imagination.” It’s a funky interval for a funky world, of chocolate, and children, getting killed by candy.


The last one—I love this one you guys: it’s at the start of the chorus in “Take on me” by Aha! Where it’s like “Take on me,” “1-7-8.” Love it. And yeah, P.S.A. everybody: the lyrics for the last part of that song are “In-a day-or two!” not, “Ee-ah-eh-oh-ooo!!” or whatever you thought they were.


Next column, we have a couple “descending” M7 intervals: Top song here is “I Love You”, by Cole Porter. And this example is fancy because it has two descending M7’s: one from the 5^ down to the b6^ and one from the 3^ down to the 4^. Sounds like “I love you, comes the April breeze, I love you…” So yeah, that’s some pretty dissonant and distant loving going on right there.


Another place you can hear it and no mistake, is right away in "The Hut on Fowl's Legs” from Mussorgsky's piano suite “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It’s just like, “dun—dun, dundundun.” I mean, there’s no mitigation there man, you know, just: “Dundundun.”


Let’s see what’s next: Oh! You guys, I totally did not have a hard time finding a M7 interval played at the same time: because there’s one of these puppies in like my favorite song ever: “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins, it goes like this.


There’s like a bunch’v’m right in a row. I mean, I used to just listen to this song on repeat, looking out the window on the bus being like “Mmm-mm-mm, life: it’s so: dissonant, and, distant, and like, I’m the only one on this bus, filled with diatonic normals, who really gets that.” And now I know, it was all because of that M7 harmonic interval.


Next, our oldest example comes from a time when they did-not like dissonant intervals, but Bach managed to slip one by on them, he did it in the third section from his Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin” the “Gavotte en Rondeau.” It’s the tune I played at the start of the blog, but yeah, here it is again: starts out with a M7th right here.


Okay on to the “almost” column. Now, these don’t really officially count, but I wanted to cover them because a lot of people use them for mnemonics. And I also want to cover them because I think “Almost there” is a great way, in and of itself, to describe the interval’s character. I mean, it’s only one chromatic step away from the octave—which remember is thee most consonant note pairing there is, besides a perfect unison. So like, if the perfect Octave is basically equivalent to the top and bottom of a staircase, then: ergo, e.i./e.g. the M7th is like the last step before you get, to either end of the staircase, depending on which way you’re going.


So like, pretend someone dares you to get to the step right before the landing without touching any steps in between. You could just jump to the landing, with its larger surface area so you don’t trip, and then quick step back up a step. It’s a mitigating technique—kind of like how Norah Jones put that little pause in for hers. But here, instead of a pause to kind of break up the dissonance, it’s the octave that breaks it up and makes it more pleasant and musically intuitive.  


Like at the beginning of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” this is probably the most well-known, quintessential example of this.


Next, Robert Plant sings one of these bad boys in Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant song.” And yeah, not sure what’s going on in between the octave, but he does land on that M7 interval, that we’ve now grown to understand and to love.


One more “almost” interval guy-o is from Disney’s Enchanted, and if you’ve been watching my vlog for a while, you know how much I like Disney songs. Anyway, “True Love’s Kiss” is like, “I’ve been dreaming of a true loves kiss.” So, just like “Over the Rainbow,” but a little faster.


Alright, thanks for sticking around! Cause now we got the Bonus round! Here are a few spots in the space-time continuum where we have back to back, M7 intervals! First, we have ascending to descending, found in one of the themes from “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.” I think it’s when the boys bust E.T. out of jail and are outrunning the feds on their bmx bikes.


Okay next, we have it the opposite way—descending to ascending—and it’s to be found in the very same Bach example from before, just a few bars later, sounds like this.


Okay, well, that’s all the time we got for this topic. And so: until next time, make sure to click us a like on facebook, subscribe to the youtube channel, follow me on twitter, join the mailing list, and yeah, if you got some time, you should stick around and watch another music theory and songwriting video from! Thanks again, and bye-bye!