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Tuning Intervals

Paul Marshall (c)2002

As drummers, we usually tune our drums to particular intervals.  This means in practical terms that the distance (the interval) between the tuned note of one drum and that of another is a recognisable one.  This does not mean that we need to (or want to) tune to specific chromatic notes but rather that no matter where we choose to start we can always guarantee that the musical difference we choose between one drum and its neighbour is constant.

There are as many tuning opinions as there are possible combinations of the musical scale, some are more 'musical' than others.  The majority will centre around the major scale which is most usefully explained in terms of 'Solfa' or as Julie Andrews would say "do, re, mi, fa, so, la ti, do".

The relationship between do and mi is a third (count 'em) and do-so is a fifth.  Playing those two notes together gives harmony as does playing all three together.  This is known as a major triad.  If you tune your drums to these intervals then rolls, flams on two toms etc and the general tonality of your kit will be harmonious (assuming that this is what you want).

Below is a large section of a page that was generously provided by Mainliners. Thank you to Dan Meyer.  The tables set out to give [mostly] common reference points to enable you to memorise the intervals.

To apply this using the do-mi-so triad as an example, pick a tuned tom, any tom that has a good sound for that drum, I generally start low but that's habit rather than recommendation.  If that is taken as the 'tonic' or solfa 'do' then you should tune the next highest to 'mi'.  To do this, sing the first two notes of "have yourself a merry little Christmas..." starting on the note (do) of the tuned tom for "Have" and you find the 're' note at "your" of' yourself'. The subsequent tom to is 'so' which has the same interval of a third so you do it again but starting on the just-tuned tom for "Have". When you hit two drums together you make a chord!

If you have five drums that you can usefully tune, then perhaps pick a pentatonic scale.  The beauty of a pentatonic scale is that any combination of the 5 tones will be harmonious (like playing the black notes on a piano). In Solfa it is DO - RE - mi - FA - SO - LAti - do -.

  • Do-Re is a second:, so you sing "You Must remember this" You = Do (the note from your tom) & Must = Re

  • Re-Fa is a third; "Have Yourself..." Have = Re & Your = Fa

  • Fa-So and So-La are seconds; You = Fa & Must = so; and then... You = So and Must = La

If you haven't tried this before, give it a go, it's great craic and good experience, try playing melodies on them.

There is a concern about this degree of musicality from a drummer interfering with the tuning of the band (seriously, not a drummer joke :), that concern being that if your kit is, or worse, is almost in a particular key and the tune played is in a disharmonious key then the whole band is out of tune.  I'm not sure I subscribe to it, I agree with the theory but experience has left me unconvinced .

It is obviously important for this exercise that you can tune your drums accurately.   Read Mike Radcliffe's article for guidance

Enjoy and happy playing


Material used with kind permission  


Collected by Sandy Sukhov Cressman

Here are snippets of many well-known songs and tunes. The first notes of each snippet correspond to a particular musical interval.

Practice these intervals by randomly choosing a starting note from a piano or pitch pipe. Then, thinking of the song clue for that interval, try and sing the prescribed interval up, or down. The boldface lyric syllables show which notes of each melody correspond to the interval.

From Phil Richards of the Westchester County, NY Golden Chordsman

Phil added a table that describes an interval's steps relative to tonic, root, orkey note.

Major Second up Doe-a-deer
Happy Birth-day
Major Second down Ma-ry had a little lamb
Whis-tle while you work
Minor second up You must remember this ("As Time Goes By");
I left my heart in San Francisco; Theme from Jaws (repeating two-note pattern)
Minor Second down Shall we dance (from The King and I)
Ride a painted pony ("Spinning Wheel")
I know a dark secluded place ("Hernando's Hideaway")
Major Third up From the halls of Montezuma
Have your-self a merry little Christmas
Well I come from Alabama ("Oh Susanna")
Major Third down Swing low, sweet chariot
Good night, ladies
Summertime and the livin' is easy.
Minor Third up Lul-la-by and good night(Brahm's Lullaby)
A time for us ("Love Theme From Romeo And Juliet")
To dream the impossible dream
Minor Third down Look at me ("Misty")
Toot-Toot Tootsie, good-bye
Oh-o say you see ("Star Spangled Banner")
Perfect Fourth up Here comes the bride
Day is done ("Taps" bugle call)
Perfect Fourth down Born free
My girl
, talkin' 'bout my girl (Motown hit)
Tritone up Ma-ri-a (from West Side Story)
Bo-oy, boy, crazy boy (from flatted fifth or sharp fourth) "Cool" in West Side Story)
Tritone down European police siren (go see a foreign film)
Perfect Fifth up Hey there, Georgy Girl
Rain-drops on roses ("My Favorite Things", Sound of Music)
Yo-ee-oh (War chant of the Wicked Witch's guardsmen in The Wizard of Oz)
Perfect Fifth down Feel-ings, nothing more than feelings
Major Sixth up My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Dash-ing through the snow ("Jingle Bells");
N-B-C (network chime)
Major Sixth down No-body knows the trouble I seen
Gonna lay down my sword and shield ("Down By The Riverside")
0-ver there
Minor Sixth up "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," first two notes (Black Orpheus theme)
For Papa, make him a scholar (from "Matchmaker" in Fiddler On The Roof)
Minor Sixth down Where do I begin ("Theme From Love Story")
Major Seventh up Ba-li Hai will find you (from South Pacific; first and third notes)
Major Seventh down [Research continues on a clue for this interval]
Minor Seventh up There's a place for us (from "Somewhere" in West Side Story)
Theme from Star Trek (first two notes)
Minor Seventh down Theme from American In Paris (first two notes)
Octave up Some-where over the rainbow
Octave down Wil-low weep for me


Minor Second One Half Tone A Half Tone
Major Second Two Half Tones One Full Tone
Minor Third Three Half Tones One Full Tone + a Half Tone
Major Third Four Half Tones Two Full Tones
Perfect or Major Fourth Five Half Tones Three Full Tones
Minor Fifth or Tritone Six Half Tones Three Full Tones + a Half Tone
Perfect or Major Fifth Seven Half Tones Four Full Tones
Minor Sixth Eight Half Tones Four Full Tones +a Half Tone
Major Sixth Nine Half Tones Five Full Tones
Minor Seventh Ten Half Tones Five Full Tones +a Half Tone
Major Seventh Eleven Half Tones Six Full Tones
Octave Twelve Half Tones Seven Full Tones

Example: C Major Scale

  Chord Examples, Numbers are Half Tones Between Notes
Major Minor Seventh Ninth Dimin Sixth Minor7th
C Tonic X X X   X X X
C# Db Minor Second              
D Major Second 4 3 4 X 3 4 3
D# Eb Minor Third   X   2 X   X
E Major Third X   X X   X  
F Perfect or Major Fourth         3   4
F# Gb Minor Fifth or Tritone 3 4 3 3 X 3  
G Perfect or Major Fifth X X X X   X X
G#Ab Minor Sixth         3 2  
A Major Sixth 5 5 3 3 X X 3
A#Bb Minor Seventh     X X     X
B Major Seventh     2   3 3 2
C Octave X X X 4 X X X

The Minor7th and the Sixth are the same intervals, but with different root notes. The Ninth chord can also be a Minor6th with a different root note. Except for these, the sequence of numbers for intervals is unique to each chord type. The actual chord notes may come in a different order depending on which part sings them.

Note: The Minor intervals correspond to the piano black keys, but only in the key of C.