The Numbers Game…

Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to think and talk about music like a pro? To be able to name  intervals or scale degrees and be able to sing them, hear them in your head?

This skill, also known as relative pitch, is really not that hard to develop. It just takes some time and effort.

What if you had a way to learn relative pitch that was a game, like solving a crossword puzzle or sudoku puzzles? Something fun that gave you a vacation from news and the general media madness swirling around you and in your own head?

I believe that one of the reasons why sudoku puzzles are so popular is the simple fact that we can only hold one thought at a time consciously. If you are working out a puzzle you are not using your mind to worry or obsess, you are living in a different world for a while.

Today I would like to offer you a couple of ways to do interval training for music as a game. A very low tech game. Something you can do to get away from your apps and screens and just enjoy some quality analog time with a pencil and a piece of sheet music paper at most. No Batteries! You can even do a version of this game in your head with no tools other than your imagination and optional vocal chords.

The game is “Sing the Numbers”. Instead of ABC or Do Re Mi, its 1, 2, 3… . Start with the major scale and sing 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,1, etc… This is your home base. If you can sing an octave with numbers (or hear them in your head) you can find the rest of the chromatic pitches as needed by singing a note next to the one you are looking for and then dropping or rising a half pitch.

You may need to do this with a piano, guitar, or a chromatic tuner that tells you what note you are singing until you get enough chops to fly solo.

You can then write out a song or riff as a series of numbers. It magically transforms a familiar tune into something new and interesting.

When I first started doing this, i had problems with jumping octaves. It can be tricky to keep track of the numbers when you go up or down an octave.

I ended up using sheet music in a new way. You use the middle three lines to write numbers in for the main octave. When you go up an octave, go up one line for your new base line. With a five line staff, you could represent as many as seven octaves, and still have the numbers touching one of the lines on the staff.

In the illustration I give you 5 examples of how to use sheet music paper for scale degree puzzles.

Example 1:

This shows you three full octaves of a major scale. You could play these notes on any standard 10 hole diatonic harmonica by starting on blow 1 and working your way up to the top note in hole 10 blow.

Example 2:

“Happy Birthday” – When you write this song out in scale degrees it makes sense in a new way. I have been confused by this simple tune in the past because it doesn’t start on the 1, it starts on the 5, and resolves to the one only at the end, and in a higher octave than the one you started with.

It’s fine if you are just singing the song, but here is what happened to me: I got elected to play guitar and I hummed a starting note and then used that starting note as the root of the first chord, and then instantly crashed and burned.

I’ve also played “Happy Birthday” on the harmonica and did not crash and burn instantly, but later on when my “first note is the root” met reality in the second part of the song and I ended up in the weeds while everyone else finished the song… After sounding like a dumb-ass several times at birthday parties I finally sat down and figured out what the hell was going on with this tune.

Example 3:

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high… there’s a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby…

Example 4:

The Blues Scale. Now you are getting into notes in-between the notes of the major scale.

Example 5:

“You say that it’s over, baby” – The first line of the song that starts off Janis Joplin’s last album, “pearl” – the name of the song is “Move Over”. It is easy to find on Youtube if you want to listen to the source…

I recorded some more thoughts on this process here:

and if you want to print out a sheet of blank sheet music, you can find a pdf to print here:

When you play an instrument that comes in all twelve keys, relative pitch is an awesome super power to have. Go for it!

Hey if you want, leave me a comment below, better yet, put up a scale degree musical puzzle and see who guesses the riff or tune first…

Here is a riff to decode to start playing “Name it and Claim it”:

1  b3  4

1  b3  b5  4

1  b3  4

b3  1

The first person to name this tune in the comments gets a $10 gift certificate from yours truly, good for anything in the store at



  1. Leon Li

    March 30, 2017 - 6:45 pm

    Dear Richard,

    I think this might relate to the “Asian Notations”, if not “Chinese Notations” system, which was what I learnt at school 20 odd years ago in China.

    The idea is to number each note of the diatonic scale by the “distance” from the root note, it is brilliant with Blues harp, as you change instrument when you change keys, and as much as the actual note changes, the interval doesn’t, so you always have your do re mi there. (We sing the number 1 2 3…etc as Do Re Mi to Ti, and we mark the 1=G or 1=F on the top left so people knows the key the music is in).

    • Richard Sleigh

      March 30, 2017 - 10:16 pm

      Making that note G=1 is a real smart move! I am assuming the Chinese System uses the Major Scale as the basis, right?

      • Leon Li

        April 23, 2017 - 6:27 pm

        Yes the system uses the Major diatonic scale as the basis, I’ve just realised that as much as it is much more popular in Asia than in Europe, this system is designed by French Priest Jean-Jacques Souhaitty in the 17th century, Chinese must of adopted because it shared the same Movable root idea as the traditional Gongche notation, and yet it is more readable to general public with its simple number system. It is a brilliant idea for sure, especially for the blues harp players 🙂

  2. Leon Li

    March 30, 2017 - 6:49 pm

    Ahhh forgot to say thanks you for the informative articles as always 🙂

    Very helpful!



  3. Mark Silliman

    March 30, 2017 - 8:05 pm

    I struggled with this for awhile trying to sort scale degrees from hole numbers…but something about this kept me coming back….then I got it! I’ve been looking for a way to get the other scale degrees worked into my muscle memory….besides the 145 root notes….and it’s a simple tune easy to tell when I’m off track….very cool! Thanks, Richard!

    • Richard Sleigh

      March 30, 2017 - 10:14 pm

      One of the things I have to do when teaching a class that gets into playing riffs over a 12 bar blues is make sure that we keep track of what the numbers are representing. Hole numbers on the harmonica? Scale degrees? Chord changes? Sometimes you have to walk through a question a couple of times before you get all the numbers sorted out.

      I know there are websites like Jamie Abersold (I think I have the spelling right) that give you lists of songs that start with various scale degree intervals – useful info – like “What Child is This” starts with a b3rd, etc

      I think the more you take interesting riffs and turn them into scale degrees, the more you burn them into your head.

  4. Joe Rock

    April 1, 2017 - 8:36 am

    Thanks Richard. This is another example of why I always enjoy your posts. Great stuff!
    BTW, is the mystery song “Smoke on the water?

    • Richard Sleigh

      April 22, 2017 - 5:50 pm

      Hi Joe,

      Yes – Smoke on the Water!

      Sorry for the late reply

      Thanks for checkin in !


  5. Daniel

    April 20, 2017 - 7:50 am

    Deep purple

    • Richard Sleigh

      April 22, 2017 - 5:52 pm


      I had to look it up – remembered the riff & the song but wasn’t sure of the group

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