Music education always & always looking forward.

Ascending Major Third in "Blister in the Sun"

My generation, or my mini-generation, was referred to by Slate magazine in 2011 as Generation Catalano.  That's the mini-generation sandwiched between the ennui of Generation X and the apparent helplessness of the Millennials.  We used AOL a lot as teenagers and we pioneered social media in college.  (No, really.  Mark Zuckerberg was a graduating class younger than me.)  Except that Anna Garvey then wrote about the same thing in Social Media Week, and gave us a better, more apt name that didn't forever doom us to be marked by Jared Leto.  She referred to us late 1970s (my husband) and early 1980s (me) babies as The Oregon Trail Generation.  I much prefer that term.

What's your point, Emily?

My chorus students have been quizzed ceaselessly on intervals lately, first for All-State testing, and still because quite frankly, they need the practice.  I use the interval quiz tool on and quiz them at the start of almost every class.  I personally should be great at identifying intervals, and I am, except for my ear-training Achilles Heel: the major third.  I still struggle with that interval identification, or at least I did until my favorite intervals site mentioned that you can hear a major third right at the start of the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun."  And for the first time in my life, it clicked.  And of course, because of my generational pop culture markers, whenever I hear "Blister in the Sun", I see Angela Chase, thrilled because she now has Jordan Catalano's attention, jumping up and down on her bed to that song.  

Generational constructs are by and large stupid, but whatever.  That song, that everyone in my sandwiched generation knows, helps me with my personal ear-training.  And that's okay, I guess.

"Blister in the Sun" - Violent Femmes

Intro: While not having achieved a huge amount of commercial success, "Blister in the Sun" has a unique amount of cultural cache. The best known song from the Violent Femmes' 1983 debut album Violent Femmes, the song has appeared in multiple movies and on television, most notably 1990s cult favorite show My So-Called Life. Other songs from the album were featured on additional television shows (including "Good Feeling" on How I Met Your Mother) and "Gone Daddy Gone", also from this album, was covered and released by Gnarls Barkley in 2006. As a testament to its longevity, the album Violent Femmes went platinum eight years after its release, having only reached #171 on the Billboard Albums charts, and "Blister" remained a radio staple well into the 1990s.

Analysis: The opening acoustic guitar riff, which founds the formation of the entire song, is based upon a major third interval -- up a major third and then back down (and then back up a perfect fifth, outlining a major triad) -- and the vocal line that follows (starting in the video below at :19) imitates the guitar riff, making use of the major third. The same guitar riff appears throughout the song and the vocal line occurs at the start of each chorus. 

Considerations for Teaching: Many of the Violent Femmes' songs follow a punk tradition, discussing otherwise taboo subjects that include sex, drugs, and racial tensions, and "Blister in the Sun" is not exactly an exception. Although it uses no profanity, which probably helped it to be a big alternative rock radio hit, singer Gordon Gano repeats the song "I'm high as a kite", making a relatively overt connection to drug use. The interval at the start can be demonstrated without reaching the offending line, and so a short sample of the song can get the musical point across to students. 

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