Why Ear Training Might Matter More than You Think

I don’t know if it’s normal to get nervous for aural skills class, but ear training at Juilliard with Mary Anthony Cox was not just any class (the short anecdote in the second gray box provides a tiny glimpse of a typical day in class).

In her legendary 49-year tenure, she was known for being an absolutely terrific teacher, albeit demanding and tough as nails (I particularly enjoyed this comment from her ratemyprofessors.com profile – “Wow. A methodical pedagogue, a thoughtful performer, a terrifying authoritarian, and a genuinely compassionate person — I think!”).

From the standard dictation and sight-singing exercises to a slew of other heart-stopping drills whose names I’ve long since forgotten, Ms. Cox’s class provided a regular dose of anxiety and panic that I dreaded each week. It sometimes made me question why such a cruel and unusual thing was part of the curriculum.

So why is ear training part of a musician’s training anyway? What is it good for?

No piano? No problem!

Pianist Arthur Rubinstein once famously learned Franck’s Symphonic Variations while riding on a train to his next concert, by practicing the piece on his lap.

This represents a pretty extreme example of learning away from the instrument…how might something like this be possible?

A recent study of pianists (Highben & Palmer, 2004) yields some clues.

16 pianists

Sixteen pianists, half of whom were music majors, but all of which were currently performing, were recruited for this study.

Each pianist started out with a practice trial which involved practicing a short musical excerpt five times with the score, and then performing the passage three times from memory.

Then the real part of the study began, with each pianist being tasked with learning and performing four short 2-bar excerpts via four different practice methods – a “normal” condition, “motor only” condition, “auditory only” condition, and “covert” condition.

In each condition, they would be allowed 10 practice trials with the music in front of them. Then the music would be taken away, and they’d have to perform the passage four times from memory (with the researchers being primarily concerned with whether they played all the right notes or not).

In the “normal” condition, they were simply told to perform the figure 10 times.

In the “motor only” condition, the pianists were informed that there wouldn’t be any sound coming out of the keyboard when they pressed down the keys, so were instructed to imagine what the piece would sound like instead.

In the “auditory only” condition, they were asked to imagine what their finger movements would feel like as they listened to a recording of the passage through headphones, while holding their hands and fingers in loose fists (to keep them from inadvertently moving their hands and playing “air piano”).

In the “covert” condition, the pianists were asked to use both auditory and motor imagery – to imagine what the passage would sound like whilst also imagining what playing the passage would feel like.

Upon completing the four practice and performance blocks, the pianists were given two last tests – of their auditory imagery ability and motor imagery ability – to see how effectively they were able to imagine sound and motor movements in their heads.

When aural skills matter

As you can probably guess, the pianists performed best after engaging in “normal” practice where they had the benefit of both auditory and motor feedback. They performed worst (i.e. played the most wrong notes) in the “covert” condition where they had only their imagination to work from.

That’s not much of a revelation of course, but what is interesting is how the pianists’ aural skills test scores were related to their learning.

When the researchers analyzed the data by separating the pianists by aural skills scores – the top half averaging an 80% on their test, and the bottom half averaging 46% – it became clearer where aural skills ability made a difference.

In the normal and the auditory-only conditions, where the pianists did not have to imagine the sound of music (heh, heh), there was no significant difference on the performance test between the pianists with high or low aural skills abilities.

But in the motor-only and covert conditions, where the pianists had to audiate, or create the sound of the music in their head without the benefit of a recording or audible feedback from the piano, the pianists with less-developed aural skills performed significantly worse on the performance test (see chart from the study below).

The implication being, mental practice is probably going to be more effective for those musicians whose aural skills are more highly developed.

high vs. low aural skills

Take action

So even if ear training is the bane of your existence, it’s probably worth the time and effort to take it seriously and try to get as much out of it as you can, if for no other reason than it could help you become a more effective mental practicer (there are, of course, many other good reasons as well).

And perhaps the next time you find yourself on an airplane with nothing to do, and a ton of rep to learn, maybe you too could learn (at least part of) a new concerto before it’s time to return your seat back and tray table to their full upright position!

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17 Responses

  1. Noa,

    This verifies older studies showing that visualization works better if you are skilled at the performance art you are practicing. Practice, practice, practice.


  2. The authors of this paper base their study on an N=16, which is a small number for a study like this. I’m sure that a larger study will show the same things with more parsing due to individual variation.

    Nonetheless this paper is worth reading if only for the cites at the end. These studies show the importance of motor and aural training, good mentorship, and the value of mental practice in any performance art.

    I come from the sports psychology end of things, but performance is performance and these principles hold true if you are a musician or a tennis player. Mental practice is a performance skill just like any other and as you progress in all the other performance skills you need to use visualization (motoric and aural components included) as part of the process.

    In the end it still comes down to practicing in a way that benefits you. The use of mental skills is part of this and most performers use these skills even if they are not aware of doing so. By developing them you become a more complete performer.

    Mike Keyes

  3. Hello Everyone, my daughter and I are just at the end of Suzuki book 2 playing Minuet in G for Beethoven on violin. Where the article refers to the topic of ear training, can anyone share 3-4 best ways of doing ear training? Is it listening to a note (and not seeing the fingers on the violin) and guessing which note is being played or is it playing by ear after having heard the song on CD? Sorry, we are still new at this and any time proven ear training words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated. I get a feeling from the article that starting ear training early can only benefit us.

  4. Hi! I’m excited about the journey you and your daughter are on! I studied Suzuki Violin as a child and now perform with a prominent orchestra in my community!

    First, I believe the dedication you give to listening everyday to your listening CD’s will give your daughter a firm foundation in her ear training.

    Some easy supplemental items to add would be to have her do a listening and reading exercise where she listens to the piece she is on and follows her music with her fingers pointing at the music.

    Another idea would be to have you and her come to the piano and you play a note, she sings it back. Then you add another note, and she sings the first pitch and then the new pitch. Keep adding notes and see how many she can string together.

    Truly there are so many fun things you can try to strengthen her ear training. Just remember you are on a journey though and that small positive steps will have big rewards! Good Luck!

    1. Thank you Rebecca. …we will try the points this afternoon at the piano plus in the car we will play the Suzuki CD’s’s …we will also try the finger following the music. Again thank you!

  5. For Paul Rak, a more general answer is that you should help your daughter be more aware of the musical details of each piece. If you haven’t been doing this, go back to Book 1 pieces and review them. This means to me two things primarily. First, does the student know the form/structure of the music, that for example the opening will come back the same (or modified) at the end? Second, can the student relate the shape of the melody to the scale? For this I commonly use doh, ray, me syllables. By understanding and starting to internalize these features of the music the brain develops a sense of the patterns involved and pattern recognition is basic to learning, sight reading and improvisation. Good luck!

    1. Hmm (replying to Murray)… “can the student relate the shape of the melody to the scale” and “develops a sense of the patterns involved and pattern recognition”…both these concepts sound like something I will want to explore with our Suzuki teacher this week…these concepts really sound important but I cannot remember specifically thinking through or discussing them. ..thank you Murray!

  6. Great article Noa! Seein the value in the development of ear-training, what resources would you (or anyone that might know) recommend students turn to for getting started in developing their ear-training?



    1. Hi Alex,

      I’m afraid I’m not the best resource for ear training skills development – I will defer to others in the community who are much more qualified and experienced on this front!

      1. No worries, hopefully someone will chime in 🙂 If nothing else, it got me to take a serious look at the Suzuki Method and see how I can incorporate it into my own teaching. Thanks for the great article!

        1. Hi Alex,

          Ear training and playing by ear is the backbone of my teaching, so I thought I’d share my approach. 🙂

          I start with figuring out simple songs by ear. I see you’re a guitar player too, so you might like to start with simple songs that are played on just one string like Seven Nation Army, Satisfaction or Running Down a Dream.

          Next, I like to help students figure out songs they bring to their lesson. I’ve stopped showing them how to play anything or giving tabs or notes. This helps them to get used to figuring out everything they play themselves. It’s incredible to see how quickly students get better at this!

          Once students get comfortable with this you can also start with some improvisation. I like to put on a simple backing track, have my students sing or hum a melody or short phrase and record it on a phone. Next, figure out what they sang. This is the first step to accessing the music they hear in their head and making it come out of their instrument!

          I wrote an article on playing by ear, which you should be able to find by clicking on my name above.

          Hope this helps!

          If I can help out in any other way, let me know 🙂

          Cheers, Just

  7. Would they not have resource info to pass along at Juliard, or someone at Juliard, would have that info., to freely pass that along.
    Rob T

  8. I just read your piece, “Why Ear Training Might Matter More than You Think,” by Dr. Noa Kageyama, regarding ear training at Juilliard. Practicing fingering in your head isn’t ear training. The ability to hear a piece in your head while performing fingering without the instrument is a result of ear training, not an example of it. People who have trained their ears well enough to hear a score in their heads do not need to simulaneously finger all the instruments in order to hear the music.
    The methods described in the article were, in fact, training for rote keyboard memory skills, and geared primarily to piano students.

    The techniques described don’t address the need to start ear-training from the beginning: learning to identify intervals (both up & down), triads (root and inversions), then 7th chords, etc.

    I have met Juilliard grads with perfect pitch who can’t identify 9th, 11th & 13th chords, and who can’t read a transposed score (possibly because their perfect pitch can’t accept a french horn “C” as a sounding “F”, and the same for transposing brass and woodwinds).

    Real ear training begins with learning to indentify intervals and by learning to write them in bass and treble clefs. I’ve found that beginning music students can learn intervals by matching them to songs they already know. All they need is the information (“Hey Jude” begins with a minor third down – “My Bonnie Lies Over The ocean” begins with a major 6th up, etc.). That’s where ear training begins – not with performance of intricate pieces — in the air or otherwise.

  9. Hi Noa,

    I’m trying to do some research for a User Experience design course on the topic of aural skills development/ear training for amateur musicians, and I wanted to find some existing research that demonstrates the value of ear training. But the link for the study you’re talking about is broken. Was this the study that you remember reading? If the link doesn’t work, the article is written by Caroline Palmer in 2004. Does that sound about right?

    The goal of my project is to explore ways to expand access to ear training beyond the university or conservatory, but I need to find evidence that this is even a thing people want or need. I also plan to research existing solutions to the problem.

    Thanks for any help you can give me!


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