Why Ear Training Might Matter More Than You Think


Is it normal to get nervous for aural skills class? To wake up on ear training class days and feel that same twisted-up feeling in your stomach that you get on the morning of an audition?

Maybe it’s just me that got so freaked out about ear training, but then again, ear training at Juilliard with Mary Anthony Cox was not just any class. In her legendary 49-year tenure, Ms. Cox was known for being a devoted and absolutely terrific teacher – and also demanding and tough.

This brief snapshot of a typical moment in class from composer Nico Muhly’s blog probably captures the essence of the experience as well as anything:

Mary Anthony Cox: Honey, what is this note?

Hapless Student: Um…b-flat?

Mary Anthony Cox: Are you asking me or telling me?

Hapless Student: Telling you.

Mary Anthony Cox: Tell me the answer then, honey.

Hapless Student: B-flat! [this would be the wrong answer]

Mary Anthony Cox: Honey, have you ever heard of a cat-dog?

Hapless Student: What?!

Mary Anthony Cox: A cat-dog. Have you ever heard of one?

This was her way of informing you that your answer was somehow conflicting with the real answer; it was also a form of psychological warfare. The first time I didn’t understand her, in my entrance audition, she said to me, “Honey, is English your first language?”

From the standard dictation and sight-singing exercises to a slew of other drills whose names I’ve long since forgotten, Ms. Cox’s class injected a regular dose of anxiety into my weekly schedule. And it often led me to wonder why the unique form of torture that is ear training was part of the standard music curriculum.

So why is ear training part of a musician’s training anyway?

A study of 16 pianists

A study of pianists (Highben & Palmer, 2004) provides some answers.

Sixteen actively performing adult pianists (half of whom were music majors currently in university), were recruited for this study.

Four different practice conditions

Essentially, each pianist had to learn and perform four short 2-bar excerpts using four different practice methods – 1) a normal condition, 2) motor-only condition, 3) auditory-only condition, and 4) covert condition.

In each practice condition, the pianists would get 10 practice trials with the music in front of them. And then the music would be taken away, and they’d have to perform the passage four times from memory, to see how accurately they could recall all the notes.

  • In the normal condition, participants were simply told to perform the passage 10 times.
  • In the motor-only condition, the pianists were told that there would be no sound coming out of the keyboard when they pressed down the keys, so they’d just have to imagine what the piece would sound like instead.
  • In the auditory-only condition, they were asked to keep their hands and fingers completely still, but imagine what their finger movements would feel like as they listened to a recording of the passage through headphones.
  • In the covert condition, the pianists were asked to use both auditory and motor imagery – to imagine what the passage would sound and feel like if they were playing on a regular piano.

And a test of imagery ability

After completing the four practice and performance blocks, the pianists’ auditory and motor imagery abilities were evaluated to see how effectively they could imagine sound and motor movements in their heads.

So…what did the researchers find?

Best and worst performance

As you can probably guess, the pianists performed the best (i.e. played the most correct notes) after the normal practice session where they had the benefit of both hearing the notes coming out of the piano, and feeling the keys under their fingers. 

And they performed worst (i.e. played the most wrong notes) in the covert condition where they had to imagine both the sound and the feeling of playing the instrument.

Neither of these results are all that surprising of course, but what is interesting is how the pianists’ aural skills test scores were related to their learning.

When do aural skills matter?

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 the pianists’ 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 (😆), there was no significant difference in performance between the high and low aural skill ability pianists.

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 more highly-developed aural skills performed significantly better on the performance test (see chart from the study below).

Screen-Shot-2015-01-31-at-9.46.08-PM.png
From Highben, Z., & Palmer, C. (2004). Effects of Auditory and Motor Mental Practice in Memorized Piano Performance. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 159, 58–65.

So what can we take away from all of this?

Takeaways

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 (i.e. the “motor” condition from this study).

This represents a pretty extreme example of learning away from the instrument, and I don’t imagine most of us will ever be in a situation where we have to learn anything up to a performance-ready level entirely in our heads. But it’s encouraging to know that this type of imagery-based learning is possible for your average non-Rubinstein musician too. Assuming, of course, that one’s aural skills have been reasonably well-developed!

So even if ear training is the bane of your existence, it’s probably worth the time and effort to try to get as much out of it as you can! 

And perhaps the next time you find yourself on a plane or train with nothing to do, a ton of rep to learn, and an empty Netflix queue, see what happens if you take out the score and try to learn a few lines (or pages) before you arrive at your destination. Then, when you get home, take out your instrument and physically play (or sing) through the bits that you worked on in your head, and see how it goes. You might surprise yourself at how much progress you can make even without your instrument. =)

(And on a related note, I’d be curious to know if there are any helpful ear training apps or websites out there. Any recommendations? If so, please share below in the comments!)

A version of this article was originally posted on 02.01.2015; reposted on 08.22.2022.


References

Highben, Z., & Palmer, C. (2004). Effects of Auditory and Motor Mental Practice in Memorized Piano Performance. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 159, 58–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40319208

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Comments

57 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.

    Mike

  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.

    1. How fun that you and your starting this journey together! Even simple call and response games would work. Start with 4 notes (you play them for her without telling her what you’re going to play and she plays them back for you). Because she can see what fingers you’re putting down, have her try closing her eyes (after she’s had success with eyes open). Then switch…have her do the same for her.

      Also try http://www.musictheory.net (free) ear training drills and music theory lessons.

      Have fun!

  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?

    Thanks

    -Alex

    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.

    1. Yes, a lot of jazz musicians in training emphasize acquiring and being able to identify and sing the intervals as a fundamental element. Also, I remember hearing that the traditional conservatories in Austria earlier in the last century started students, regardless of the instrument they have selected or been matched up with, on six months of ear training, sight singing (solfegge), and dictation, with no instrumental training permitted.

      1. To this day in most of France and in the French speaking parts of Switzerland conservatories will not permit a student to approach an instrument without prior 4 years of solfege. It is unfortunate, and disgusts many children. They do not want to do solfege for that long, they want to get their hands on instruments.

  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!

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/40319208

    1. Hi Becky;

      I am interested in your project. I have a fledgling company called, Emsona, that is developing a digitally-based sensory music learning product. Would you care to have a chat?

      Kindly,
      Adele O’Dwyer

  10. Great article Noa.
    I have an app on my phone called Perfect Ear – there’s scale, interval and chord exercises on it, really helpful for ear training.

    I also did a few Kodaly Solfege courses, which I found brilliant. There’s a huge emphasis on sight singing and ear training. One of my tutors (she was amazing) used to give us suggested excercises to practice each week and one of our (many) tasks was to sing all the pentatonic scales ( in solfa – do, re, mi, so, la pentatonic scales) from the same starting note, so essentially changing keys each time – very tricky but a great exercise. Overall, I definitely got a lot from these classes.

    Emma

  11. Hi Noa,
    I use an ear training app called Earpeggio on my phone. It has tone recognition, interval training, and a rhythm section as well. It sends daily reminders to practice.

  12. I enjoy using EarMaster for ear training. It’s a comprehensive iPad app. I’m working through all of the lessons I a few minutes each as part of regular practice. Also let’s me move my musicianship forward when I’m traveling and away from my instrument.

  13. You asked about apps. I’m a huge fan of Theta Music Trainer; lots and lots of “games” and routines that test various aspects of ear-training — intervals, pitch, rhythm, melody line, etc.

  14. The very best Ear Training “app” was, indeed, Mary Anthony Cox. Being able to sing every part with fixed “doh” was an unrivaled way to be confident in one’s knowledge of a piece.

  15. “Functional Ear Trainer” is a customizable Apple app that’s as effective as it is soporific. All ear training software should come with the warning “Do not use while operating heavy equipment.” :-).

  16. Said by a friend about another friend who is entirely self taught – no idea of notation, keys or any theory – “I’ve heard Mikey play many wrong notes, but never a bad note”…….

  17. Oh Ms. Cox! An amazing class … but bringing myself to open that door and actually walk in every week … and the dreaded “honey”. Still to this day get a shiver when I stumble across my Bach four-part choral book!

  18. hey Noa thank you for all your great content!

    the ear training app I’ve found super helpful is Harmonomics (also can be purchased in a bundle with Metronomics–the best metronome IMO). not the most kid friendly as they don’t turn it into a catchy game, but it keeps track of your scores/progress to help build motivation

  19. Irish music is taught almost entirely by ear. The tradition has a “knee to knee” learning model where by experienced musicians pass knowledge along to newer ones. There is no formalized theory, but it’s amazing how much better a tune is remembered when learned this way. It’s in your head and always with you, not on a piece of paper. That’s not to say notation isn’t used by some, it is a useful reminder of the notes. However, it’s only an approximation of a tune. Irish music must be listened to in order to get the correct lilt and feel to the music.

  20. As an amateur musician I recognised the need to improve my aural skills so I amazed myself by learning to sight sing using an app called Sight Singing and improved my interval recognition using RelativePitchLite

  21. This is fascinating, as most everything you post.
    I have anauralia and aphantasia, and it always makes me sad to think of how much better my performances could be if I didn’t.
    But, think it’s important to talk about both of these neurodivergences in the music world and raise awareness, because it it so common to assume that it can be trained, and plenty of teachers go around terrorizing those of us who have it, instead of trying to find ways to help us be the best musicians we can be. I suffered for years thinking I wasn’t musical because I just couldn’t hear music and visualize in my mind.
    Knowledge is power, so now I love to spread the word about this.

    1. Indeed! I think it’s really just quite recently that these phenomena have started getting any research attention, and I imagine there are many who aren’t yet aware that this is a thing. Heck, this is the first time I’ve heard the term anauralia. =) And a quick search led me to the term “dysikonesia” which was also new to me! Hmm…I wonder if this would make for an interesting podcast episode…

  22. My music theory at the Cleveland Institute of music involved Sight Singing and Eartraing for three years. with lots and lots of 4 part harmonic dictation and sight-singing in all the clefs with sight-singing juries every semester. It was frequently terrifying as we were asked to sing individually in front of the class pretty much daily. Many washed out in year 2, I got tutoring and lots of extra help. Finally things started to click, and it has served me well ever since. When others had to take remedial theory in grad school I was able to sail through the placement tests even 10+ years later. The ability to look at a score and hear it I’m my head has made teaching, sight-reading, conducting and everything involving music learning faster and more efficient. While My instructors – who will be unnamed here – could have been more sympathetic, I learned the value of sticking with a seemingly insurmountable challenge and coming out on top of it. Not a bad lesson overall. The nightmares eventually ended. Now keyboard harmony juries….

  23. Hi there. There is course by David Lucas Burdge (google it). He has two courses on this topic. Relative pitch ear training and even Perfect pitch ear training. I passed some lessons while studying and had much sucess with it. Unfortunately, I did not finished courses so I can not claim where it would be leading.

    There is also website (I think there is an app also) called “tonedear” (Toned ear), and it is really great. You can practice intervals, chords,chord progression, melodic dictation, and all of that diatonically and chromatically. Try it, it is really great and helpful! Just google “tonedear”.

    Best regards from Serbia,
    Love your work
    Bojan Krtinic

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