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).

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?


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.


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

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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