Why Ear Training Might Matter More than You Think

Why Ear Training Might Matter More than You Think

Arts December 01, 2016 / By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Why Ear Training Might Matter More than You Think

Every music major takes "ear training" classes at some point, and it's easy to go through the motions and just try to get it over with. But it turns out that ear training is more valuable than it may appear.

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 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.

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!

A version of this article originally appeared at The Bulletproof Musician.

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