The Unvarnished Truth about Commercial Ear-Training Software

August 31, 1994

Using computer-assisted instruction (CAI) guarantees that students will learn aural skills so quickly and easily you'll no longer need to teach ear-training classes! If you believe this, let's hope your sojourn in Fantasyland is never interrupted.

Good ear-training software can provide students with an unlimited amount of individual, highly focused practice on specific learning tasks, and it can monitor how much the students work and how much they actually accomplish. Computer programs can focus on a student's individual problems, which may make learning more efficient and effective, decreasing the time required for a student to achieve a desired level of skill. So, all of your aural- teaching problems are solved? Not so. No matter how we teach aural training skills -- with or without computer software -- it will be hard work for most students, and it will take time. Clearly, an infinitely patient and available tutor should encourage students to work harder, but it is unlikely to make the task itself much easier. Still, under proper conditions, CAI does work. Literally hundreds of recorded reports attest its positive effectiveness.

If CAI is so effective, why can't we eliminate formal ear-training classes? First, there is no guarantee that students will learn anything at all just because a computer is involved. Student misuse of programs, occasional computer malfunctions, and misapplication of ear-training lessons by instructors sometimes interfere with student learning. The best programs, like the best textbooks or the best teachers, must be used thoughtfully and attentively if they are to be effective. Since instructors serve as both catalyst and capstone in the learning process, a decision to use aural-training software does not relieve them of further responsibility. Most students will take the software only as seriously as the teacher does. If the instructor is not knowledgeable about the software and does not bother to customize it as much as possible for the particular instructional situation, the software is unlikely to be effective.

More importantly, no matter how good the software is, the computer cannot duplicate everything a good teacher does to enhance student learning. If computer software can handle basic interval, scale, and chord drills, the teacher can devote more class time to higher-level aural skills. If software can handle basic harmonic or melodic dictation practice, the teacher can focus on dictation and macro elements from "real" musical compositions. If software incorporates additional creative opportunities (such as composition or improvisation) as part of ear-training, it is still no substitute for a class discussion with appropriate guidance from the teacher -- even if students can listen to other students' work on the computer. Similarly, if analysis is part of the ear-training software, class discussions about different analyses, particularly when supported by aural perceptions, increase the value of the learning experience for the entire class.

Although some of this may seem beyond the traditional content of aural-training courses, such common musical pursuits as composition, improvisation, and performance are natural methods of aural training. They provide valuable opportunities for developing students' aural training skills and help students understand music as a whole instead of as a series of more or less unrelated components taught in different classes. After all, in the broadest sense, music is aural perception. If we are not able to hear and perceive music as music, there is no music.

Teachers who are responsible for the aural-training curriculum play an especially important role in a musician's development, for they determine what degree of aural knowledge and comprehension should be expected of an educated musician. Although most instructors would agree that music students should know the basic aural building blocks of their musical language, and that, ideally, their aural comprehension of music should be virtually instantaneous, agreement about exactly what we expect them to hear is not universal. For example, some contend that we spend too much time on basics, while others argue that notation should not be part of "aural" training. Perhaps both of these issues are valuable indications of another, related problem: how little we really know about how students acquire aural-training skills. Over the years, a number of articles in publications such as the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy have provided an abundance of valuable information, but much more research is still needed.

What will future aural-training software be able to do? Given all the factors that make the development of good software so difficult, it seems surprising that any good software is produced. Practical problems such as the length of time it takes to prepare a program for commercial distribution, the lack of publishers who understand music CAI software, and the lack of academic and monetary rewards for developing software, are frustrating and discouraging. Moreover, basic and fundamental questions, such as "What is aural training?" and "How should we teach it?", have yet to be answered. Many conflicting opinions make it difficult to design software that has the approval of a major portion of the constituency.

Most of these problems will be resolved only indirectly by software developers. The consumer will always make the final decision regarding commercail software because publishers will publish only what instructors will buy. The conservative nature and lack of consensus on the part of professors encourages continuing production of relatively traditional and "safe" software, restricting innovative ideas that might go beyond drill and practice. If instructors investigated music programs more thoroughly, they could eventually force better quality by refusing to buy that which they consider to be inferior. As more instructors expand their ideas of what can and should be included in aural training, a broader scope of topics and variety of learning approaches could become commercially viable in music software.

Despite all the obstacles, many individual software developers continue to explore new ideas. A number of programs -- most of them still under development -- stretch the traditional boundaries of aural training by providing more complete aural musical experiences for students. There is software that allows a student to take dictation from a real recording -- writing or playing back any part of the performance, from a single voice to a piano score of the work; software that incorporates aural perception skills while learning music analysis; software that encourages students to explore the concepts of musical form by rearranging blocks of musical sound to build a musical composition; software that allows students to fill in the musical blank by playing the "missing" part or parts of a composition; and, software that allows students to improvise compositions within teacher-specifiable parameters. Such developments are truly exciting. With the current technology, the possibilities seem to be limited only by our imaginations, tempered by our definitions and expectations of aural training, and by our beliefs about how these skills can be taught and learned. However, for innovative, more comprehensive software to become commercially viable, instructors must be willing to experiment with new ideas and move toward a more broadly based concept of aural training. Only then will all our students be able to benefit from widely available, high-quality aural-training software that will significantly enhance students' aural perception and comprehension of real music.

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