A Perceptual Learning Hierarchy: An Imperative for Aural Skills Pedagogy

October 1, 2000

A Perceptual Learning Hierarchy: An Imperative for Aural Skills Pedagogy1


During the summer of 1999 three important music cognition conferences were held: MusicCog/99 at the Ohio State University; the Conference on Musical Imagery at the University of Oslo, Norway; and, the Annual Meeting of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition at Northwestern University. The programs for these three events reveal the breadth and depth of current cognition research and reflect the tremendous growth that has occurred in the field of music cognition in the last ten years. The impressive diversity of topics and the inter-disciplinary nature of much of the research attests to the richness and vitality of the field. Yet despite all of the advances in our understanding of how humans process and organize auditory stimuli, cognition research has had little substantive influence on the ways in which music is taught in this country.2

Perhaps nowhere is this more surprising than in the field of aural skills pedagogy. To be sure, important cognition research with pedagogical implications has and is being done.3 Still, the majority of the research that is directly relevant to aural skills instruction has focused on isolated perception tasks and understanding both the physiologic and cognitive nature of the processes involved. In short, it has focused primarily on understanding existing cognition skills and processes. Aural skills instruction, on the other hand, explicitly seeks to refine and augment existing auditory processing skills, as well as to develop new ones.

This difference between the respective goals of the two fields can help to explain how cognition researchers can point to numerous studies involving aural skills-related topics, such as the perception of intervals, triads, meter and timbre, yet aural skills instructors can legitimately maintain that the results of this research have only limited application in the classroom. The failure to recognize this distinction is one of two larger obstacles that have impeded the development of a more symbiotic relationship between cognition study and aural skills pedagogy.

The second of the larger obstacles emanates from arguably the single most powerful influence that has shaped the evolution of aural skills pedagogy in this country: the goal of simultaneously developing perceptual and conceptual understanding of musical events.4 Whether aural skills and theory are taught in separate, independent courses or in a single integrated course, the goal remains the same: the melding of the conceptual and the perceptual understanding of musical materials. While few would argue against this laudable goal, most music educators accept and openly acknowledge the general tendency of perceptual skills to develop somewhat slower than conceptual skills. Nonetheless, the desire to achieve parity of conceptual and perceptual understanding still dictates, to a large extent, both what perceptual topics are taught andperhaps more importantlywhen they are introduced to students. To illustrate this point, I will consider two recently-published aural skills manuals, David Damschroder's Listen and Sing, and Functional Hearing by Arthur Gottschalk and Phillip Kloeckner.5 It is not my intent here to critique these texts, rather I wish to use them as the backdrop for considering the ordering of conceptual and perceptual topics.

The authors of each text expressly link their teaching materials to traditional theory courses and textbooks. In the preface to Listen and Sing Damschroder states: "Listen and Sing is designed to coordinate with the tonal portion of an undergraduate music theory program. The arrangement of materials follows as closely as possible that of standard textbooks on tonal music theory."6 Gottschalk and Kloeckner state that their text has "an organizational plan that facilitates coordination with the general outline of most undergraduate theory courses."7

Chapter 1 of Listen and Sing introduces the following concepts: the major triad, the interval of a perfect 5th, the notion of a key, the treble clef, passing tone, simple quadruple meter and several notational values. All of these topics easily fall under the broad heading of theory fundamentals and would likely be found in the introductory chapters of most tonal theory texts. However, there is a tacit assumption here that needs to be examined more explicitly; namely, that the sequence of topics typically found in tonal theory texts, normally a highly refined and logical conceptual ordering, also represents the optimal perceptual ordering. This raises several important questions. Do we really know just what skills represent the fundamentals of perceptual learning? If we can identify perceptual fundamentals, how do these skills relate to one another? Does the suggestion of perceptual fundamentals itself imply that certain perceptual skills serve as stepping stones to other, more sophisticated skills? Is it possible to identify a learning hierarchy based on perceptual evidence rather than on the conceptual ordering borrowed from theory texts?

Given our current level of understanding of auditory processing, a fully formed, perceptually-based learning hierarchy that can inform the design of instructional activities and the order in which perceptual skills are introduced may be a somewhat distant goal. Nonetheless, expanding the focus of cognition research to include the development and refinement of auditory processing skills has the potential to result in the first truly significant changes in aural skills pedagogy in many years.

Even in the absence of clinical backing from cognition studies, instructors can begin to re-evaluate aural skills curricula in light of perceptual ordering. Aural skills texts can provide the framework for initial inquiries. In the preface to Functional Hearing Gottschalk and Kloeckner state "The accompanying text offers a means of developing these abilities [aural skills] using a pedagogically sound method that builds slowly from one skill to the next."8 There is a strong implication here of a perceptually-based learning hierarchy, with one perceptual skill serving as the building block for other skills. Interval identification, which the authors consider the sine qua non for any work with multiple-voice textures, lies at the heart of this perceptual hierarchy.

There is a long tradition of treating intervals as the cornerstone of aural skills study. Still, for many students the aural identification of intervals is one of the most challenging skills to develop, often requiring many years of study and practice to achieve mastery. There are numerous factors that contribute to the complexity of interval identification, including tacit-and often unrealizedtonal implications of certain intervals, the absence of a broader context from which the isolated intervals draw their meaning, and timbre, to name but a few. However, is it possible that there is another more fundamental reason underlying the difficulty of this task?

Sandra Trehub's investigations into the biological basis of certain aspects of music processing reveal that "infants and adults focus largely on the pitch contour and rhythm of novel melodies, reflecting a disposition to attend to relational pitch and timing cues rather than specific pitches and durations."9 While this natural tendency to focus on more global musical characteristics does not preclude the development of more refined and detail-oriented music processing, it does raise the possibility that some perceptual skills might be easier to acquire than others because they more closely align with innate processing predispositions.10

Scale construction represents another topic wherein processing biases could potentially influence the order of introduction of various scale types. Traditionally, students are introduced to the major scale first, largely because of its ubiquity in western popular music, followed by the three forms of the minor scalenatural, harmonic and melodic. Both Listen and Sing and Functional Hearing present major and minor scales in this logical and pedagogically sound conceptual order. But does it also represent the optimal perceptual order?

Trehub found that babies, for whom environmental influences are minimal, are better able to detect pitch changes in scales with unequal steps than in scales composed of equal steps. Although Trehub also found that the effects on adults of long-term exposure to music based on the major scale eroded this predisposition toward other diatonic scales constructed of unequal steps, it seems worthwhile to investigate the possible existence of either a learned or an innate preferential ordering among scale types in general. Anecdotal/experiential evidence suggests that students often encounter greater difficulty with, say, a phrygian scale than with a mixolydian scale. Whether the reasons for this disparity are learned or innate is less important from a pedagogical perspective than capitalizing on perceptual learning tendencies among students.

I shall cite one further example to illustrate my point. Damschroder adheres to the time-honored tradition of introducing the primary triads in the following order: the tonic, followed by the dominant, and finally the subdominant. In the case of the I and V chords there is good reason for this ordering, since the tonic and dominant triads are so critical to establishing a tonal framework. But what about the IV chord? From a perceptual standpoint, is it necessarily the next best choice, or would some other pre-dominant function chord be easier to aurally comprehend? Damschroder acknowledges the potential difficulty in distinguishing between the primary triads in the major mode, since they are all the same quality. "The distinction between I-IV-I and I-V-I may not be easy to hear at first. IV and V are both major triads, and their roots are adjacent scale degrees."11

Gottschalk and Kloeckner, who introduce all of the triads in the major mode at the same time, list the triads which students are most likely to confuse. Following a triad identification exercise, they ask the student "Which triad is the easiest for you to identify? Which triads are the most confusing?" They then offer the following explanation:

Regardless of your answers, don't despair. There are perfectly valid reasons for both your certainty and your possible uncertainty. The tonic (I) is usually the most readily identifiable in context because functionally it is the most important, that is, the most structural, and is at the harmonic center of any specific diatonic collection. . . . If the I chord is ever misidentified, it is usually confused with IV. And which scale degree do these major triads (I and IV) share? Frequently, ii and IV are confused, but after all, they share two scale degrees (which ones?) and are about equally important in the chordal hierarchy. Because of its unique quality, vii6 usually stands out; but some students may confuse it with V.12

Potential confusion in identifying triads can be minimized by rearranging their order of introduction, or in some cases by simply delaying the introduction of certain chords. For example, rather than presenting the IV chord after the tonic and dominant triads, the ii chord could be introduced since it has largely the same harmonic function as the IV chord (with the exception of plagal motions) but is a different quality than both the I and V chords.

There are several other factors that can make the ii chord in context easier to identify than the IV. Substituting ii for IV reduces the number of possible chord successions according to leaps and steps in the bass. Since in the context of the three root position chords under consideration only the I chord can precede ii, the step motion in the bass from I to ii should be distinct from the leap between I and V. If there is a leap away from the tonic, it must be to V. If there is a leap to the tonic it must be from V. In the case of the IV chord, a leap away from the tonic can either indicate a motion to IV or to V. Similarly, a leap to I can originate with either IV or V. Finally, since the ii chord can only proceed to V, once the student recognizes the minor quality of the ii, the next two chords in the progression are a given: ii-V-I.

Confusion between chords which function similarly and which are the same quality can be reduced by staggering their introduction. For example, ii, vi, and sometimes iii are commonly introduced simultaneously or in relatively close proximity on the basis of chord quality and harmonic function. This needlessly compounds the difficulty of students' already complex task of recognizing chords in the context of a functional progression. Little, if anything, is lost by staggering the introduction of these chords and a great deal can be gained by limiting the number of possibilities as each new chord is presented. Introducing a new chord into the mix before students are completely secure in identifying previously studied chords not only makes it harder to learn to identify the new chord, it undermines the work that was previously done.

There are undoubtedly other topics where, conceivably, a conceptual order might profitably be rearranged in light of perceptual considerations. The order of topics in aural skills curricula needs to be examined both in terms of conceptual logic and perceptual ordering. Moreover, the order of topics as listed in the table of contents of any aural skills text represents a series of ready-made perception experiments aimed at evaluating the perceptual ordering of topics.

Of all the diverse sub-disciplines within the field of music cognition there is a burgeoning area of investigation that is perhaps best positioned to answer questions of perceptual ordering: Auditory Imagery.13 By auditory imagery I mean the ability to mentally create or recreate musical events without singing, playing, or otherwise outwardly producing sounds. Auditory imagery has a role in virtually all musical activities and is the central focus of aural skills instruction, which most often entails the process of comparing the unknown with the known. Students are asked to compare new, unfamiliar sounds that are played or sung for them with silently-recalled, known auditory images. The initial stages of aural skills instruction then are aimed at helping students to develop auditory images against which they can compare unknown auditory stimuli.

Auditory imagery is sometimes explicitly the focus of instruction, as for example in the case of Gottschalk and Kloeckner's view of intervals as the essential references against which new, unknown stimuli are to be compared. But auditory imagery can also be implicit in the learning process. Gottschalk and Kloeckner offer the following suggestions to help students to become proficient with hearing and singing major scales:

1) Your instructor will play a series of pitches in a variety of registers at the keyboard. As quickly as you can, match each pitch with a neutral syllable . . . .

2) Using your knowledge of the structure of the major scale [which the text covers prior to this drill] sing ascending and descending major scales, starting on any pitch.

3) Choose any pitch and mentally assign to that pitch a particular diatonic position in the major scale . . . . Beginning with that assigned identity of the chosen pitch, sing the ascending and descending major scales . . . . [In order to mentally assign a diatonic position to the target pitch, the student must recreate an auditory image of all, or at least strategic parts, of a major scale; the same holds true for the final guideline.]

4) Maintain the same pitch as in Exercise 3, but mentally reassign the diatonic identity of that pitch . . . . Beginning with the newly assigned identity of the chosen pitch, sing, in turn, the descending and ascending major scales. . . .14

For this task, the student must erase the old auditory image and create a new one. The singing portion of both exercises 3 & 4 serves only to confirm the accuracy of the auditory image. In fact, the successful creation of the auditory image is the point of this drill. The target pitch, which was chosen randomly by the student and therefore cannot be wrong, remained the same. I wish to make it clear that I am not taking issue with Gottschalk and Kloeckner's approach. On the contrary, I applaud their efforts to help students to develop their imagery skills. Nor is their use of auditory imagery unique.

From the outset Damschroder encourages similar comparisons with auditory images. His introduction to sight singing includes the following suggestion: "When a melody starts on a pitch other than the tonic, it is especially important that you hear the tonic pitch internally. Perform an E at the piano, then imagine C internally."15 In order to internally hear the tonic pitch while sounding another member of the triadno simple task for inexperienced listenersthe student must imagine the entire tonic triad, all or part of the major scale, or strategic pitch relations that contribute to the perception of a key. These types of explicit and implicit comparisons involving auditory images are at the core of virtually all aural skills activities.

Although the systematic study of auditory imagery as an independent discipline has only begun in earnest in the last ten years or so, the potential implications of auditory imagery research for aural skills pedagogy are already emerging. Zatorre, et al., found that the ability to perform auditory imagery tasks varied considerably among subjects.16 This simple realization could potentially open up a whole new area of inquiry relating to the diagnosis of student weaknesses in aural skills training. Aural skills study is a multifaceted, highly complex endeavor. It entails the development of numerous discrete, yet interdependent perceptual skills. Weakness with any individual skill, especially one so critical as the creation or recall of auditory images, often results in the inability to perform many other perceptual skills and tasks. Yet the lack of attention payed to the role of auditory imagery in the development of perceptual skills often leads instructors to mis-identify the source of student difficulties.

With the help of cognition researchers, perhaps music educators can begin to develop strategies and techniques expressly designed to teach and refine auditory imagery skills. Work by Smith, et al., on the relationship between subvocalization and auditory imagery is a good start in this quest.17 They found that executing the motor plan necessary to sing, but stopping short of actually producing sound, loads the inner ear just as external sound loads the short term memory. In aural skills classrooms I have found subvocalization to be a powerful tool in helping students to learn to access their inner ear.

Hubbard and Stoeckig found that it takes less time to imagine a single pitch than it does to imagine a chord.18 This suggests that some auditory imagery tasks are more complex than others. From an instructional perspective, this raises several crucial questions. Does fluency with certain simpler auditory imagery skills prepare students to execute the more complex tasks? If so, which onesand again, in what order? Finally, Farah and Smith report finding that subjects could better identify a target pitch when the subjects created an auditory image of the target pitch before it actually sounds.19 This can have strong implications for teaching pitch identification skills.

In summary, two large obstacles have impeded the development of a more meaningful exchange between music cognition and aural skills pedagogy: 1) The differing goals of the two fields, with cognition research primarily focusing on existing cognitive processes and abilities and aural skills instruction seeking to refine and enhance existing auditory skills and to develop new ones; 2) Aural skills curricula are organized according to a conceptually-based sequence of topics borrowed from tonal theory textbooks, rather than being based on perceptual logic.

Both of these obstacles can be addressed by expanding the focus of cognition research to include issues relating to perceptual ordering. The creation of a perceptually-based learning hierarchy holds the potential to place existing cognition research aimed at isolated perceptual tasks into a broader context, from which it would derive new meaning and be more directly relevant to aural skills education. Instructors also can contribute significantly to the development of a perceptually-based learning hierarchy by examining their existing curricula from the perspective of perceptual ordering.

Auditory imagery research is perhaps best positioned to answer questions related to perceptual ordering because of the critical role of auditory imagery in perceptual learning. With early investigations into auditory imagery already having significant implications for aural skills pedagogy, the future holds considerable promise for the re-emergence of a dynamic and reciprocal partnership between music cognition research and aural skills pedagogy. In the absence of such collaboration, the two fields are likely to continue their parallel courses, and to miss numerous opportunities to achieve deeper insight into human auditory processing.




1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition at Northwestern University.

2 David Butler and Mark Lochstampfor provide statistical support for this statement in "Bridges Unbuilt: Comparing the Literatures of Music Cognition and Aural Training" Indiana Theory Review v.14/2 Fall 1993: 1-17.

3 Elizabeth West Marvin's "Research on Tonal Perception and Memory: What Implications for Music Theory Pedagogy?" Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 9 (1995): 31-70, contains an excellent bibliography and summaries of perception articles with direct applications to aural skills pedagogy.

4 The distinction between perceptual and conceptual understanding lies in the fact that the former entails the processing of external sounds or auditory images; the latter comprises the apprehension of concepts. Clearly, the two are interrelated and indispensable to musical understanding. However, for the purposes of the present discussion, they will be treated as discrete.

5 Damschroder, D. Listen and Sing: Lessons in Ear-Training and Sight-Singing. New York: Schirmer Books, 1995. Gottschalk, Arthur, and Kloeckner, Phillip. Functional Hearing: A Contextual Method for Ear Training. New York: Ardsley House Publishers, Inc., 1997.

6 Damschroder, ix.

7 Gottschalk and Kloeckner, xii.

8 This statement appears in a promotional "sampler" of the instructor's manual that accompanies Functional Hearing, p.vi.

9 Trehub, S. "Human Processing Predispositions and Musical Universals," in N. L. Wallin, B. Merker, & S. Brown (Eds.), The Origins of Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000: 427.

10 I recognize that there are significant differences between infants' auditory processing and that of the average eighteen year oldthe age at which many students first encounter formal aural skills training. But as Trehub suggests the ". . . striking similarities between infant listeners with minimal exposure to music and adult listeners with extensive exposure make a compelling case for inherent perceptual biases in relation to music, or innate learning preferences" (P. 436).

11 Damschroder, 33.

12 Gottschalk and Kloeckner, 119.

13 None of the auditory imagery studies cited here focuses on perceptual learning, particularly as it relates to the development of aural skills. Nonetheless, they all have potential implications for aural skills instruction. Until researchers begin to systematically study the development of and relationship among perceptual skills, unintended implications may be our best hope.

14 Gottschalk and Kloeckner, 4.

15 Damschroder, 5.

16 Zatorre, R., Halpern, A., Perry, D., Meyer, E. and Evans, A. "Hearing in the Mind's Ear: A PET Investigation of Musical Imagery and Perception." Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Jan.1996 v8 n1 (18): 29.

17 Smith, David J., Reisberg, Daniel, and Wilson, Meg. "Subvocalization and Auditory Imagery: Interactions Between the Inner Ear and Inner Voice" in Daniel Reisberg, Auditory Imagery. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1992.

18 Hubbard, Timothy L., and Stoeckig, Keiko. "The Representation of Pitch in Musical Images" in Daniel Reisberg, Auditory Imagery. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1992.

19 Farah, M.J., and Smith, A.F. "Perceptual Interference and Facilitation with Auditory Imagery" Perception and Psychophysics, 33, 475-478.

7092 Last modified on October 17, 2018