Problems of Sight Singing and Ear Training - A Response to Lucy Mauro

Lucy Mauro suggested some changes to sight singing and ear training classes. While I certainly agree on the necessity of changes, I disagree with some of the changes that were suggested and others that were omitted.

Already in the structure of her article, we can see that Mauro strictly distinguishes between Ear Training and Sight Singing. The "difficulties many students experience singing with solfege syllables or taking dictations" are actually a result of such a strict separation.

There are many connections, and we as teachers should try to make these connections: e.g., sight sing a melody first, let students learn the melody by repeating it, and later (in another class session or later in the semester) let the students write down the same melody as one aspect of melodic dictation.

Another way to make students feel the connection between ear training and sight singing is to emphasize common patterns in music—melodic and rhythmic patterns that can be found in specific styles of music. Once familiar with these patterns, students will recognize them in sight singing as well as in ear training. Such patterns can also be used to practice intervals. In tonal music, intervals are never "pure," that is, separated from a musical context. While it is important to let students practice with their (or other) instruments, it is even more important to introduce musical phenomena in a natural way. We may also learn by looking at musical traditions in other cultures; many of them include call-and-response structures, which we could use well in our aural classes (e.g., the teacher sings a short melody on a neutral syllable, students repeat the melody with solfege syllables; the same with rhythms). More improvisation is also needed.

A very important issue is the use of solfege syllables. While Mauro tries to emphasize expression (which should certainly be done), this cannot be realized at the expense of solfege syllables. These syllables are supposed to connect different parts of our brain: the musical part and the language part. Once trained sufficiently, both parts can support each other, and the student may "hear" syllables. Students who are unsuccessful in doing so, because they "either do not have the time or will not give the time to become truly proficient in solfege," should not even pass the first-semester class!

What does it help to water down our expectations? The result would be that our future musicians and, especially, our future public school music teachers are even less qualified. Consequently, their high-school graduates are even less prepared to start studying music at a college or university! Mauro said that using solfege syllables "seems to hinder rather than help [students] achieve the main point of study." I have never seen a student be "hindered" by solfege syllables. If the students said "I can do it, just not with the syllables," those students were, in my experience, always poor musicians (or just lazy)!

Ms. Mauro then suggests a one-semester course on melody. But how about atonal music? There are very few music programs in the nation that sufficiently cover atonal ear training and sight singing. Achieving the goals of a melody course that Mauro suggested is actually possible by integrating its contents in written as well as aural theory. On the other hand, our students are students of the 21st century, and can, most often, not even master the music of the 20th century!

This leads me to the main point. What really bothered me while reading Mauro's article was not so much what she suggested but the absence of reality in determining WHY we need to improve our ear training and sight singing classes. The reasons for the lack of success in aural learning are not so much in the curriculum itself but in HOW the curriculum is being realized—meaning: HOW it is TAUGHT. The goals of these courses are usually not realized aggressively enough, and instructors tend to give up (as Mauro did on solfege syllables). In my view, here are what I consider to be the real problems in realizing the curriculum:

  • Ineffective use of class time and homework (using too much class time for drill but not enough for explaining METHODS of ear training and sight singing.
  • 95% of the drill needs to be assigned as HOMEWORK, particularly aided by the use of technology.
  • Insufficient use of the musical experiences of our students as a starting point (e.g., popular music).
  • Insufficient strictness in grading (we cannot let our curriculum slow down by passing poor students!).
  • Insufficient enforcement of attendance.
  • Insufficient correlations between written theory and aural learning.
  • Insufficient diversity in musical activities (change of activities is most important in aural learning, since most of aural learning is "practical" learning as opposed to "logical" learning)
  • Insufficient diversity in the music itself (e.g., the incorporation non-Western music).

While musical expressions should certainly be stressed in any music course, most schools have yet to analyze and overcome the main problems of teaching ear training and sight singing.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 07/05/2013

Nico Schüler

Dr. Nico Schüler is Professor of Music Theory and Musicology at Texas State University and Chair of Texas State’s University Arts Committee. His main research interests are interdisciplinary aspects of modern music, computer applications in music research, methods and methodology of music research, and music historiography. Dr. Schüler is the editor of the research book series Methodology of Music Research (New York: Peter Lang), the editor of the peer-reviewed journal South Central Music Bulletin, the author and / or editor of 21 books, and the author of more than 100 articles. His most recent books are on Musical Listening Habits of College Students (2010), Approaches to Music Research: Between Practice and Epistemology (2011), and Computer-Assisted Music Analysis (2014).

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