by Gerald Eskelin

Why "natural" ear training?
A better way
Tuning to a sounding root
Graphics that reflect common practice
General suggestions for drills
Descriptions of charts

Why "natural" ear training?

During the past few decades, I have been exploring ways of helping college students discover what I have come to call “acoustic tuning.” Since nearly all formal ear-training methods today are based on the twelve-pitch scale produced by the modern keyboard, many students (and teachers, as well) believe this standard of tuning is the only one available to them.

As a director of choral groups (both amateur and professional) for many years, I observed that the human ear, when left to its own devices, tends to adjust tuning according to acoustic properties and to varying harmonic and melodic contexts. The result of these adjustments create a much more satisfying musical performance than is possible when tuning is restricted to matching keyboard pitches. While the keyboard is limited to one tuning per “note,” human ears are not.

That being the case, one would think that training young ears (or older ears, for that matter) to produce and recognize distinct melodic/harmonic relationships would be best accomplished by providing well-ordered exposure to acoustic sound models. Logically, vivid concepts of intervals and chords are more likely to arise from experiences with acoustically accurate models than from “mushy” keyboard ones.

The frustration experienced by scores of students who attempt to develop melodic/harmonic concepts by means of keyboard pitch offers disturbing evidence that such methods are largely ineffective. To a beginner, one compromised keyboard interval probably sounds quite like any other compromised keyboard interval. Frequently, students are given passing grades “for effort” when it becomes evident that reasonable progress is not likely to occur. Many are simply written off as “tin ears.”

In my opinion, the cause of this wide-spread frustration is that most ear-training methods today are based on a number of erroneous assumptions:

1. Our modern musical system is based on 12 equally spaced pitches per octave. This is true only for fixed-pitch instruments. String and wind players, as well as singers, can and do adjust pitches according to musical context. For example, F-sharp is frequently heard (and performed) as a higher pitch than G-flat when occurring in the same tonality (key). Also, E commonly tunes lower than keyboard pitch when sounding with C alone and higher than keyboard pitch when sounding with both C and a well-tuned G. Even novice ears can hear the difference.

2. Singing pitches matched to a keyboard helps to develop a musical ear. On the contrary, singing with a keyboard would tend to impede development of the vivid and distinct harmonic concepts needed for interval and chord recognition. Because of this practice, many singers continue to depend on keyboards for tonal security well into their performing careers.

3. Playing pitches on a keyboard is better than nothing when teaching beginners. Teaching based on this notion encourages students to focus on the wrong things. Since the keyboard can’t accurately produce well-tuned intervals, a student hearing only the keyboard is prevented from experiencing them. This simply teaches one to depend on a keyboard for musical “truth” instead of depending on one’s own ears.

4. Fine tuning skills can be developed after a student has a general idea of pitch relations. This erroneous idea ignores the fact that basic harmonic perception is an easy skill to learn and is related to natural acoustics. The reason the “octave” can be recognized at all is that it consists of two pitches whose vibrations are related in a 1:2 ratio. A well-tuned fifth consists of two pitches sounding in a 2:3 ratio. Of course, the hearer doesn’t have to know the math in order to experience the sound concept. Anyone with normal hearing and intelligence can hear an “in tune” basic interval in contrast to an “approximated” one. Storing out-of-tune keyboard-based concepts will only make it more difficult to replace them later.

5. It is easier to hear and perform melodic relationships than harmonic ones. Historically, melody appears to have been developed earlier than harmony, but it does not necessarily follow that melodic skills should be learned first. There is considerable evidence that early melodic systems were in fact based on harmonic principles.

More practically, existing evidence indicates that music students who discover the stability of harmonic concepts tend to perform melodies with much more confidence and accuracy. While inexperienced students can usually perform the contour of a written melody, they often sing it poorly, ignoring whole- and half-step differences. Yet those same students usually can sing an isolated perfect fifth or major third with stunning accuracy.

6. My teacher taught me ear training on a keyboard and it worked well for me. The human spirit often overcomes obstacles and hindrances by sheer intuitive sensitivity to “what works.” The more practical experience we gain, the more success we find. While this validates our persistence and sensitivity, it does not necessarily validate our formal training.

Some years ago, I developed a series of “Ear Training Charts” and used them in my college musicianship classes with very satisfying results. Even students who feared they might be “tone deaf” found they could sing perfectly-tuned harmonic relationships with minimal effort and to recognize them with ease. It was simply a matter of helping them focus on the right things. Building on that early success, I developed the progressive drills and charts contained in this publication. (To top of page.)

A better way

My early thought for developing acoustic-based teaching materials was to develop well-tuned recorded examples of acoustic sound models. While I may return to that idea at some point, I have learned that success in teaching acoustic tuning is much more accessible and far less costly than that. I have found that insight into acoustic tuning is best “discovered” by singing in-tune pitches rather than simply listening to them. A simple sustained sound source combined with a curious spirit can lead to the “discovery” of acoustic-based hearing when guided by systematic instruction.

I now realize that anyone with normal hearing can learn to produce and recognize harmonic and melodic constructs simply by paying attention to the right things. Learning takes place automatically as a student experiences “feedback” provided directly from nature itself. A teacher can help, of course, by pointing the learner in the right direction at each step and providing appropriate reinforce-ment when success is evident.

It is true that some youngsters reared in musical environments have had no difficulty developing accurate “ears.” In fact, many important advances in the history of humankind have been accomplished largely without formal guidance. Men and women simply wondered into “space” (of one sort or another) and found something of significance. Sometimes the quest is pursued with little information and sometimes the course is well-charted by those who have gone before. The ranks of successful musicians include individuals from both groups.

For the adult who missed the opportunity for learning aural skills at an early age, the quest toward tonal insight is often confusing and frustrating This is particularly true when guidance is sought from musicians who have little idea about the process that led to their own aural success; and perhaps more so when guidance is sought from teachers who “paint by numbers” and lead the student without reason through the same traditional hoops he or she traversed.

On the other hand, many adults who seek a musical ear simply “jump in the pool” and flail away. While experimentation and improvisation can frequently help discover musical truths, it doesn’t always lead to satisfaction. Improvisation can become a routine and fruitless endeavor when practiced without direction.

That is why I developed the “Natural Ear Training” charts. They not only help the improviser escape the constraints of their own well-worn paths but also protect drills from wandering in an endless sea of possibilities. The charts provide specific and simple guidelines for early efforts (simple pitch matching, for example) and then direct musical growth through a logical progression of established musical concepts. By singing the prescribed sounds, the learner experiences (both aurally and vocally) vivid and recognizable harmonic relationships.

“Natural Ear Training” charts show the function of relative pitches as they appear in basic harmonic contexts. Instead of simply practicing scales as “eggs in a row,” pitches are experienced as members of acoustically constructed chords. This provides an added dimension to aural experience, not only showing what scale steps appear in what chords, but also demonstrating that a scale step can sound different when heard in a different harmonic context.

Using the charts to direct practice helps one visualize the harmonic relations of pitches as they are sung and/or heard. By pointing to scale numbers while singing, sound concepts are connected to theoretical constructs. Also, one can learn to hear the harmony “shift” when moving the pointer from one chord to another. This demonstrates in a practical way how tonal music actually works.(To top of page.)

Tuning to a sounding root

A keyboard can be used to sound fundamental pitches (roots) to which chord members are tuned vocally. This helps maintain a sense of tonic (key note) and assists in learning to hear chord changes. However, since a keyboard cannot play pitches in acoustic tuning, it shouldn’t be used to guide the voice through drills by playing the pitches to be sung. Beginners may find it helpful to quickly tap keyboard pitches to make sure the voice is “in the neighborhood.” but should not sustain them long enough to influence fine tuning.

Since accurate tuning is more easily experienced when tones are sustained, it is best to use an instrument that can provide continuous sound—like an organ or synthesizer. To facilitate accurate tuning, the voice needs to imitate the keyboard’s sound quality. Therefore, a sound quality should be selected that is relatively simple yet has enough character to encourage vocal matching. Usually, “string” or “flute” sounds are best. If an electronic keyboard is not available, the piano can do the job by re-striking the fundamental (root) pitch.

Although ear-training drills are commonly sung using syllables (“do,” “re,” “mi”) or numbers (“one,” “two,” “three”), it is strongly recommended that this not be done. Vocal tuning is far easier when performed with a vocal sound that matches the tone quality of the keyboard. Since the whole point of this training is directed toward perception of well-tuned sound concepts, it makes no sense to complicate the process by changing sound quality (vowel) for different scale steps.

Pointing to each scale step as it is performed will likely bond symbol to sound as firmly as audible naming has traditionally done—perhaps more firmly, since true and natural sound concepts are being experienced. Pointing to scale steps on the charts also has the advantage of specifying harmonic context, a feature that is not available through syllable or number recitation.

In the classroom, one or more singers can supply fundamental pitches vocally while others improvise or follow the “pointing” of a leader. Those singing fundamental pitches can focus on hearing chord changes without responsibility for singing the “melody.” (“Natural Ear Training” charts are available for classroom use on transparencies for overhead projection.)

The most important thing to remember while tuning the voice to a sounding root is to be sure the voice has found the “best” possible tuning. Don’t hurry. (To top of page.)

Graphics that reflect common practice

Click to open sample chart in new browser window.

“Natural Ear Training” is not a comprehensive music theory program. However, the graphic representation of harmonic structures contained in the charts reflects and reinforce concepts normally taught in most basic theory classes at high school and college levels. Numbers represents the major and minor scale steps from one to seven, number one being the tonal center, or key.

Chords are represented by traditional Roman numerals placed at the top and bottom of each column of scale steps. Upper case numerals indicate major chords and lower case numerals indicate minor chords. Augmented and diminished chords are indicated by + and o, respectively.

Graphic figures are placed around “member” scale steps in each chord. Various figures characterize the distinctive “personality” of each step. Tonic pitches (scale step 1) are enclosed in a heavy square, signifying their central role in the major/minor system. The dominant pitches (step 5) and subdominant pitches (step 4) are set in lighter squares with a line above the number signifying a strong structural relationship a fifth above tonic or a line below the number signifying an “alternate” such relationship a fifth below tonic. The mediant (step 3) and submediant (step 6), the scale members that make music major or minor, are placed in circles indicating their influence on “color” rather than on structure.

Supertonic pitches (step 2) are placed in a diamond shape, signifying a restless tendency to move up and/or down. The leading tone pitches (step 7) appear in a triangle pointing upward, showing a tendency to move up to the tonic pitch. Scale step 4, when sounding in the V7 chord, has a function different from its role as a subdominant root. In this circumstance, it works with the leading tone to create a restless dissonance, influencing it to move down to scale step 3. The arrows beside these two figures show their directional obligations when leaving the dominant seventh chord (V7) and “resolving” to the tonic chord (I).

Graphic figures appear in each column only on scale numbers that are members of that chord. The I-chord column shows figures only on steps 1, 3 and 5 , while the IV-chord column shows figures only on steps 4, 6 and 1. The V7-chord column shows figures only on steps 5, 7, 2 and 4. This feature helps to direct melodic improvisations toward harmonic structural points within each chord. Also, the root of each chord is marked with an arrowhead to provide quick visual identification and aural reinforcement. (To top of page.)

General suggestions for drills

“Natural Ear Training” charts should be used in order of their numbering. Using a chart before previous ones are mastered will likely lead to unsatisfactory results. Progressive drills are provided on the back of each chart and should be performed in order.

Early drills and improvisations should follow these general guidelines (which, incidentally, reflect the characteristics of good melody writing):

1. Begin each drill within the tonic chord in order to establish a sense of tonal center.

2. Make melodic skips only from member pitch to member pitch, in other words from one enclosed scale step to another enclosed scale step within that chord. Skips may be of any size and may be made in either direction.

3. Non-member pitches (scale steps that are not enclosed) may be used as melodic steps between member pitches but may not begin or complete a leap.

4. When changing from one chord column to another, move melodically by step (neighboring numbers) into the destination chord. This will insure a smooth and secure melodic line during the harmonic shift.

5. In the V7 chord, avoid skips from 4 up to 7 and from 7 down to 4. The other way—7 up to 4 and 4 down to 7—is fine. The direction of the points on the two triangles will assist in remembering which is which.

In general, take plenty of time to tune each pitch to its “best possible” adjustment before leaving it. Impatience during early practice will waste the effort and lead to poorly formed concepts and ultimately to the same frustrations and confusions generated by keyboard sound models. A careful and unhurried start will help to ensure solid and steady progress.

Enjoy and good success.

Gerald Eskelin

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1. BASIC HARMONIC PERCEPTION. Attention is focused on hearing "in tune" relationships between pitches. Acoustical elements in the major chord are identified and described.

2. MAJOR SCALE AS PRIMARY CHORDS. Scale members are seen and heard in the context of tonic, dominant and subdominant harmonies. Elementary melodic/harmonic principles are described.

3. MINOR SCALE AS PRIMARY CHORDS. Shows the minor mode as a "color" modification of the major mode. The scale members have the same functions here as in the major mode, but the "flavor" changes when steps 3 and 6 move to new acoustical positions. Importantly, this chart demonstrates that the dominant chord does not change from one mode to the other.

4. MAJOR MODE SECONDARY CHORDS. Shows harmonic relationships of secondary chords. Demonstrates the extended principle of "harmonic progression" in perfect fifth relationships.

5. MINOR MODE SECONDARY CHORDS. Demonstrates modifications encountered in the minor mode due to lowered 3 and 6. Clarifies the so-called "melodic minor" problem.

6. THE APPOGGIATURA. Shows how leaping to "non chord tones" is much easier when related to a prevailing chord structure. Cures a common misconception that melody consists of "one note after another" without regard for underlying harmonic structures.

7. CHROMATIC CHORDS. Shows how secondary dominant chords flow through the circle of fifths back to the tonic and provides a visual image of where the chromatic pitches occur in each chord. The importance of well-tuned resolution of tritone members is emphasized visually.

8. THE BLUES. Much of American popular styles of music (as well as many ethnic musical cultures) do not always share the same principles as the traditional major/minor system, particularly when the latter is considered in terms of rigid tempered tuning. This chart shows where the "blue notes" are and provides a basis for drilling in both simple folk blues and the jazz-based twelve-bar blues. (To top of page)

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