Twenty-first century trends in computer-assisted ear training
A fine chef is expected to taste a dish and identify the key ingredients and an artist is expected to identify the nuances of color and shade, yet many young and inexperienced musicians do not fully understand or appreciate the need to accurately hear and identify musical details. Ear training is one of the most essential skills that a competent musician must have. Similar to learning a foreign language, the earlier ear training begins, the better. Focused repetition also aids in gaining confidence and understanding.
Unfortunately, some students' introduction to ear training comes as late as their freshman year in college. While some students with previous experience do well, others struggle. Simply attending a fifty-minute class twice a week, as is typically the case in American university music programs, is often not sufficient to improve a student's ear-training and sight-singing skills. Help for the weak often comes in the form of expensive—often frustrating—private voice lessons, or through computer ear-training software programs. The latter has the advantages of low cost, privacy, accuracy of results, and unending patience.
In a 1984 article entitled Persistent Problems of Computer-Assisted Instruction, author Mark Larsen writes about the strengths and weaknesses of computer-assisted instruction (CAI). He states, "To begin with, opponents need to recognize that computers truly will play an increasingly larger role in our lives. Burying our heads in the sand will not make these machines go away; even worse, it will place us at a disadvantage—ignorance is always a handicap."1
For the past fifty years, computers have been used to supplement and even replace ear-training classes. Computers are capable of patiently working one-to-one with the student in a variety of ways. Ear training software programs can identify weak spots and require a student to improve before allowing the student to move to the next lesson. The programs can serve as both "dictator" and "servant." The first comes in the form of dictation of intervals, melodies, chords, rhythms, and progressions that require accurate identification; the second comes in the form of a patient listener for the sight singing of in-tune intervals, scales, and melodies.
Ann Blombach, a prominent teacher and software designer, commented in a 1994 article entitled The Unvarnished Truth about Commercial Ear-Training Software that, "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."2
The beginning years of computer assisted instruction lasted from approximately 1960 to 1980. The best-known programs at the time were those that were only available on large university mainframes. These included PLATO at University of Illinois, GUIDO at the University of Delaware, and AMUS at the University of North Texas.
Much progress was made from 1980 to 2000. Computer software programs became available on floppy disks and CDs for individual computers. The best known programs from that time included Practica Musica, Ear Training Expert, MacGAMUT, MusicLab, and Melodic Dictator.
The twenty-first century has seen many additional improvements and new products. Currently the best-known successful software packages include MacGAMUT, Practica Musica, EarMaster, and Auralia. Although several other fine software programs exist, the following brief descriptions will be limited to these four leaders.
MacGAMUT was originally developed by Ann Blombach of Ohio State University for labs that used Macintosh computers. The latest version, MacGAMUT 6, permits mastery-based exercises for several concepts: chords, scales, and rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic dictation. The graphics are simple and unsophisticated. It is available for Windows and Mac users. Student and teacher demos of the program are available online at www.macgamut.com. Unfortunately, there is no cloud version available, which is a major drawback. In addition, company-based YouTube tutorials are not available at this time.
Practica Musica 6 by Ars Nova is another currently popular program available for both Windows and Mac platforms. Including more than 200 activities, it is largely theory-based and is linked to the new third edition of Exploring Theory with Practica Musica. The latest version of the program permits both instrument and vocal entry. Interval playing and pitch reading are also available with the addition of a microphone. The user answers questions using a graphic piano keyboard. Information about the product may be found at http://www.ars-nova.com. Unfortunately, there is also no cloud version available, which is a major drawback. Online company-based YouTube tutorials are also not available.
EarMaster 6, a Danish software product, is available for Window and Mac users. One of its strongest features is that it also comes in a cloud edition. EarMaster is available in three versions: Essential, Pro, and Teacher Editions. The last one has additional features which allow the teacher to create courses and assign them to students.The user can select from three categories of instruments: piano, strings, and "other," and the notational style can be jazz or classical. The user can then choose the Standard, Jazz, or Custom course. Some of the 2,000 activities include interval comparison, interval identification, interval singing, rhythmic sight-reading, rhythmic imitation, rhythmic dictation, rhythmic error detection, melodic sight-singing, melodic imitation, and melodic dictation. At the end of each lesson, EarMaster displays the score and then provides a recommendation to go back to the previous lesson, retake the present level, or move on to the next level. Each exercise allows the student to play the example as many times as desired before submitting the answer. Interval and chord exercises are presented in arpeggiated fashion, first up and then down, before proceeding to simultaneities. Additional information and free trial downloads are available at http://www.earmaster.com. In addition, a limited number of online YouTube tutorials are available.
Auralia 5 by Rising Software of Australia is perhaps the most comprehensive and user-friendly ear training software currently available. It is suitable for middle school through university students and is available for both Window and Mac. Auralia can easily be mapped to virtually any curriculum, ensuring questions are absolutely relevant to the course material. The forty-nine topic areas include transposition, harmony, rhythm, scales, chords, atonal dictation, and many more. These will appeal to classical as well as jazz students.
Questions are based around real audio recordings. The program has a media library which includes hundreds of recordings and notational excerpts, and the ability to import audio or notation extracts. The topics and content are not static—the company is releasing new topics, questions, and content to the library approximately once a month.For cloud customers, this means that updates are available immediately.
The cloud-based version allows users to access the program anywhere where there is a wired Internet or Wi-Fi connection. It is also the most economical. At the time of this writing, an annual student subscription costs only $29.
One of Auralia's most powerful and important tools is the pitch detection feature for improving intonation and sight singing. Auralia has the best pitch recognition technology currently available, allowing users to sing their answers for numerous topics. No special hardware is necessary for Auralia's microphone input; the only items needed are an internal or external microphone and a compatible soundcard. The lessons that require singing responses make learning fun. Some of these lessons include interval singing and imitation, traditional and jazz scale singing, jazz chord imitation, jazz chord singing imitation, pitch dictation and imitation, note recognition, sight singing, and even counterpoint singing.
Auralia provides free trial cloud downloads, a very helpful convenience, as well as video highlights at https://www.risingsoftware.com/auralia/. In addition, a series of informative company-based YouTube tutorials are currently available.
1 Larsen, M. (1984). "Persistent Problems of Computer-Assisted Instruction." Calico Journal, 1 (5), 31-34.
2 Brombach, A. & Benward, B. (1994, August 31). "The Unvarnished Truth about Commercial Ear-Training Software." Retrieved from http://symposium.music.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=3270:the-unvarnished-truth-about-commercial-ear-training-software&Itemid=127.