Guide to Ear Training:
Associative Listening Skills
Robert T. Kelley
March - December 2002
Note: This is not a tutorial and cannot replace individual practice or classroom instruction in ear-training. It is a resource intended to help direct the attention of those who wish to try to improve their listening skills to the proper areas of the music.
Quick Navigation of this Document:
- The Philosophical Basis for this Approach
- Outline of the Technique
- Melodic Patterns
- Bass Line
The Philosophical Basis for this Approach
"Associative listening" refers to the way educated listeners approach music, especially tonal music. This approach on the part of the listener involves making connections and/or comparisons between events heard in the music and tonal structures in one's memory. The musical structures in the memory include events that one remembers hearing earlier in the music, events that one has heard in previous musical experiences, and, most importantly, prototypical musical models in the memory. These models are abstracted from music and given specific terminology (such as "scale", "arpeggio", "half cadence", "subdominant", and "homophony"). Clear understanding of a large number of theoretical categories of musical events and their aural function in music is the prerequisite for such a method of listening.
Associative hearing is the essence of music analysis. If one sees a relationship between two events in the score to a piece of music, then one should be able to hear this relationship upon listening to the piece, and vice versa. Knowing the distinctive sounds of all of the rudimentary musical elements informs all advanced listening techniques. One must know what a deceptive cadence sounds like in order to perceive such a cadence wherever it can be shown to be in a piece of music. But associative hearing is linked with music analysis at higher levels as well. If one analyzes that a particular motive or theme is presented in an inner voice, then that is something to "listen for" in the piece. If one does not know what that theme sounds like to begin with, then one must learn what it sounds like in order to listen for it. But only once one has "listened for" a particular analytical reading of a piece can one pass judgment as to the validity of that analysis of the associations in the piece. In this way, music analysis informs ear training and listening informs analysis.
Music analysis is a way of encoding the way one perceives a complicated piece of music so that others who read one's analysis can listen to the piece in a new way and gain new insight into the music. Ear training itself is thus essential to any musician whose purpose is the mastery of the inner workings of the musical art and the successful performance or composition of music. The acquisition of associative hearing skills is not a quick or easy process, but ear training can be learned. For individuals with a great deal of innate musical talent or early childhood musical training, a practice regimen of particular listening strategies is all that is usually required to master associative hearing. However, those for whom the goal associative hearing is more elusive may have to take a more rudimentary approach at first. One effective strategy involves a considerable narrowing of the rudiments trained at any one time. Rather than trying to write down eight-measure melodies by ear, one may begin by listening to short melodies that end on the tonic and on the dominant, and decide which of the two ending pitches one is hearing. Once that skill has been acquired, one can proceed to discriminating dominant from submediant, and so on. I recommend using solfege syllables (or simply scale degree numbers) to identify these scale degrees, and sing them after verifying whether "do" or "sol" is the correct answer. One can perform the same exercise with cadence types, progressions using supertonic vs. subdominant chords, etc. It is important to sing everything that is learned—with solfege. That way, not only can one recognize a dominant-seventh-chord arpeggio when one hears it, but one can also sing the pattern when one sees it written in the music.
Ear training is not easily taught with such a method in a classroom situation, simply because of the limitations of the time and the individual attention to students that would be necessary. Any music student who is serious about gaining critical listening skills must take personal responsibility for one's own ear training. Regular practice is necessary. Skills acquired in practice must be immediately applied to one's routine listening experiences (in rehearsals, in the practice room, on the radio, in television commercials and theme songs, in music history class, in music theory class, in singing in the shower, etc.) for them to be made permanent. Not only is individual practice necessary, but also drills testing the identification of musical rudiments with the help of a partner who can play them at the keyboard (or possibly other instruments). When using this approach both in individual practice and in consultation with an ear-training teacher, improvement will be possible, though not always quick. This document contains an outline of musical parameters that play a crucial role in the skill of associative hearing.
Outline of the Technique
- Listening to Melody
- Hearing scale degrees
- It is important to be able to relate any note to the prevailing tonality.
- Be able to sing the tonic note given a key-defining progression, even if the tonic note is not present in the melody (or bass) in the final tonic chord.
- Always be able to sing the tonic note at any point during a melody or chord progression
- The dominant is the next most important scale degree to be able to recognize within the context of a melody of chord progression.
- Basic training in scale degree recognition can be done at Good-Ear.com
- It is important that in any melodic pattern the listener recognize when the melody returns to a previously heard pitch or an octave transposition of that note. Recognition of intra-melodic pitch-level equivalence is an important part of the associational listening technique.
- Hearing patterns
- Being able to identify the difference between a step and a skip is an essential skill to have, because the educated listener should be able to distinguish between scales and arpeggios in a melody. When a melody moves by step, the new note will tend to displace the old note in a listener's memory. When a melody moves by leap, the mind will often want to compare new note harmonically with the old note in order to establish a chordal relationship between them.
- If the listener can determine that the melody is proceeding by chordal skips, the next step is to decide what chord is being arpeggiated. All notes of the chord must be held in the memory (even though they weren't sounding simultaneously) in order to hear the implied harmony.
- Motives play a large role in the construction of a melody. The identification of the construction of each motive will aid in the correct interpretation of later occurrences of the motive in different guises. The compositional techniques often used to vary melodic motives are summarized below. For examples of each of these, see Melodic Development Techniques.
- Intervallic augmentation
- Intervallic diminution
- Rhythmic Manipulation
- Hearing repetition
- Rhythmic repetition is perhaps the simplest to identify and may be the most important element in identifying repeated motives. Mental separation of rhythm from melody in listening will aid in correctly interpreting rhythm.
- The identification of melodic repetition is closely associated with the identification of repeated scale degrees within a melodic span. It is important for the listener to have the different sounds of the various scale degrees firmly in memory so that, whenever scale degree 5 is played (regardless of how it is melodically achieved), the "scale-degree-5 alarm" goes off in the listener's mind. If the listener can approach a melody in this way, then, when a particular pattern of scale degrees repeats, the perception of melodic repetition will be unquestionable.
- Sequential repetition is common enough that it should be specifically and consciously listened for in any melody. Certain melodic patterns are very likely to reappear at different pitch levels (in order to unify the melodic material without sounding like a broken record). A more intervallic approach (rather than a scale-degree-oriented approach) will help the listener to identify transpositions of a motive.
- Hearing the Bass Line
- Hearing steps harmonically
- Both a melodic and a harmonic perspective are involved in approaching a meaningful hearing of the bass voice of any piece of music. As with any melody, when the bass moves by step it may be exhibiting passing or neighboring motions between chord tones. The bass voice will also often step from a member of one chord to a member of a different chord. Determination of the harmonic rhythm (how quickly the chords change) will contribute to the decision of this matter. The bass is an important indicator of chord function (discussed below). Identification of the bass scale degree will aid in determining the implied chordal function. Scale degree 1 is rarely anything other than tonic function, scale degrees 5 and 7 are always dominant function. Scale degree 6 is always pre-dominant function. Scale degrees 2 and 4 are usually pre-dominant function, though they can be part of dominant chords under certain circumstances (when this is the case, 4 must move to 3; 2 will often move to 1 or 3). See the chart of scale degrees and implied chords for more information.
- Hearing skips harmonically
- When a bass voice skips, it is either arpeggiating a chord or skipping from root to root in a chord progression. In chordal arpeggiation, the upper voices may also move by chordal skip (especially voice exchange), but the chord function will remain the same, and there will be little or no sense of harmonic progression. When the bass skips from root to root, it has the effect of strengthening the harmonic aspects of the progression (to the detriment of contrapuntal line and smoothness of sound). It is important for the educated listener to have standard root motion patterns (such as 1,4,5 and 2,5,1) thoroughly memorized through repeated listening.
- Hearing Harmony and Chord Progressions
- Hearing tonic and dominant
- In tonal music, tonic and dominant harmonies are polar opposites: tonic is stable, and dominant is unstable (due to its leading tone and possibly also the use of a tritone). It is important to be able to identify these chords in isolation. (i.e., given a key established through a short progression, be able to identify a single tonic or dominant chord.) It is also important to learn the cadence types involving these chords, through listening to short progressions that end with authentic or half cadences. A thorough knowledge of the harmonic tendencies of the dominant chord will also be useful: Because of its leading tone, any dominant chord is almost exclusively followed by tonic in any typical tonal progression. If the dominant is not followed by tonic, one of two things could be occurring: 1. A deceptive cadence, or 2. Dominant prolongation, through alternation of dominant chords with ii, V/V, IV6, I64, vii°7/V, or augmented sixth chords.
- Hearing cadences
- Cadences are the most significant harmonic features of any piece of tonal music. In general, a cadence is any point of repose in the music. Generally, a cadence in tonal music will be accompanied by an idiomatic chord succession that indicates a relative amount of repose. The types of tonal cadences should be memorized and must be a consciously-followed feature of any listening experience.
- Authentic cadences (V to I) are the most conclusive, especially when accentuated using traditional idiomatic cadence features: Scale degrees 5 to 1 presented in the bass, soprano ending on scale degree 1 (together these make a perfect authentic cadence), use of the cadential 6/4, trills on notes of the dominant chord, a sense of repose on the tonic created by silence, rhythm, texture, density, dynamics, etc.
- Half cadences (ending on V) are the least conclusive type of cadence. They are the musical equivalent to the comma in grammatical sentence structure. Half cadences cannot conclusively end a piece of tonal music. These cadences are also often enhanced with typical stylistic musical features (cadential 6/4, weak-beat resolution, sense of repose, etc.)
- Deceptive cadences (V to vi, or sometimes to other pre-dominant chords) replace the authentic resolution of a dominant chord with a chord that can carry the music a little bit further. These cadences typically are followed by an authentic cadence fairly soon afterward (within the span of a few chords or measures). Because deceptive cadences serve to set up a harmonic situation that implies that a cadence is imminent and then thwart the listener's expectations, often they are not accompanied by a sense of repose in other musical parameters.
- Plagal Cadences (IV to I) are the weakest type of conclusive harmonic motion that ends on tonic, since the chord immediately preceding the tonic chord contains no leading tone. Commonly in tonal music these cadences serve to confirm the conclusiveness of a stronger authentic cadence, and thus occur following the structural authentic cadence near the end of a piece.
- Other cadential harmonic motions are possible and can be categorized as either authentic, plagal, or half depending on whether they conclude with a tonic chord and feature a leading tone. Thus, iii to I, when set up by other musical features as a cadence, is authentic because it features leading tone resolution. Cadential gestures involving vi to I, or ii to I are best classified as being plagal. Moments of pause in the music that end on chords other than tonic will generally fall under the half cadence categorization. Sometimes, however, pauses following non-conclusive chords serve a dramatic purpose to build tension and anticipation rather than to create a sense of brief tentative repose. In this case, it is better not to define such a chord succession as being a cadence.
- Hearing chordal function
- Tonic Function is the property taken on by chords when they conclusively resolve a dominant chord. Because the chord fulfilling this function must be tonally stable, it generally can only be the tonic chord itself. The only chord other than "I" that can conclusively resolve a dominant harmony (not deceptively) with any degree of success is iii, and this occurs very rarely.
- Dominant Function is the property taken on by chords when they contain a leading tone (defined by context), or especially when they also contain a diminished fifth above the leading tone. Chords with dominant function are almost always major triads, major-minor seventh chords, diminished triads, or diminished seventh chords (both half and, more often, fully diminished seventh chords). A much wider array of chords can thus take on this property than with tonic function. Typical dominant function chords include V, V7, I64 (when used as a cadential 6/4, i.e. V 64--53), vii°6, and vii°7. It is important that these chords eventually be resolved authentically or deceptively. If they are simply passing chords within a pre-dominant chord progression, they will not function as dominants. (When they are passing chords within tonic function, they are functional dominants, however weak their properties are because of the contextual importance of the contrapuntal lines.)
- Pre-Dominant Function is the catch-all category for any chord other than a functional tonic or dominant. In tonal music, these chords generally occur in groups, featuring progressively stronger tendencies to resolve to a dominant chord, and thus creating a sense of musical progression. Because neither tonic nor dominant function alone can create a sense of tonal motion (although tonic and dominant together in fact can create a sense of tonal motion), this category is perhaps the most powerful in terms of creating a progressive passage of music of any significant length. Secondary dominants are generally pre-dominant function chords that have been altered to take on dominant function in a different key (this is a temporary implication of a key, not a modulation), and thus have some functional ambiguity. My preference is to call them functional dominants in terms of local chordal tendencies, but then reassess their value within the entire progression. They will thus tend to be pre-dominant chords.
- Hearing progression
- Once the cadence types and tonal functions are learned, hearing the harmonic rhythm, the prolongation of the functional categories, and the cadential patterns that break up the musical flow should become easier. Functional hearing is a much more consistent and successful approach to harmonic ear-training than the seemingly easier melodic approach (i.e., write down the soprano and bass and then figure out the chords). The melodic approach to hearing harmony should instead be a confirmation of the functions heard in a progression. The two approaches will thus complement each other and allow for the correct dictation of both the actual voice parts and the correct chord analysis.
- Distinguishing Contrapuntal Lines
- Hearing inner voices
- In homorhythmic textures (i.e., chorale-style texture, where all parts move at once to create chord progressions), the perception of inner voice activity is only important to the extent that it helps to decide which of the possible chords is fulfilling a particular harmonic function (e.g. IV vs. ii). It is essential for the harmonic function and the outer voice activity to be understood by the educated listener. It is far less important in the scheme of functional hearing and perceiving musical meaning for the listener to be able to determine which inner voice is playing which chord tone in which octave. These matters simply do not make as much difference in terms of musical effect. To the extent to which this skill can be learned, it will nevertheless prove worthwhile for advanced students of ear training, and thus should not be discouraged.
- Contrapuntal textures
- In music where significant thematic material may appear in inner voices, the perception and identification of motives will play a large role in determining the activity of the inner voices. Often the inner voices will take on an accompanimental role when the thematic material moves to the melody or bass line. In this case, the perception of their relative prominence should be based mostly on one's knowledge of the sound of the significant musical motives and themes, not necessarily on the actual melodic activity at play or the dynamic levels of the parts. Often the variety of the accompanimental lines against the main melodic ideas is what makes the piece interesting. In this case, it is the performer's responsibility to make sure that every line is distinct enough to be heard.
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