SmartMusic and College Aural Skills: An Adventure in Ensuring Practice

SmartMusic and College Aural Skills: An Adventure in Ensuring Practice

One of the main goals of an aural skills class is audiation – or the ability to hear music in one’s head before performing the music. A corresponding goal would be to also notate music that you audiate. Naturally, there are many more types of audiation and stages of audiation that contribute to your ability to think in music. Typically college aural skills sequences include these objectives (or at least they should). To achieve any of these goals requires  consistent practice, including sight-singing melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. One of the most challenging tasks in college aural skills courses is motivating students to do so on a regular basis.

Obstacles to Aural Skill Practice

Multiple reasons contribute to the lack of practice in aural skills courses. From a pragmatic perspective, these courses usually earn a student only one credit hour. As a result, some students will only exert the minimum effort for a course that influences their overall GPA so little. This is unfortunate because aural skills will heavily contribute to their overall musicianship and success.

Another reason is that instrumentalists may feel uncomfortable using their voice – after all they play an instrument, so they do not have to sing. And yet another reason maybe that singers feel uncomfortable adapting to various other singing systems, like singing on note names, scale degree numbers, moveable do, minor do, or syllabic rhythmic systems like takadimi.

My Introduction to SmartMusic

While in graduate school at the University of North Texas, I started taking clarinet lessons and decided to try augmenting my practice with SmartMusic. I found it to be fun and my days revolved around getting green notes, not unlike playing Guitar Hero. As I was teaching aural skills at the time, I began to fantasize of being able to use SmartMusic for aural skills classes Unfortunately, for various reasons (like needing to graduate) I never got around to it.

Years later, as I was finishing a postdoctoral research position for the SIMSSA project at McGill University, I told Peter Schubert about my upcoming position at the University of Northern Colorado where one of my tasks would be to teach aural skills. He enthusiastically recommended the use of SmartMusic for aural skills as he and Justin Mariner have done at McGill. (Read about Peter and Justin’s adventures in New Frontiers in SmartMusicianship, and check out the SmartMusic undergrad HUB. For additional inspiration read an interview with Matthew Shaftel, and – although it is targeted toward the classic SmartMusic version – Cynthia Gonzales’ SmartMusic Model Exercises.)

So, at the onset of my new position I made it a priority to use the new web-based SmartMusic with my assigned Aural Skills courses. Currently, I am teaching two aural skills courses. Aural Skills I is an introduction to “tonal” materials from the Western European art music’s common practice period canon and extended “tonality” of various popular and jazz idioms. Aural Skills IV  is an advanced ear training course introducing students to music materials that emerged during the past 125 years or so.

My Approach to Aural Skills

At the beginning of the Aural Skills I course, I sing a modal melody consisting of seven phrases. The students sing back each phrase on “la.” Once we sing the entire melody, I show the students the words to the melody: “Ut que-ant la-xis, re-so-na-re fi-bris, mi-ra ge-sto-rum, fa-mu-li tu-o-rum, sol-ve pol-lu-ti, la-bi re-a-tum, sanc-te Io-an-nes.” The famous acrostic mnemonic device by Guido d’Arezzo is the basis of our solfège system (the “ut” syllable is later changed to “do” by Giovanni Battista Doni in the 17th century).

The next step is for the students to memorize the melody on their own. For this purpose I use SmartMusic. I encoded the melody into MusicXML, uploaded it, and set it to for students to rehearse and practice as many times as they wish. I leave the due date at the default of seven days. The quest for the green notes translates into the students knowing the ancient chant from memory. Hopefully, its surrounding pedagogical story encourages their lifelong pursuit for music knowledge (at least in my fantasy).

Tonicization Patterns

The very next item the students learn is a major tonicization pattern (do-mi-sol-la-sol-fa-re-ti-do). Later on in the semester they learn a minor tonicization pattern (do-me-sol-le-sol-fa-re-ti-do). Both patterns outline a mini tonic–pre-dominant–dominant–tonic progression of sorts. This helps students to orient themselves to a key, before reading or sight-reading music.

Initially, I would assign students to memorize the pattern outside of class (without SmartMusic). Results were abysmal at best. Once I made the patterns part of a SmartMusic exercise, students would nail the patterns. In fact, the practice of creating a SmartMusic exercise to get a higher level of performance out of aural skills students has become an action verb: “let’s SmartMusic that for next time.”

Chord Sequences

Toward the end of the semester, we discuss numerous chord diatonic sequences like the Folia, the Bergamask, the passamezzo antico, the Romanesca, Pachelbel’s Canon, and the major/minor descending circle of fifth progressions. The manner in which we sing chord sequences is by way of arpeggiation. Once I show the students the minor descending circle of fifth sequence we explore how the sequence is used in real music, namely in the ritornello section in Vivaldi’s Winter (RV 297).

The SmartMusic assignment here consists of students being able to arpeggiate through all the chords of the ritornello section in a rapid pace, with added accompaniment, so they can really hear the different chords used. The goal is to be able to sing along with a recording. Once the goal has been reached with SmartMusic, I bring a recording of the piece into the classroom and students love waiting for the ritornello section and singing along with it.

SmartMusic Exercises

There are six SmartMusic exercises per semester (excluding 3 exams, also making use of SmartMusic). These consist of prepared melodies with or without accompaniment, and sight singing assignments (where I merely change the switch to “sight-singing” when creating the exercise). However, students unfamiliar with SmartMusic will feel challenged to have to be responsible for these assignments, so it is important to ease students into the process. My semester consists of a tripartite structure and thus I familiarize students with SmartMusic during this given timeframe.

During the first third of the semester, I don’t just use SmartMusic’s automated grading rubric, but add another rubric worth 50% of the grade, for basically taking the plunge and just completing the assignments. In effect, students will not get demoralized by SmartMusic’s quality of standard. During the second third of the semester I change the ratio of the additional rubric to 25% (and raise the automated grade to 75%), in order for students to keep practicing, and not relying on the 50% extra points. In the final third of the semester, I usually remove the additional rubric, and at this point students have upped their performance level appropriately. In the future, I can further fine tune the rubrics with the help of the new three levels of assessment tolerance (lenient, average, and strict) in SmartMusic.

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Advanced Ear Training

In my Aural Skills IV course we use the same type of rubric scheme. Naturally, the materials are quite different. We learn and memorize modes based on pitch center, variants of the octatonic and whole tone scales, and explore Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition in the same way outlined for memorization of materials in the Aural Skills I course. However, I also emphasize being able to hear and sing basic intervals (or dyads) consisting of interval classes 0-6. The task can be achieved by using SmartMusic’s hidden answers: a given pitch is played, and the student has to sing a minor 6th (or interval class 4).

Once we master basic intervals we can start working on contextualizing these into trichords (or tetrachords), and hidden answers will consist of completing trichords according to a given contour (up/down or down/up) and operations such as prime, retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion of a given trichord.

Gathering Data

SmartMusic is not limited to creating exercises, but can also be used to collect valuable statistics on how students practice, which exercises work best, and which exercises do not work so well. During the Aural Skills IV course we sing quite a few “atonal” and 12-tone melodies, and the question arises whether it benefits student audiation skills to assign them melodies for singing that were originally written for instrumentalists.

Last semester I experimented with just that question. I compared instrumental melodies written by Alban Berg, Hanns Eisler, and Luigi Dallapiccola, with melodies written by the same composers for singers. Student would perform the instrumental melodies not as well as the melodies written for vocalists. Would it not be enough for students to sing the melodies written for vocalists to get the “sound” or “klang” of these type of compositions? I will continue to experiment.

As is evident with the different methods outlined here, SmartMusic can be used in a wide variety of ways to encourage students to practice. Thus, students are more prepared and perform a lot better during other activities in my courses.

Reiner Krämer

Reiner Krämer is a teacher, music theorist, composer, digital humanist, and programmer. Originally from Germany, he and his family now reside in Colorado, where he teaches music theory at the University of Northern Colorado. Previously, Reiner held a SIMSSA postdoctoral researcher position at McGill University in Montréal, and taught at Northeastern State University (Oklahoma) and the University of North Texas. Reiner’s research interests include music theory pedagogy, counterpoint, computer music, popular music, and approaches to computational music analysis. He has authored several papers and book articles, as well as given presentations around the world.

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