Aural Comprehension Guide
David Loberg Code Western Michigan University
If you are someone that cannot remember anything if you wait until after
the melody is played to begin writing, or cannot get past the first measure
if you don't wait and begin writing immediately, you may find this technique
helpful. Write out the letters of the alphabet (with plenty of space) ahead
of time as a framework. Each note that you hear will correspond to a letter.
For example, if the rhythm contains nine notes, you should reach the letter
'I', the ninth letter of the alphabet.
This way, you can 'follow along' (with your eye and/or finger) even on the
first hearing, and you can fill in the details of the melody or rhythm gradually.
In the beginning, I recommend that you focus on only one musical feature
at a time, separating melodic and rhythmic elements as well. Naturally,
this necessitates considerably more hearings than normally provided for
dictation exercises, but after a little practice you will be able to combine
steps together. The following are the initial sequences I suggest for melodic
and rhythmic materials:
1. Length: On what letter does it end?
2. Contour: Is each note above, below, or the same as the one before it?
3. Conjuct vs. Disjunct: Is each note a step (minor or major 2nd) or a
leap (minor 3rd or larger) from the one before it?
4. Patterns: Do you hear any scalar segments, arpeggiation of triads,
prominent scale degrees, non-consecutive repeated notes, altered tones?
5. Specifics: Identifying specific pitches or intervals.
1. Length: On what letter does it end?
2. Measures: On or between which letters does each downbeat occur?
3. Beats: On or between which letters does each interior beat occur?
4. Equal vs. Unequal Divisions: Do the notes divide each beat into equal
or unequal parts?
5. Patterns: What is the general pattern (rhythmic contour) for each
unequal division (e.g., long-short, or short-short-long, etc.)
6. Specifics: Identify specific durations and rhythms.
Rather than working left-to-right, completing each measure before moving
on to the next, this layered approach begins with very general information
about the whole melody and gradually fills in successively finer details.
Separating the listening process into distinct layers like this also helps
identify areas of weakness. For example, if you cannot easily identify
the direction of intervals (up or down) it is not surprising that you get
the notes wrong, and it is of little value for you to continue to subsequent
levels. The same applies when difficulties are encountered at any of the
other levels. You should stop and spend your practice time mastering the
more basic skills before progressing further.
Using the alphabet framework, the details are notated in a fairly simple
shorthand that is translated into traditional notation at a later stage
of the dictation process. Below is an example of an alphabet dictation
of a melody:
The length of the excerpt is indicated by a double-bar following the the
letter corresponding to the last note. Barlines and beat divisions (half
barlines) are placed between the appropriate letters. Contour is notated
by a dot above or below the space in-between consecutive letters (or within
the space itself for unisons). Stepwise motion is notated by a dash (hyphen)
between letters; leaps by a blank space. In places where you cannot decide
whether the interval is a step or a leap, put a question mark. This not
only prevents mistaking and unfilled space for the deliberate blank 'notated'
to indicate a leap, but also highlights the specific intervals for whichyou
should listen during the next hearing. Arpeggiation of triads are indicated
by triangles; scalar passages by inclusive square brackets above the letters;
non-consecutive repeated notes by connecting slurs; and non-consecutive
stepwise motion by angled lines (above or below the letters depending on
the direction of the interval). Although not present in the example above,
chromatic tones are indicated by asterisks. Additional melodic details
such as intervals, scale-degrees, solfege syllables, or pitch names are
added in as appropriate. Rhythmically, an equal sign or a not-equal sign
indicates whether a beat is divided into equal or unequal parts. In the
case of the latter, the general rhythmic contour is specified by relative
durations: L = long, M = medium, S = short. An important aspect of this
shorthand notation is that it can be used in real-time while listening to
the musical excerpt (which is not possible when writing noteheads, stems,
and flags). Hence, those of you who have difficulty remembering what you
heard after the excerpt is over, can notate information while you hear it
without getting behind the music.
Initially, alphabet dictation is more time-consuming (but perhaps more
accurate) than a traditional approach, especially if you must concentrate
on only one piece of information at a time. After a little practice, however,
you should be able to group together several features at once, and thus
alphabet dictation can employ the same number of hearings used in regular
dictation. For example, the first time through you may
1. mark-in on which letters each down-beat occurs
2. put a mark above or below each letter indicating whether the melody goes
up or down
3. mark each letter that corresponds to the tonic (Do)
On the next hearing, you could refine this information as follows:
1. mark-in each beat within a measure
2. indicate whether each melodic interval is a step or leap
3. connect repeated notes
4. indicate general patterns (triads, scales)
In this way, you are starting from general skeleton of the whole melody,
and gradually filling in more details. You won't always need all of the
details in order to transcribe the melody. By logically piecing together
the various bits of information (i.e. applying what you've learned in theory
class) you can reconstruct the 'missing' notes and complete the melody.
The first step is to combine all of the information already notated in
the alphabet dictation. Returning to the alphabet dictation shown above,
if the last note 'V' is Do, and the preceding note 'U' is a diatonic step
above that, than 'U' must be Re. Similarly, 'T' is a diatonic step above
'S', which in turn is a diatonic step above 'U' making the entire last measure
Mi-Fa-Re-Do. Using similar deductive methods it is possible to reconstruct
all of the notes from the above example, except 'C' and 'Q'. Regarding
the latter, given that it is part of an arpeggiation of a triad that starts
on Do and ends on Mi, there are only two options: Do-La-Mi (a vi chord)
or Do-So-Mi (a I chord). If there is an additional hearing available,
you could listen for which one of these two pitches occurs. Even if there
were no more hearings available, the odds of guessing the correctly pretty
good with only two possibilities.
A further means of deducing or intelligently guessing missing information
is to apply ones knowledge of the style and/or parameters in which the excerpt
was composed. You have already learned the melodic and harmonic conventions
which underly tonal melodies in theory class. These are the same kinds
of melodies. For instance, by determining the implied harmonic progressions
and cadences of a given melody, you could make a reasonable guess about
a particular pitch or set of pitches. In measure one above, you might guess
the missing note at letter 'C' to be Re because it would outline a V7 chord
in beat one resolving to an implied I chord in beat two. Besides following
general stylistic conventions, the musical materials employed in ear training
texts and courses are usually introduced in graduated levels with well-defined
boundaries. You should take advantage of these graded levels to guide your
listening and decision-making strategies. Let us suppose that the level
of rhythmic complexity in Example 2 were limited to the second division
of the beat (i.e., sixteenth notes) without the use of syncopation or borrowed
divisions. In that case, the information provided regarding equal and unequal
divisions of the beat (along with the general rhythmic contour) would be
sufficient to determine the duration of each note. Moreover, this approach
encourages listening for recognizeable patterns, rather than trying to aurally
measure the length of each duration separately as it is heard. Melodically,
we may be working only with leaps from the tonic, subdominant, and dominant-seventh
chords and thus the note 'Q' could not be La since it would then outline
a submediant chord.
Alphabet dictation can be very useful for some people. Initially, it may
be more time-consuming (but more accurate) than a more traditional approach.
At first, you may need to concentrate on only one piece of information
at a time (e.g., only listening for leaps or steps with nothing else).
With practice, however, you will be able to group together several features
at once. Most of you will probably not rely exclusively on alphabet dictation,
but will add these new skills and ways of thinking to your existing repertoire
David Loberg Code, School of Music, Western Michigan University,
Kalamazoo, MI, 49008. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Revised: 28.Feb.99 (c) 1999