Aural Comprehension Guide

David Loberg Code          Western Michigan University

Diagnosing Dictation Problems

The end-product of dictation is a visual representation of a sound or collection of sounds. The purpose of this visual representation is to communicate what the sound(s) are to someone who has not heard it. There are several stages within this process, each of which is an important musical skill and each of which can be the source of difficulties:

1. HEARING. A musical excerpt is not heard correctly. It is rare for a student at the college level to possess a hearing disability (i.e. a physical or neurological problem) of which they were not previously aware, but occasionally this happens.

2. REMEMBERING. A musical excerpt is heard, but it is not remembered correctly. One way to assess memory problems is to sing back (without syllables) or play back (on your primary instrument) the excerpt by ear. If you are unable to replicate the excerpt in this manner, it is unlikely that you will be able to remember it silently. To improve your memory, you should practice playing by ear.

3. UNDERSTANDING. A musical excerpt is remembered correctly, but is not conceptually understood. In other words, you have an accurate tape recording in your head, but you can't figure out where the downbeats occur, or which note is the tonic, or whether some leap is a M6 or m7. Take a melody you already know by heart (e.g., Happy Birthday) and sing it back with solfege syllables and/or with rhythmic syllables. A lack of understanding can also occur if you are deficient in some aspect of music theory. For example, if you don't know what a triad is, you can't identify and label one aurally. Your theoretical knowledge can even help you overcome minor memory problems. If you know there are only 4 beats per measure you should change any measure which has more or less beats. If you think you hear an augmented interval but you know that tonal melodies avoid these, you can 'edit' the remembered version to omit the augmented interval. Often, the theoretically correct version is the right one. In class, if you know that Unit II contains no leaps greater than a third, than be sure not to have any in your dictation.

4. NOTATING. A musical excerpt is remembered and understood, but the person does not know the proper symbols with which to notate it. There are wonderful musicians have never learned how to read or write music, and thus can't notate a melody. In your case, it would only be isolated items for which you did not know the proper notation. For example, knowing a rhythm is triplets, but not knowing whether it should be notated with 8ths or 16ths.


David Loberg Code, School of Music, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, 49008. E-mail: 
Revised: 28.Feb.99       (c) 1999