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To begin using The Trained Ear, first visit the Exercise List page. Here you will find a list of rhythms, melodies, and chord progressions taken from a variety of different sources. As you will see, the list is very long! To help you find the kind of exercises you’re looking for, click the filter buttons at the top of the page. If, for example, you’d like to practice melodies with chromatic neighbor tones, click the button in the Chromaticism category. The links to melodies with chromatic neighbors will be highlighted in the list below. To view melodies that don’t have chromatic neighbors, simply click the button. These filters can also be combined in a variety of ways. To find major melodies in compound meters that start with a pickup measure, for example, click , , and .
To try an exercise, click its link on the main Exercise List page. This will take you to a new page where you’ll see a series of audio players and an image showing the starting note(s) for the exercise. Unless the exercise is a rhythm, you will also see audio players for the starting pitches and the scale that corresponds to the home key. Use these to orient yourself in the given tonality. The remaining player is used for listening to the full exercise. When you press play, you’ll hear two measures of clicks to establish the meter before the actual music begins. For exercises that begin with a pickup, the second measure of clicks will be correspondingly incomplete.
(NOTE: You have the option of listening to the exercise in either of two formats: a high quality mp3 version or a MIDI version. The MIDI sound quality leaves something to be desired, but it does allow you to change the exercise tempo in cases where you might find the music too fast or too slow to follow. The MIDI player is experimental and may not work in all browsers.)
There is also a series of hints. Clicking these will reveal extra information about the exercise including: the length of exercise, the name of the home key, and whether or not the exercise begins with a pickup measure. All of the information shared in the hints should be discernible just from listening, but in some cases you might find that a clue or two makes a difficult exercise more manageable.
Once you have acquainted yourself with the layout of the page, you can begin. Everyone has their own way of listening to these kinds of exercises, depending on their own unique set of musical experiences. Percussionists, for example, may have an easy time identifying the correct rhythm of a melodic exercise but may have difficulty discerning between similar sounding scale degrees. Vocalists, on the other hand, may find the opposite to be true. If you have a teacher, they will likely have some recommendations for how to approach these kinds of exercises. Ultimately, though, the strategies you choose are up to you and should play to your strengths (or address your weaknesses). What follows here are a few potential strategies that you might consider trying as you attempt the exercises included in The Trained Ear.
Some of the work can be done before any sounds are played:
Preliminaries: Begin by writing as much information as possible about the exercise on a piece of staff paper. Be sure to include the clef, key signature, time signature, and starting note(s). Use a pencil and have an eraser handy.
Empty measures: Unless you look at the hint, you won’t initially know how long the exercise is. The length should become clear as you begin listening, but you might want to consider writing out a bunch of empty bars. This will save time and prevent distractions later on when you’re focused on completing the actual exercise. If you write out too many bars, you can simply cross out the extras once you know the exact length. Barlines that are neatly written and evenly spaced will be more visually intuitive and will help give you a sense of the whole exercise as you listen.
Beat marks: Many students find it useful to add small ticks above the staff to represent the beat. Consider the meter and add the appropriate number of marks to show the number of beats in each measure. Make sure the beats are evenly spaced and leave enough room at the end of each bar for notes that fall after the final beat. When you’re ready to begin, start moving your hand as soon as you hear the count-off clicks and follow the beat with your pencil as the exercise plays from start to finish. Doing so will help you determine the length of an exercise but will also provide a handy means of keeping track of your place as you listen to the recording.
At this point, your staff paper worksheet might look something like this:
At this point you’ve finished preparing your worksheet and are ready to begin listening. For pitched exercises (melodies, chord progressions, etc.), listen to the scale for the home key. Try singing the scale to become better acquainted with the key. Even though the main focus of a dictation exercise is listening, many students find that producing sounds with their own voices is very helpful. Once you have a good sense of the key, listen to the starting pitch or pitches and sing them as well.
Finally, listen to the exercise. Determine how many times you’ll listen to the exercise ahead of time and have a plan for what you’ll listen to or for at each step of the way. This is where knowing your strengths and weaknesses comes in handy. You’ll be better equipped to prepare a thoughtful strategy if you know what you’re good at and what you need to work on. Again, your teacher will likely be able to recommend a good listening strategy.
Let’s say you were going to limit your listening to just seven playings of an exercise. Here’s one potential step-by-step listening strategy you might employ:
Just listen. If you added empty bars and tick marks to show the beat, follow along with your pencil to determine the length of the exercise.
Listen again and try to memorize as much of the exercise as possible. The more you are able to internalize the sounds you hear, the better off you’ll be when the recording is over. If you’re able to identify the final notes, write them down.
Listen for and begin to write down the rhythm. If you’ve included tick marks in your preparation, you can write quick, shorthand representations of the rhythm above the staff so long as they don’t cause you to lose your place.
Complete the rhythm and sketch out the phrasing and the overall shape of the passage. This can be as simple as drawing a line to represent the ascending and descending pitch contour of a melody or the phrase structure of a rhythm.
Identify moments that seem like arrival points and mark them on your worksheet. Listen for long notes, notes on downbeats, and especially the first and fifth scale degrees (“do” and “so”).
Consider the way the music approaches and departs each of the structural notes identified in the previous listening. It is much easier to fill in the blanks between a series of easily identified landmarks than it is to work out an exercise note by note from beginning to end.
Listen for and fill in any remaining notes.
When you are done—or when you feel reasonably confident with what you’ve written—click the image of the starting note to reveal the answer. Check your work and be sure to spend some time thinking about any mistakes you might have made before moving on to another exercise. Singing the melody one more time while looking at the correct answer is also very helpful.
Many teachers give their students very specific recommendations for how to approach a rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic dictation exercise, and these strategies can vary widely from one instructor to another. The section above outlines a listening strategy that has proven to be useful with undergraduate music students in a conservatory setting, but the interface used on this site is designed to accommodate as wide an array of approaches as possible. It is highly recommended that you consider your own students’ needs and work with them to develop a strategy that addresses their weaknesses.
It is worth pointing out that the answer for each exercise, while hidden initially, is always available to students. This makes The Trained Ear somewhat unsuitable for testing purposes. It is important, then, that you emphasize to your students the value and importance of taking responsibility for the development of one’s skills through practice. The more seriously students take the activity, the more beneficial it becomes.
If more rigorous assessment is required, all of the exercises can also be downloaded. Visit the Downloads page to generate ZIP files for all of the exercises found in any of the sources. There you’ll find links to facsimile copies of the original books, notation files in both Sibelius (.sib) and MusicXML (.xml) format; image files in .png, .pdf, and .svg formats.; and audio files in .mp3 and .mid formats. These files can be used to construct dictation activities for use in class or in a learning management system such as Moodle or Blackboard.
As described above, the filtering buttons at the top of the Exercise List page are useful for matching student needs with exercise difficulty. Filters can be combined in a variety of ways to identify exercises that incorporate various musical features. Simply click the buttons to highlight individual exercises that match the desired criteria. To view an exercise, click any of the links in the lists below the source citations.
(NOTE: The URLs for filtering configurations as well as the URLs for individual exercises can be copied from your browser window. This is useful for assigning sets of exercises based on certain criteria and linking to individual exercises from a learning management system.)