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Aural Training for Electroacoustics at Concordia University

This paper was originally presented at the Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium 2008 (7–9 August 2008).

Ability to hear is the essence of music, the core of education in music is ear training. (Herbert S. Spencer, 1947)

1. Introduction

Like all musicians, electroacoustic (EA) music composers and performers must be aurally skilled in order to produce and perform high quality artistic work, yet a very small number of EA-related programs worldwide provide specialised aural training for EA. In the context of this paper, the term electroacoustics refers to energy transduction between electric and acoustic elements (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 2006). As a broad field of study, electroacoustics represents “the use of electricity for the creation, processing, manipulation, storage, presentation, distribution, perception, analysis, understanding or cognition of sound” (Austin 1996) and will sometimes be referred to as electroacoustic studies (EaSt) or simply EA. EA music is broadly defined in this study as all music or sonic art that is not limited to pitched content and metric rhythms which incorporates an EA component. It has been widely used to describe sonic art of a wide array of styles and mediums including musique concrète, elektronische Musik, tape music, computer music, soundscape composition, live electronic music, radiophonic art, and many others.

The stylistic breadth of EA music allows for a practically limitless range of sound types and transformations (limited only by the boundaries of the human hearing), and therefore the aural skills offered by traditional aural training, including solfege, dictation, and score-reading of mostly tonal and rhythmically metric content have arguable relevance to the creation, performance, and understanding of EA music. EA artists usually design their own sound material, deal with aspects of space, manipulate spoken or sung content, and shape the overall sound of their works, and therefore need additional listening skills similar to those of instrument builders, acousticians, phoneticians, and sound producers.

While some methods such as Schafer’s Ear Cleaning, Oliveros’s Deep Listening, Schaeffer’s Solfège, and Smalley’s Spectromorphology have some success in remedying the inadequacies of traditional aural training, they are not significantly used for aural training in EA programs by and large, perhaps due to a limited educational applicability within the stylistic breadth of EA, or, primarily in the case of Schaeffer and Smalley’s methods, because they are not pedagogically formed as ear training programs (or exercise books), but as comprehensive typification and description systems. Many EA educators introduce specialized aural skills within compositional or analytical contexts, but without the methodical and rigorous repetition necessary for acquiring new skills. Many EA programs still offer mandatory traditional aural training while some programs offer no aural training at all. Additionally, there is very little research and literature about aural training for EA. Since 2005, the (undergraduate) EaSt major at Concordia University’s Music Department in Montreal has spearheaded a new approach to aural training for EA, which uses Auditory Scene Analysis (ASA) theory as a theoretical foundation. In 2006 the new aural training method replaced the mandatory traditional aural training while growing from a year long three-credit course to a two year long twelve-credit aural training program.

2. Premises

2.1 Assumptions

Many years of research, development, and experimentation by professor Kevin Austin, and then more recently by the author of this paper, have shaped the fundamental assumptions and premises of EA aural training at Concordia. The first major assumption (and one that is easy to make) is that aural acuity, as suggested by the Spencer at the top of this paper, is indeed fundamental to all musical and sound-related activity. The second major assumption is that aural skills are teachable. While this is not as simple an assumption to make, it is based on the experience that aural skills are learnable; every musician and sonic artist acquires (learns) new aural skills as part of his or her artistic and technical growth. Without a doubt, further experimental evidence is necessary to support this assumption; however, the development of new aural training methods can not wait until this assumption is scientifically proven, lest we forever continue to provide inadequate training to our students. Furthermore, in a recent survey conducted by the author, fifteen expert EA educators from USA, UK, Canada, and Australia all agreed, to different extents, that aural skills are indeed teachable. The main findings of this survey will be reported in some depth in the next section of this essay. Identical assumptions were made by Kate Covington (1992) of the University of Kentucky in developing an alternative, sound-based approach to aural training (of instrumental and vocal music) that has strong relevance to EA. The third basic assumption she made, which is also adopted at Concordia University, is that aural skills are best taught in a dedicated aural training course.

2.2 Curricular Design

However, Covington also emphasizes the importance of teaching aural skills in context. She criticises the consensual objectivist approach to aural training in which skills — such as interval and chordal identification, melodic and harmonic dictation, and so forth — are taught in isolation, with the assumption that the student would be able to transfer them to real musical situations. She suggests that all skills should be taught in context, with multiple aural skills taught in a single authentic musical situation, allowing the students to interrelate different aspects of the aural experience (Covington and Lord 1994). However, while the benefits of practical contextualization are unquestionable, it is the present author’s opinion that teaching skills in isolation allows for much greater methodical clarity, organization, progress, and evaluation guidelines. Thus, the Concordia method is designed to benefit from both the objectivist and contextualist (or constructivist, to use Covington’s term) approaches by assigning different tasks to different courses. Isolated skills are taught in two year-long aural training courses, and practical contextualization of these skills is achieved in two year-long EA courses that are chronologically and thematically correlated with the aural training courses. The overall organization of all four courses is based on Jerome Bruner’s spiral curricular design (Bruner 1960), in which all courses concurrently follow the same thematic scheme but with more depth in the higher level courses and, in the case of the two EA courses, different foci. The two EA courses comprise lecture and tutorial sections taught by different professors and cover compositional, technical, analytical, æsthetic and sometimes historical content, although there is also a dedicated EA history course as a core part of the EaSt program. Other courses in the program cover additional aspects, including sound recording, music theory, MIDIstration (MIDI orchestration), and spatial and multi channel techniques, among others, but without the strict week-by-week correlation of the four core courses of the first two years.

2.3 Goals

Put simply, the large-scale goal of this curricular design is to improve students’ aural competency and to assure the efficiency of their overall learning by following their knowledge and abilities in designing the other core EaSt courses. To achieve this goal, a few additional important questions need to be addressed: What constitutes an improved aural competency in the context of EA? Which aural skills are necessary for composing, performing, and understanding EA Music? To what extent are they teachable by existing (traditional) aural training? The survey discussed in the next section provides a partial answer to these questions, and strongly supports the Concordia EA aural training design that began in 2005. This curricular design is based on the assumption that an improved aural competency requires: (1) a higher discriminatory definition of spectral (including dynamic), temporal, and spatial aural input, and (2) a better understanding of the perceptual organization of all aspects of aural content on all structural levels. In summary, the aural training goals at Concordia are based on improving the perceptual (and intellectual) aspects of sequential and simultaneous segregation and integration, to use ASA-theory terms.

2.4 Plan

Flowing from these goals, the large-scale organization of the courses is based on a radical transformation of aural attention from a gestalt to a segmentative state, and then an exploration of gradually higher structural levels. The year-long plan is chronologically divided into the following core categories: (1) Segmentation, (2) Sequential integration, (3) Simultaneous integration, (4) Space/Time, (5) Texture, (6) Structure, and (7) Technical and advanced techniques. While the Concordia aural training program does not abandon key aspects of traditional aural training, such as dictation and solfege of pitched material and metric rhythms, these aspects are addressed through, and fitted into, the above-mentioned scheme. The core categories of the large-scale plan are subdivided into several subcategories, as can be seen in Appendix A. For example, the Segmentation core category deals with different microstructural aspects of sound, including segregating individual notes in a series of notes, typifying sound objects, recognizing instruments, and identifying or ordering dynamic levels of individual sound objects, among other exercises. Since all sound occurs in the spectrum, in time, and in space, many of the exercises listed in Appendix A undoubtedly overlap several core categories. Nonetheless, these categories and subcategories provide foci and guidelines (a map?) for the year-long aural journey to the sound’s microstructure and back.

3. Survey

Concurrently with the design of these courses, the author conducted a survey that addressed the following questions: (1) Which aural skills are necessary for composing, performing, and understanding EA Music? (2) To what extent are they teachable by existing (traditional) aural training? The major findings of this survey supported the current design and offered additional possible emphases and goals. The survey was designed as a mixed qualitative/quantitative questionnaire (see Appendix B [PDF]) and was completed by a purposive sample of fifteen EA experts (composers, educators, and researchers with many years of significant involvement in the field) from USA, Canada, UK, and Australia. The participants evaluated a list of fifty potentially necessary aural skills (gathered from skills described in existing but insufficiently applied aural training and theoretical methods related to aural perception in EA), and provided additional skills they found necessary for EA. Analysis of the results revealed that the aural skills regarded most necessary for EA were generally not considered sufficiently teachable by traditional aural training, and that the majority of the skills teachable by traditional aural training were not considered significantly necessary for the EA musician. This trend is shown effectively in Figure 1, in which the skills are arranged by order of necessity according to the participants. The most visible feature is the clustering of skills that were considered very teachable by traditional aural training at the lowest necessity area on the right hand side of the chart. Among fifty skills listed in the questionnaire 56% were thought to be at least very necessary by the participants, with only 18% of these very necessary skills viewed as sufficiently teachable by traditional aural training. Standard deviation measurements revealed a substantial agreement among participants regarding which skills are the most necessary for EA and which are the least teachable by traditional aural training.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The necessity of the fifty listed aural skills and their teachability by traditional aural training.

In an open-ended question, the participants were asked to provide additional aural skills necessary for EA. A grounded theory analysis of the responses revealed two additional skills that were most prominently addressed by several participants: (1) a flexibility of aural focus — the ability to aurally segregate the details of any sonic information and to integrate them into their larger structures — and (2) the ability to hear and describe spectral detail and relationships. The first skill was offered by the participants with the most extensive experience in EA and in aural training. It is, in essence, the overarching principle of the year-long curricular design of the Concordia aural training program, and it is also paralleled in Smalley’s (1986) “structuring process” concept.

This essay is not the proper place to present the survey in detail; a complete survey report will be made available in the near future. However, the reader might be interested to preview the skills deemed most necessary by the participants (Table 1), perhaps unsurprisingly, as many of these skills have been addressed in existing methods. For instance: (1) discrimination among levels of spectral complexity; (2) stream segregation; and (3) recognition and description of amplitude envelopes — and the ability to describe spectral detail and relationships (as additionally offered by the participants) strongly reflect Schaeffer’s focus on the objet sonore and its shape, mass, timbre, and motion as well as Smalley’s spectral typology, morphology, and motion.

  Skill Score
1. The ability to discriminate among levels of spectral complexity m=4.86
2. Stream segregation: the ability to discriminate among simultaneous sounds m=4.86
3. Recognition and description of amplitude envelopes m=4.8
4. Identification of digital and analog noise types m=4.8
5. Discrimination among dynamic levels m=4.67
6. Spatial definition m=4.67
7. Sound typification m=4.6
8. Strong auditory memory m=4.6
9. Recognition of frequency ranges m=4.53
10. Recognizing contour and movement of simultaneous streams m=4.53

Table 1. The ten skills considered most necessary for EA.

4. Conclusion

Perhaps the most important point raised in this essay is the need for adequate aural training in EA education. Married to technology, EA music is an extremely dynamic and ever-evolving field. Alongside technological evolution, the technical and æsthetic aspects of EA are exceptionally diverse and elusive, and therefore not ideal as foundations for a successful curricular design. While technical, æsthetic, compositional, and performance-related issues should be taught, they must be based on solid aural foundations. While the overall scheme of the Concordia aural training program — the dismantling (segregation) and gradual assembling (integration) of auditory phenomena — may be beneficial for a diversity of musical/sonic æsthetics, the specific manner in which this scheme is achieved will inevitably depend on æsthetic, social, and stylistic conditions. It comes as no surprise, then, that when asked about existing alternative aural training methods, several survey participants suggested that educators should invent their own. Although the issues of aural training are not simple, important solutions are likely to be discovered by experimentation, and therefore EA educators should courageously design new aural training approaches and test them using experimental research methods.

References and Relevant Bibliography

Austin, Kevin. “Letters: On Identity and Fragmentation of the EA/CM Community.” Computer Music Journal 20/1 (1996), pp. 6–8.

Bregman, Albert S. Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.

Bregman, Albert S. and Pierre A. Ahad. Demonstrations of Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound. CD. Montreal: Auditory Perception Laboratory, Psychology Department, McGill University, 1995.

Bruner, Jerome S. The Process of Education. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

_____. “The Act of Discovery.” Harvard Educational Review 31/1 (1961). pp. 21–32.

Butler, David. “Bridges Unbuilt: Comparing the Literatures of Music Cognition and Aural Training.” Indiana Theory Review 14/2 (1993), pp. 1–17.

_____. “Why the Gulf Between Music Perception Research and Aural Training?” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 132 (Spring 1997), pp. 38–48.

Cargill, Simon and George Pratt. “Up and Running: An Update on the RAMP Unit’s Work at Huddersfield Polytechnic.” British Journal of Music Education 8/1 (March 1991), pp. 21–38.

Covington, Kate R. “An Alternative Approach to Aural Training.” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 6 (1992), pp. 5–18.

Covington, Kate R. and Charles H. Lord. “Epistemology and Procedure in Aural Training: In Search of a Unification of Music Cognitive Theory with its Applications.” Music Theory Spectrum 16/2 (1994), pp. 159–70.

Cox, Cathy. “Listening to Acousmatic Music.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Columbia University, 2006. ProQuest 1126785171.

Deep Listening Institute. “About.” Retrieved 24 August 2008.

Hart, Leslie A. Human Brain and Human Learning. New York: Longman, 1983.

Howard, David Martin and James Angus. Acoustics and Psychoacoustics. 3rd edition. Oxford: Focal Press, 2006.

Kim, S.J. “Listeners and Imagination: A Quaternary Framework for Electroacoustic Music Listening and Acousmatic Reasoning.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2008.

Lehmann Andreas C. “Introduction: Music Perception and Cognition.” The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning: A project of the Music Educators National Conference. Edited by Richard Colwell and Carole Richardson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 443–44.

Loh, Christian S. “Choice and Effects of Instrument Sound in Aural Training.” Music Education Research 9/1 (2007), pp. 129–43.

Matz, Irene. “Lupe im Ohr.” Stimmen hören: 2. Stuttgarter Stimmtage 1998. Edited by Hellmut Geißner and Horst Gundermann. St. Ingbert: Röhrig, 2000, pp. 223–28.

Rogers, Michael R. Teaching Approaches in Music. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Schaeffer, Pierre. Traité des objets musicaux. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966.

Schaeffer, Pierre, Guy Reibel, and Beatriz Ferreyra. Solfège de l’objet sonore. LP. Paris: Groupe de recherches musicales de l’ORTF, 1967.

Schafer, R. Murray. Ear Cleaning. Scarborough ON: Berandol Music Limited, 1967.

_____. (1992). A Sound Education. Indian River ON: Arcana Editions.

Smalley, Denis. “Spectromorphology and Structuring Processes.” The Language of Electroacoustic Music. Edited by Simon Emmerson. Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1986, pp. 61–93.

Thompson, W.F. and E.G. Schellenberg (2002). “Cognitive Constraints on Music Listening.” The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning: A project of the Music Educators National Conference. Edited by Richard Colwell and Carole Richardson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 461–86.

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