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Online Ear Training Programmes and Systems: Advantages and Disadvantages

Paper for the Third CEIMUS Congress
(Barcelona 28, 29 febrero y 1 de marzo 2014)


SOFÍA MARTÍNEZ VILLAR   Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya (ESMUC)

This research came about as a result of concerns arising from a question put to me by a group of teachers during the final presentation of the Second ICON (Innovative Conservatory) Seminar in Finland, in October 2009, having been invited to participate via the ESMUC. The question was apparently simple: “What is your opinion of online ear training programmes and systems, and could they eventually replace the teacher?” My answer was rather simple, compared to the way I prefer to address questions put to me about the fascinating field of ear training: “The ones that I’m familiar with, such as Ear Master,, Bigear/ossman or Goodear, seem to me to be useful in certain respects, but I think that they cannot compete with a teacher, especially with in terms of how to approach and evaluate the exercises.”

Catedral de Lleida ©Josep Maria Miquel

Catedral de Lleida ©Josep Maria Miquel

I planned to spend the four-hour return flight from Helsinki to Barcelona in the company of Robin Maconie’s book The Concept of Music. I began reading the first chapter, but I couldn’t get beyond page 19, partly because I couldn’t stop thinking about the question my colleagues had just put to me, and partly because the book’s initial content got me thinking about the need for more in-depth knowledge of the new material available for online ear training. One of Maconie’s paragraphs provided the clue:

“…Music is a field of human expression which has successfully resisted analysis in terms of conventional theory. It is an information process simultaneously working on many different levels, generating a complex of responses from the most basic and physical to the most elusive and abstract. From one vantage point, music can be seen as operating in the same auditory domain as speeech, being processed by the same sensory mechanisms, capable of arousing a predictable response and can be examined in written form. From such a viewpoint, music is therefore, arguably, language-like. But there are other viewpoints. Music also transcends language. It comunicates across national and cultural boundaries. Furthermore, because a musical impression is articulated by physical gesture and tonal inflexion, it is capable of communicating in the same manner as a body language, while remaining subject to interpretations and analysis in terms of its written expression.

Maconie,Robin. The concept of music. Page 3

It seemed to me that Maconie’s proposed concept of music as a means of communication, its similarities and differences to language, together with the incomplete answer I had given my colleagues were a good starting point for serious investigation into the advantages and disadvantages of[1] online ear training programmes and/or software offering self-study for ear training unsupervised by a teacher.1

Between November 2009 and December 2012, I carried out a study with the aim of providing an answer to four questions: What were these materials created for, and why? How were they created? In what ways are they suitable and effective? Can they really take the place of a teacher?

To do so, not only were the client-based and web-based programmes currently on the market checked and catalogued – by completing each one of the proposed exercises – but it was also possible to try them out in different situations and on different types of musical ear, in order to offer an objective discussion of the results presented here today. This was achieved thanks to the invaluable help of 132 students enrolled on General and Specific Auditory Perception courses at the ESMUC during 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, as well as 14 postgraduate students of choral conductorship at the Universidad Blanquerna-Conservatorio del Bruc. In addition, the content and results of these systems were compared with those of classroom-based auditory perception lessons on the above-mentioned courses, which use mainly self-authored material as well as books by well-known authors in the field of ear training, such as Adler, Mackamul, Romero, Jersild, Philips, Murphy and Edlund, among others. Finally, and in an attempt to discover the similarities between music and language that Maconie mentions, a survey was carried out on a group of 12 teachers from the Escola d’Idiomes Moderns (School of Modern Languages) at the University of Barcelona and from the Escuela Oficial d’Idiomes (Official Language School), so as to learn their opinions and find out about their experiences of the language learning programmes and systems used by these instutions as part of their methodology.

The total number of systems subjected to the study was 14. Three of these are programmes: Ear Ear Master, Musical Ear and Functional Ear Training and the rest are systems[2]:,,,,,,,,;,

More recent applications for ipad, ipod or android such as SolfiEarTrainerPro, Earteach or the Earbeater application for these systems have been excluded from the study, as has Train Your Ears software. The reason for this is because the first two did not fall within the time frame of the investigation (June 2011), and the third was an ear training programme designed specifically for sound engineers. Additionally, other applications were considered unsuitable because they did not work effectively either due to interruptions for advertising or because the web failed to work properly, preventing its use for any length of time.

It is important to point out that ear training, as such, was not taken into consideration in Spain until the beginning of this century. Yet, in the United States and in most northern European countries, a wealth of specific subjects were available at all levels of music education from the 1970s onwards, as were specific teacher training courses (principally specialisation and postgraduate courses). That is not to say that we lack our own professionals concerned with improving ear training and who effectively tie in their own approaches with their music theory and /or instrument classes. Nor does it underestimate the work of those solfège teachers who were highly aware of the fact that in order to read and write music a conscious process of listening and aural comprehension must first take place. It does, nevertheless, indicate that our starting-off point in terms of technical knowledge and approach is markedly different. This was evident from the reactions of some of the students participating in the study, as well as the reactions of certain colleagues – even my own – when compared to comments I have read and heard about made by students and colleagues from places more accustomed to these methods; colleagues such as Björn Roslund (Malmö University), Holger Best (Hocheschule, Heildelberg) or Susan O’Reagan (CIT Cork School of music), for instance.

In order to present the findings of the study in a communication format such as this, it was decided to set out each set of results arising from each of the questions that prompted this study; so as to make them more concise and more easily understood.

1) What were these materials created for, and why?

They all share the same ultimate aim: to improve musical ear, given that this is considered fundamental in order to become a good musician. Some in particular– Thetamusic or Pitchimprover, for example – specify that it is the only way to play well ‘by ear’ and, as such, welcome a more amateur audience and include musical genres from a less academic background, such as jazz or modern music.

The answer to why they were created is found in one of the most original and off-copied and/or imitated tools on the market: EarMaster. This is a program which can be bought and downloaded online, as can the trial version, but which then works offline. EarMaster was created in 1994 by the Dane, Hans Ladval Jakobsen and, as he himself explained in a conversation that took place in 2006 (during the presentation of the Catalan version of the programme at the ESMUC), it was created because Jakobsen had failed the university-level entrance exams to study music and instead decided to study engineering. For his final project he wanted to combine his passion for music with his profession as an engineer and, as a result of his own experience as a music student, he realised there was a need for a tool which would allow for specific ear training, which would be both dynamic and autonomous, and that would work equally well for studying intervals, chords, scales, and harmonic progressions as well as rhythmic-melodic passages. Creators of other programs such as Easyeartrainer (2009), whose chief creator is Christopher Sutton (and whose logo, aims and design are remarkably similar to EarMaster’s), also describe their systems as individually-tailored and fun. The remainder of those tested adopt the same line, pointing out that ear training in this way is more entertaining and personalised than in a traditional classroom environment.

When the students who had kindly volunteered to work with these programmes and systems were asked to compare them with classroom-based ear training, they generally agreed that they were, in fact, more dynamic, enjoyable and fun. There are several grounds for this line of reasoning: working individually and not in a classroom with ten other classmates is more relaxed because the level of competence expected nowadays when working in a group is high; being able to choose when you want to work and not being restricted by a fixed timetable also increases ability and motivation; the fact that the student does not always relate to the teacher’s personality or communication skills – both verbal and gestural – can negatively affect motivation.

Opinions as to whether the tools are more personalised than classroom-based learning were more diverse. On one hand, the students positively rated individual study as being somewhat more dynamic, but what they found to be lacking was the teacher’s knowledge of each student’s musical ear and the individual guidance for improvement given throughout the course. None of the programmes or systems studied include a test to identify their type of musical ear, such as those taken on the first day of auditory perception classes, and which are used to assess the following: whether a student possesses relative pitch, pseudo-absolute pitch, or absolute pitch (with or without semitone error); whether the student works using the movable-Do system; whether playing a transposable instrument is an influencing factor, whether the student goes off-key or out of tune; how well they can identify tempo; the type of musical memory – visual, kinesthetic or auditory – which tends to predominate; how quickly a student is able to respond and select, recognise or analyse; which musical elements they notice first and which tend to present more of a challenge, and the extent to which their perception is altered by different pitches. This test is essential in determining which type of exercises are the most appropriate at the start of the course, how often they should be repeated, which strategies to use for retaining and recognising range of pitch, and which approaches are the most suitable for improving reading, intonation and transcription. In this way, both the student and the teacher are aware of what the starting point is and how much can be achieved given the time available.

One final remark made by a small number of performance students was that, although working individually is more relaxed, they found that most of the time during their studies and throughout their profession, they worked in groups and therefore concentration, shared/joint competence and even the control of tension could be considered transversal elements to be practiced inside the classroom.

2) How were they designed?

With the exception of MusicalEar and Pitchimprover, which are different, all the others are mainly based on a principle which could be called ‘auditory selection. The exercises are presented in a way that involves naming the sound being heard, among a number of options, without having to indicate the exact pitch of the notes. As such, it covers just one part of that required in classroom-based ear training (for instance, selecting or discriminiating between major or minor chords, or between Phrygian and Dorian scales, between major or minor 7th intervals or between Im-V-IVm-Im and I-V-VIm-I progressions) and fails to work on the other parts of ear training commonly termed ‘auditory recognition. This not only involves determining which element is being heard, but also working out and noting down both its pitch and duration.

It should be pointed out that certain programmes such as EarMaster, or Easyeartrainer allow for the answer to be provided either on a keyboard, on guitar frets or on a stave, and in so doing allows the students to also identify the pitch. With EarMasterSchool it is even possible to design lessons whereby the reference note is a La (A) rather than the tonic note, so that students are obliged to work out the relationship of the diapason (La) to the starting note. Pitchimprover, for example, simply allows students to respond by writing the notes down on a keyboard, thereby doing as its name suggests: improving pitch recognition and despite the fact that always provide the name of the first note to be heard. These options in task design are more similar to the second phase of ear training which takes place in classroom-based learning, known as recognition. However, there is a complete lack of the type of vocal/instrumental exercises where students are required to reproduce or recreate intervals, and which are considered essential during ear training lessons in a classroom environment.

Another difference is that the exercises are completed outside of real-world musical contexts; in other words, without the use of recorded compositions. In auditory perception classes, a further exercise is proposed, known as ‘auditory analysis’. This involves listening carefully to a piece of music and exploring its qualities; from its more basic features, such as the phonic aspects of the auditory system (dynamics, timbre, texture or tempo), to more complex features whose selection, recognition and analysis are only possible with a solid training in the functional aspects of the auditory system (melodic, rhythmic and harmonic transcription and reproduction).

It is this this aspect which MusicalEar basically works on; a programme containing around two hundred compositions created specifically for training the majority of musical features from the perspective of reading, intonation and transcription. Another difference this tool has with respect to other tools of its kind is that its main authors, who are two experienced teachers of ear training (Bjorn Roslund and Carl-Axel Andersson of Malmö University), have not only created the exercises but also suggest methodological guidelines for how to use them, as well as theoretical and historical definitions of the musical features to be practised.

3) In what ways are they most suitable and effective?

With regards training related to auditory selection and discrimination, the materials are highly effective thanks to their dynamic format and their capacity to generate a large number of exercise combinations. They are excellent for ear training, developing relative pitch and improving speed of response when selecting features such as intervals, scales, chords or harmonic progressions. Students who used the material to work on these aspects made considerable improvements in response time and so could spend more time afterwards, in the classroom, working on pitch recognition. The programmes and systems which turned out to be the most effective were those which, in addition to being able to change the configuration for the number and frequency of the recordings, and the response-time limit, also allowed for certain pitches to be noted down in some form, either on a keyboard, guitar fret or stave.

In terms of the auditory recognition necessarily required for good development of sight-singing and transcription skills, it has to be concluded that hardly effective at all – except for MusicalEar, whose main objective is this aspect of ear training. MusicalEar is, in fact, a very useful tool even though many of the students considered it to be too difficult to use without the guidance and supervision of a teacher. When the majority of exercises are completed without using compositions, as is the case with the programmes and systems we analysed, then certain auditory skills such as conscious listening (retention, imitation, reconstruction, comparison and variation) and musical memory are not developed. These are fundamental skills needed to be able to quickly interpret, read and write music in a way that is both accurate and creative. It is akin to studying an instrument but only doing technical exercises without ever playing études or works from the repertoire. However, it should be recognised that some of these programmes and systems have made the effort to develop these skills and have created specific exercises for practicing melodic, rhythmic or melodic-rhythmic dictations – as is the case with certain exercises on Pitchimprover, and with specific lessons on EarMaster and Easyeartrainer. Nevertheless, given that these dictations do not contain different articulations, dynamics, or combinations of timbre or texture, they fail to develop full competence in auditory recognition.

With regards to auditory analysis, which principally aims to offer the combined development, in real musical contexts, of all aspects of auditory perception of the musical ear, then it has to be said that these systems are not effective or suitable at all. The only exception is, yet again, MusicalEar, because its exercises can be completed within various musical parameters at the same time: the same piece can be used equally for training in harmonics as for developing rhythm or melody. It also makes use of a large variety of genres and musical styles. Once again, the difficulties encountered were the same : the students who worked without teacher guidance and supervision took twice as long to carry out the exercises3[3]. Alone, it took them more than twice as long to complete the exercises as those who completed them with teacher support, all of whom had the same type of musical ear. In there are also a number of explanations that not only present elements out of context, but also later include them in specific compositions (such as their explanation of the Napolitan sixth). However, these programmes prioritise recognition over analysis in such a way that they do not include features that are taken into account in classroom-based learning; the study of different types of dynamics, patterns of melody, structure (both macroform and microform), music-text relationships (in vocal or vocal and instrumental pieces) for instance, as well as the comparative analysis of musical interpretation (in terms of tempo, articulation, phrasing, respiration and dynamics).

4) ¿Can they really take the place of a teacher?

The truth is that none of these programmes directly claim to be a substitute for a teacher, but rather they put across the idea that, by using their material, it is possible to develop the musical ear needed to become a professional musician, or the skills required to play by ear. Neither do they claim to be more dynamic, entertaining or fun than a teacher, but rather refer to traditional ear training as being mainly based on textbook learning. In fact, those responsible for these programmes with whom I have had the opportunity to work closely (Hans Lavdal Jakobsen and Patricio Obel from Ear Master, and Björn Roslund and Sophie Persson of Musical Ear) have always shown the greatest interest in presenting their material as useful tools for complementing classroom-based ear training and non-classroom-based learning alike, and have shown the greatest respect for the work of the teaching profession.

In actual fact, the study attempts to respond to this question in order to complete the second part of the question posed by colleagues at the Second ICON Seminar. It does not set out to confront anyone, nor to challenge any methods or study materials. This question was actually one of those put forward in the questionnaire to language teachers at the EOI (Official School of Languages) and the EIM-UB (School of Modern Languages at the University of Barcelona), the results of which can be summarised in two ways:

  1. The materials are highly suitable for certain aspects of language learning. In this case, the teachers explained that here [in Spain] languages have traditionally been taught from a grammar perspective based on reading and writing and not by exposing students to spoken language and developing listening and speaking skills. With online materials or software, they can offer their students a range of listening and written comprehension exercises to make up for this lack of exposure in class.
  2. They cannot fully take the place of a teacher. The students did not know how to choose levels of difficulty by themselves and also needed help understanding grammatical rules, for instance. This is due to the fact that an experienced, trained teacher will find a myriad of ways to explain the same thing until they find the best one for any given student. Finally, it has been shown that when learning a language by self-study, students working without solid supervision or evaluation tend to lose their impetus and motivation because they give priority to other more pressing activities.

My own opinion fully coincides with that of the language teachers. During the years that I have been using online ear training systems and programmes (EarMasterSchool solely from 2006 to 2009, all of the above-mentioned programmes between 2009 and 2012 and, to date, mainly MusicalEar, EarMasterSchool, Pitchimprover, Earbeater and, I have seen how certain aspects of ear training in my students have noticeably improved whilst using these materials. This improvement was even more remarkable if I was supervising their choice of exercises, and explaining how – and why – to do them, as well as evaluating results jointly with the student and setting specific dates for practice and turorials. There have been many times when we have worked online for weeks, maintaining contact only via email. Sometimes, it has been as long as a month before the student and I have seen each other inside a classroom, yet the student always knows that the teacher is there to clarify doubts, suggest exercises or evaluate progress, just as they would be on a blended learning course.

In order to use these programmes and systems as teacher substitues, they would have to provide a way of dealing with specific situations relating to the different types of musical ear (people with perfect pitch with semitone error who find it difficult to recognise the name of altered notes; students with perfect pitch who play transposable instruments and who sometimes write what they hear but, at other times, write what they would play; students who have always studied using the movable-do system and who realise that their transcriptions are sometimes slower; those who have trouble bringing what they hear within their pitch when the register is too low or too high, causing them to get the note wrong; solving problems with intonation and tuning and so on). In addition, they would need to improve and expand their range of activities for developing the recognition and auditory analysis skills mentioned previously. For this reason, they cannot be used as the only tools for any self-study ear training that aims to fully train the musical ear. Nor could they be used as the sole basis for developing a complete course in music theory or ear training. On the other hand, these materials are useful in helping to achieve the aims of classroom-based learning and could even form a considerable part of the content on blended learning or online courses.

*  *  *

[1] Many terms are used to and describe different types of computer programmes, and very often the same word (programme, software, system, tool, application…) is used to refer both to programmes installed on the computer as well as browser-based software. According to Sonsoles Benito (Information Systems tutor at ALTEN), those that need to be installed are generally described as ‘client-based programmes’, and those that do not are referred to as ‘web-based programmes’. In order to avoid such labels in this article, the following will be used: systems for those used online and programmes for those requiring installation.

[2] It should be mentioned that MusicalEar is a programme requiring internet connection in order to listen to the audio files. Similarly, there are others that require a subscription or downloads of complements such as Java or Google Chrome, as is the case with GoodEar, Earbeater, Thetamusic and EasyEarTrainer

[3] The students all had the same type of musical ear: one group had relative pitch and the other had absolute pitch, which involved the same problems in both cases.