Every music major takes “ear training” classes at some point,
and it’s easy to go through the motions and just try to get
it over with. But it turns out that ear training is more
valuable than it may appear.
I don’t know if it’s normal to get nervous for aural skills
class, but ear training at Juilliard with Mary Anthony Cox was
not just any class (the short anecdote in the
second gray box provides a tiny glimpse of a typical day in
In her legendary 49-year tenure, she was known for being an
absolutely terrific teacher, albeit demanding and tough as
nails (I particularly enjoyed this comment from
profile – “Wow. A methodical pedagogue, a
thoughtful performer, a terrifying authoritarian, and a
genuinely compassionate person — I think!”).
From the standard dictation and sight-singing exercises to
a slew of other heart-stopping drills whose names I’ve long
since forgotten, Ms. Cox’s class provided a regular dose of
anxiety and panic that I dreaded each week. It sometimes made
me question why such a cruel and unusual thing was part of the
So why is ear training part of a musician’s training anyway?
What is it good for?
No piano? No problem!
Pianist Arthur Rubinstein once famously learned
Franck’s Symphonic Variations while riding
on a train to his next concert, by practicing the
piece on his lap.
This represents a pretty extreme example of learning away from
the instrument…how might something like this be possible?
recent study of pianists yields some clues.
Sixteen pianists, half of whom were music majors, but all of
which were currently performing, were recruited for this study.
Each pianist started out with a practice trial which involved
practicing a short musical excerpt five times with the score,
and then performing the passage three times from memory.
Then the real part of the study began, with each pianist being
tasked with learning and performing four short 2-bar excerpts
via four different practice methods – a “normal” condition,
“motor only” condition, “auditory only” condition, and “covert”
In each condition, they would be allowed 10 practice trials
with the music in front of them. Then the music would be taken
away, and they’d have to perform the passage four times from
memory (with the researchers being primarily concerned with
whether they played all the right notes or not).
In the “normal” condition, they were simply told to perform the
figure 10 times.
In the “motor only” condition, the pianists were informed that
there wouldn’t be any sound coming out of the keyboard when
they pressed down the keys, so were instructed to
imagine what the piece would sound like instead.
In the “auditory only” condition, they were asked to imagine
what their finger movements would feel like as they listened to
a recording of the passage through headphones, while holding
their hands and fingers in loose fists (to keep them from
inadvertently moving their hands and playing “air piano”).
In the “covert” condition, the pianists were asked to use both
auditory and motor imagery – to imagine what the passage would
sound like whilst also imagining what playing the passage would
Upon completing the four practice and performance blocks, the
pianists were given two last tests – of their auditory imagery
ability and motor imagery ability – to see how effectively they
were able to imagine sound and motor movements in their heads.
When aural skills matter
As you can probably guess, the pianists performed best after
engaging in “normal” practice where they had the benefit of
both auditory and motor feedback. They performed worst (i.e.
played the most wrong notes) in the “covert” condition where
they had only their imagination to work from.
That’s not much of a revelation of course, but what is
interesting is how the pianists’ aural skills test scores were
related to their learning.
When the researchers analyzed the data by separating the
pianists by aural skills scores – the top half averaging an 80%
on their test, and the bottom half averaging 46% – it became
clearer where aural skills ability made a difference.
In the normal and the auditory-only conditions, where the
pianists did not have to imagine the sound of music (heh, heh),
there was no significant difference on the performance test
between the pianists with high or low aural skills
But in the motor-only and covert conditions, where the pianists
had to audiate, or create the sound of the music in their head
without the benefit of a recording or audible feedback from the
piano, the pianists with less-developed aural skills performed
significantly worse on the performance test (see chart from the
The implication being, mental practice is probably going to be
more effective for those musicians whose aural skills are more
So even if ear training is the bane of your existence, it’s
probably worth the time and effort to take it seriously and
try to get as much out of it as you can, if for no other
reason than it could help you become a more effective mental
practicer (there are, of course, many other good reasons as
And perhaps the next time you find yourself on an
airplane with nothing to do, and a ton of rep to learn,
maybe you too could learn (at least part of) a new
concerto before it’s time to return your seat back and
tray table to their full upright position!
A version of this article originally appeared
at The Bulletproof Musician.