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The Keyboard in Aural Skills Classes

Part 1: Why the Piano Dominates

The keyboard has a privileged position in music instruction. The handbook for the National Association of Schools of Music emphasizes the importance of keyboard skills over and over: for example, “keyboard competency” is the only item with a specific instrument listed in the “Common Body of Knowledge and Skills” for “All Professional Baccalaureate Degrees in Music” (p. 101). This dominance is even more notable when compared with other instruments that might have similar roles, such as the guitar, which is listed only in the requirements for music therapy degrees and as a possibility for a “music teaching specialization.”

Perhaps as a result, keyboards are very common in music classrooms—especially aural skills classrooms. Many aural skills teachers, in turn, have extensive keyboard experience.

In this environment, it’s no surprise that the piano is strongly associated with aural skills instruction. For example, the vast majority of the recordings that accompany Gary Karpinski’s Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing are played on piano—for example, all 15 audio examples for Chapter 11 on “The Fifteen Major Keys.” One article even defines traditional dictation as “students notate an unfamiliar melody played on the piano.” For dictation melodies, instructors’ voices are arguably just as convenient, but I have heard anecdotally that instructors prefer the piano because it gives clearer pitches. (Perhaps using the voice also feels too personal for some.)

Finally, some aural skills instruction is strongly linked to keyboard skills. It’s not unusual for textbooks to include keyboard exercises. And a 2017 curriculum survey found that almost 40% of respondents reported including “keyboard exercises” in their aural skills classes (p. 209). The authors of this survey did not ask about other instruments, and the words “guitar,” “voice,” and “vocal” do not even appear in the main text of the article. (Even “singing” appears only in contexts referring to sight-singing.)

The keyboard is clearly a huge part of aural skills instruction. So it’s worth asking: what do we know about its effects on aural skills education?

This post is very much a surface-level answer to that question, but I hope that it stimulates more research. There are lots of articles out there on how instrument training affects music processing, but I could find almost nothing that pursues these questions in a pedagogical context. It’s one thing to bring a bunch of musicians into a lab, play them music, and do brain scans. It’s another to give a pre-test or do brain scans to establish a baseline, then do some aural skills training, then repeat the tests/scans. If anyone wants to take up any of these matters in such a study, please feel free! Just let me know so I can get excited for the results!

Part 2: Building Student Knowledge/Memory Structures

Some aural-skills-type classes are explicitly charged with teaching “keyboard skills,” which of course can be variously defined. But when keyboard skills are not the explicit end goal, how might they nevertheless help students with their broader aural skills? And could other instruments serve the same ends?

This won’t be news to readers of this blog, but one of the primary pedagogical benefits of the piano is its straightforward representation of (12-tone, equal tempered) musical space. The notes are presented linearly from low to high, and at least one diatonic environment (the one encompassing C major, A natural minor, and their modes) is simple to visualize. Just as on the staff, it is simple to visualize “black notes” as alterations of the obvious “white notes.” It makes sense that this would be a particularly good tool to visualize musical objects that have some degree of linearity, such as scales. All of these are good reasons to use the piano to build certain knowledge structures. 

There are many knowledge/memory structures that students must draw on to be successful in aural skills tasks, but let’s discuss two particularly fundamental ones: scale-degree representations such as solfege, and representations of chord progressions. These basically align with what Roger Graybill calls “melodic” and “chordal” keyboard exercises in his contribution to this book.

If the piano is a particularly good tool for visualizing scales, then it makes sense that it would also be a good tool for representing scale degrees. Yet as far as I can tell, it’s relatively uncommon that solfege is learned from the keyboard in aural skills classes. Perhaps this is because most instrumentalists at the college level have worked on scales on their own instrument, and even if that instrument’s method of playing scales isn’t as obviously linear as the keyboard, students may have started to experience them linearly (with the fingering/embouchure for “fa” in some key, for example, “feeling” as if it is right next to the fingering/embouchure for “mi”). And of course solfege is designed to be sung, so the voice is the obvious medium from which to start—even though it does not help students visualize whole steps and half steps.

It’s also possible that keyboard visualizations are integrated enough from early stages of study that it’s unnecessary to evoke them explicitly in the learning of solfege. A study presented by Kati Meyer at the Society for Music Theory annual conference in 2013 addressed the use of instrument-specific visual aids in a fundamentals class. Meyer found that when visualizing scales, a little over half of her non-pianist students still preferred to visualize the scales on the keyboard, though others said things like “I don’t really find [the keyboard] that helpful because I learned my scales on bassoon, not piano” (materials shared in personal communication).

Chord progressions, on the other hand, are much more consistently tied to the keyboard. For example, while the 2nd edition of Gary Karpinski’s Manual for Sight Singing introduces the keyboard as a tool for visualizing major-mode melodies only after spending several chapters working with them vocally (p. 39), the very first chapter on harmony (“The Dominant Triad: Skips to ^5, ^7, and ^2”) has more than a page of keyboard exercises. As with later chapters on harmony, these exercises tend to be of three types: playing harmonic paradigms (first I – V – I, then I – IV – V – I, etc.), singing melodies while accompanying with chords, and doing sing-and-play multiple-part exercises (sing one part while playing the other). This suggests three purposes for the keyboard: learning the general “sound” of the harmony paradigms (and perhaps linking this to a kinesthetic “feel”), understanding/hearing/visualizing the relationship between melody and harmony, and requiring the student to think in independent musical “streams.”

The keyboard certainly can be useful for all of these. On the other hand, I’m not sure it is absolutely necessary for any of them.

The obvious competitor instrument would be the guitar. (The harp, hammered dulcimer, or marimba/glockenspiel/vibraphone would also work, but these are less likely to be lying around a classroom or student’s dorm room.) Both guitar and keyboard, of course, can easily produce chords. On the piano, each note must be struck individually; at least to me, this brings more attention to individual notes within the chord, and potentially—at least for outer voices—to elements of voice leading. On the guitar, of course, each note must be supported by the correct fingering, but the actual sound-producing action of strumming activates the entire chord. To me, this facilitates a more holistic listening to the chord as a “Gestalt” and eases the job of thinking about and hearing the larger relationships between chords. On the other hand, there is no reason a student cannot concentrate on hearing the “Gestalt” chords on a piano or the voice leading on the guitar; both are perfectly capable tools. Is there a reason to consider these “keyboard exercises” rather than “polyphonic instrument exercises”? If we let students use whatever polyphonic instrument they choose, perhaps they can spend less time working on their piano skills and more time focusing on whatever it is we really want them to learn.

For the third purpose (thinking of music in independent musical “streams”), we could broaden the variety of instruments we allow even beyond polyphonic instruments. Of course, it’s not practical to sing a soprano line while playing a bass line on the French horn, but there’s no reason this couldn’t be done with a viola, marimba, or, say, theremin. In Purpose 1 (learning harmonic paradigms) and Purpose 2 (hearing the relationship between melody and harmony) the polyphonic instrument is necessary in order to build knowledge/memory structures (since the objects of attention are chords). When developing students’ abilities to switch attention back and forth efficiently between independent musical streams, however, the point is to build a cognitive skill that merely requires two single-line melodies. Forcing the use of the keyboard will reward students whose knowledge structures come from significant keyboard experience while penalizing others, and it seems unlikely to me that the cognitive skill here will necessarily develop better through use of the piano than through other instruments.

Part 3: Effects of Piano Use By Instructors

Let’s imagine, for a moment, an aural skills class where the instructor almost exclusively uses the piano as their primary teaching tool: playing dictations, playing correct answers for sight-reading exercises, demonstrating chord progressions, etc. Of course, this imagined classroom is an extreme, and I’m sure most teachers use more highly varied stimuli. But I think this is a useful thought experiment to consider the effects of the instructor’s use of the keyboard on student learning.

It seems logical that almost-exclusive use of the piano for aural skills instruction would have certain effects. Specifically, it seems like we should be able to compare students who have lots of keyboard experience with other students, and find that they:

  1. feel more comfortable in a piano-heavy aural skills class than other students, since they are working with a familiar timbre;
  2. get higher grades than their peers in these classes relative to their degree of skill and training, since the familiar timbre should interact positively with their keyboard-based kinesthetic and sonic knowledge structures; and
  3. despite these higher grades, might nevertheless find themselves less able than their peers to transfer their learning to other instruments and timbres, since they are not being asked to apply their skills outside of the familiar.

These hypotheses seem to flow naturally from the music perception research that explores how musicians process music played on different instruments (see, for example, Proverbio and Orlandi 2016). 

Nevertheless, research hasn’t clearly established these, as intuitive as they may seem. Schiavio and Timmers (2016), for example, conducted an experiment testing recall of non-tonal melodies played on piano. Their participants were given melodies to remember, and were trained by alternating listening with either playing the same melody at the piano, playing at the piano without audio feedback, watching a video of the pianist’s hand playing the melodies, or silence. Unsurprisingly, Schiavio and Timmers found that “conditions involving a motor activity (silent playing and playing) led to better recognition performance than the more passive conditions” (27). Yet they also found that there was essentially no difference in performance for the pianists, non-pianist musicians, and even non-musicians! In short, all did roughly equally well at the task—the only significant variable that impacted performance was whether or not they connected motor activity to their melodic memory.

Of course, that experiment required the participants in the “playing” conditions to make connections between the sound (melody) and their actions (playing). In class, when we (for example) play a dictation melody, if we don’t ask our students to imagine playing the melody on an instrument, then people whose primary instrument matches the source of the dictation may be more likely to do so than others. So one possible lesson here is that it may be more important to ask students to play, or imagine playing, what they hear on an instrument, than it is for the source instrument to be varied.

Still, I think there is likely some truth to my hypotheses. I sing a fair number of the dictation melodies for my aural skills classes, and I always get a few students who say that they struggle far more with these than the piano melodies. (I don’t think this is because I’m a terrible singer, but I guess there are no guarantees here…) On the other hand, these students often are not piano majors! So this phenomenon may come from the overuse of the piano in these students’ training rather than from their own instrumental background.

In short, there are lots of questions still to answer! We know that musicians process sounds from their primary instrument differently from sounds from another instrument, but we have very little idea what that means for our pedagogy.

Okay, this post has wandered through a number of angles on a huge—and hugely important—topic. It seems worth summarizing:

  1. The keyboard is really common in aural skills classes, both as a tool for the instructor and as a medium for students.
  2. Nevertheless, if our primary goal is something other than developing keyboard skills, we should consider our true goals and whether they might be congruent with the use of other polyphonic (or even sometimes monophonic) instruments.
  3. Finally, we know very little about how the (over?)use of the piano in aural skills instruction impacts our students.

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