Bending to Real Music: Harmonic Hearing in the Aural Skills Classroom

Daniel B. Stevens, Philip Duker, and Jennifer Shafer


What changes would be needed in aural skills classes for one to use only real music for harmonic dictation activities? Real pieces of music are sometimes employed in aural skills classrooms to demonstrate harmonic patterns already presented in abstract form, but they are rarely taken as the initial object to introduce patterns — and for good reason. Teaching students to hear harmonic progressions with understanding is no easy teat. Harmonic dictations can easily overwhelm beginning students who have to focus their attention in new and unfamiliar ways. Even more advanced students often struggle to notate the outer voices and Roman numerals after only a few hearings. Many instructors mitigate the difficulty of this exercise by relying heavily on hymn-style chord progressions at the piano. Some students get so habituated with this format of harmonic dictation that they develop listening strategies specifically suited to the exercise: listening to the bass for one playing, moving to the upper voice on the next, making logical guesses about the Roman numerals, and then using inner voices to attempt to confirm the chords. The end result is that students may develop good strategies for completing a harmonic dictation in the classroom, but find that these strategies are of little value when listening to real pieces ot music. The strategies that students develop for harmonic dictation often do not seem to apply to the music they hear and care most about.

But what if students could face — and successfully wrestle with — ‘real’ music from the first day of their formal aural training? What it they were asked to dictate musical information encoded in pieces that they encounter regularly in their musical lives? In this chapter, we share an approach to aural skills that utilizes only real music from popular and classical genres to teach harmonic hearing from the first weeks ot the semester. As students learn to meet the demands ot engaging real music by ear, we equip them with active listening techniques that are applicable to a wide variety of musical styles. Our goal is to encourage students to ‘think in music’ rather than simply ‘think about music’ (Karpinski, 2000, 4).

From Harmonic Dictation to Harmonic Hearing: New Core Values

The pedagogical design described in this chapter is founded on a set of core values that promote active, participatory listening. In our classes, we strive to promote an energetic, creative atmosphere in which students can freely sing and move with the music that they hear. With active listening and aural understanding of real music as our goal, we began to question the focus on vertical chords and labels that characterized earlier iterations of our aural skills curriculum. When we had previously asked our students to notate outer voices, Roman numerals, and figures, they often focused exclusively on the correctness of their notated lines and chord symbols, becoming mired in atomistic elements rather than holistic qualities of the music and their experience of it. This disconnect between in-class exercises and the holistic, engaged listening experiences to which we aspired motivated us to bend our curriculum so that our students could engage with music and with hearing harmony in a fundamentally different way.

Inviting students to engage with real music from the first weeks of class required us to identify a simpler set of prerequisite skills that were quite different from the more advanced skills required by our earlier approach. Ironically, we found that as our students became more adept at moving through a harmonic space, exploring a variety of linear pathways as they sang, they were also better able to understand how these newly created lines suggested specific harmonies. Another significant shift was that students were now dictating their sung or audiated responses while listening, enabling them to connect symbolic expression with music that was already internalized (Stevens, 2017). This shift encouraged our students to conceive of music more like a space within which they could exercise their creative aural imaginations and less as a string of objects to be identified. For the remainder of this chapter, our reference to ‘harmonic hearing’ is intended to signal an active listening stance in which students listen from within the musical texture, singing or audiating along as participant-observers.

One of the most striking consequences of our pedagogical changes was an inversion of the complexity of stimulus and the expected response. In the more conventional harmonic dictations we previously used, students provided a complex response to a simplified stimulus. We now present students with complex stimuli (varying in texture, timbre, sound mix, tempo, instrumentation, harmonic rhythm, and melody/bass profiles) and ask students to provide a simplified response (such as singing only one or two alternating notes throughout while listening). This simplified mode of response allows our students to transfer this approach to other musical contexts; they can recognize the applicability of these skills to their listening experiences outside of the classroom. Encountering excerpts from a variety of genres (both popular and classical) dramatically increases students’perception of the relevance of these activities to their everyday lives (Covington, 1992; Everett, 1997). We want our students to transfer their aural skills widely, whether attending a student recital, listening to the radio, or sitting in ensemble.1

In short, the approach to harmonic hearing that follows encourages students to develop a set of flexible musical patterns that can be actively and habitually engaged while listening. Students then match these known patterns of sound with musical elements that they hear. Although the end result (using Roman numerals to identify harmonies) may seem similar, the learning pathway is extraordinarily different. By giving students tools that can be scaled both to the difficulty of the stimulus and to students’ level of comfort and skill, we are now able to increase the level of differentiated instruction taking place in our courses. Students at varying levels of aural fluency can gain useful practice from each listening activity. Furthermore, this pedagogical approach encourages students to scale their creative response in a way that can be productive (despite the variable complexity of the music they hear), allowing them to overcome the psychological barrier that students sometimes face when encountering challenging musical problems.

Pedagogical Changes and In-Class Activities Preliminary Skills

Once we had redefined our educational outcomes and core values, we next set out to align our pedagogical activities with these outcomes. In our first unit of the semester, we emphasize two skills that are essential to active, participatory listening: matching pitch and finding Do. Ironically, these are two skills that instructors often assume students possess and remediate only as needed.

Activities that focus on matching pitch allow students to develop a vocabulary for discussing and connecting listening, audiation, and the mechanics of vocal production. Students who struggle to match pitch often need assistance long before they attempt skill assessments. In addition to recommending basic techniques of vocal production, Karpinski (2000, 33—34) provides a number of good suggestions tor working with students who have difficulty matching pitch. This skill can be practiced using simple or complex musical examples in a variety ot textures, timbres, and registers, ranging from single notes to real musical passages. Even students who are good at this skill can often benefit from further practice with more complex tasks, especially when a particular pitch lies outside their vocal range. Students often need extensive practice to hear whether the pitches they are singing actually match up with the messy surfaces of real pieces ot music. As students work on matching pitch, they can also develop an awareness of their ideal and maximum vocal ranges and an ability to audiate across registers. These skills have enormous practical value for later musical experiences.

The activities described in each of the boxes tor ‘In-Class Activities’ are interleaved throughout the unit. Each semester, we adapt these activities within our lesson plans depending on the unique skill sets ot each incoming class of students. Although details about assessment (and reassessment) fall beyond the scope of this chapter, we have provided some suggestions for possible methods for assessment. Foundational prerequisites to harmonic hearing, such as matching pitch and finding Do, are graded ‘pass/not pass’ in order to establish the importance ot these skills; these outcomes must be passed in order to pass the course.

In-Class Activity No. 1: Matching Pitch (Weeks 1-2)

‘Matching Pitch’ and ‘Finding Do’ are addressed in the first unit of the semester, a two-week introduction to foundational aural skills. In the activities, ranked by increasing difficulty, students can sing or play a note using their instrument or on an online keyboard.

Activity 1.1

Students work in pairs (PI and P2). PI sings/plays a note, and P2 sings it back in a register that fits their voice range. PI provides feedback. Swap roles and repeat.

Activity 1.2

Students work in pairs (PI and P2). PI chooses a number (e.g., ‘2’) and plays a three or four-note sequence of pitches. P2 sings back the pitch in the sequence corresponding to the given number (e.g., the second pitch), in a register that fits their voice range. PI provides feedback. Swap roles and repeat.

Activity 1.3

Students work in pairs (PI and P2). PI plays two notes at the piano and names soprano or bass. P2 sings back the requested pitch. Swap roles and repeat.

Activity 1.4

We provide a collection of short musical excerpts and a set of challenges (e.g., ‘sing the bass note at the beginning of each excerpt’ or ‘sing the last melody note of each excerpt’). Students work together in pairs to sing back the requested pitch and check each other’s work.

We provide a set of stylized loops of single chords, such as those created by de Clercq (2014) and challenge students to match single pitches or those of the chordal collections in a realistic texture.


Plan: assessed in individual appointment with instructor or ТА.

Grading rubric: pass/not pass (with opportunity for reassessment).

Criterion to pass: student can match the pitch (without scooping) of three examples that correspond in difficulty to the exercises practiced in class.

A second constituent skill necessary tor developing tonal understanding is the ability to discern and sing the tonic note (Do).2 In our aural skills classes, we begin with strategies for inferring tonic, since the tonic is not provided in listening experiences outside ot the classroom.3 Following melodic motion down to a resting point, singing the melody while listening for stability, and listening to the bass line are all strategies that help students confirm the tonic of a given passage (see also Karpinski, 2000, 47). Once they can identify the tonic, singing the pitch along with music can still seem very unfamiliar to some students. It is useful to get students to practice this skill outside of class and also to write reflections related to their practice; we encourage them to think intentionally about developing this habit of active listening.

Even when students are comfortable with pitch matching and tonic identification in context, there remain challenges with using real pieces, especially when drawing from popular music. Modal passages and pieces with ambiguous tonics occur regularly in these styles (see, for example, Spicer (2017) and Richards [2017]), and students need to wrestle with these challenges in order to successfully apply these skills outside of the classroom. Having students work with a provisional tonic can often give them a foothold in the music (even if they later discard that interpretation). Similarly, pieces with strong melodic emphasis on Mi or Sol can cause some students to misidentify these notes as tonic. These mistakes provide important opportunities to distinguish between tonal emphasis and hierarchy, and to train students to listen and think critically about initial aural impressions. We have found that asking students to grapple with finding the tonic in real pieces not only prepares them for listening experiences across a wide variety of styles but also attunes them to a significant aesthetic element ot tonal music in general.

In-Class Activity No. 2: Finding Do (Weeks 1-2)

Activity 2.1

We introduce ‘finding Do’ by having our students briefly discuss the concept of active listening. We ask students what they think ‘active listening’ means; students often do not know a definition but can successfully contrast ‘active listening’ and ‘passive listening,’ and we can then lead the discussion toward a definition of active listening as an experience of participating in the music that they are hearing. In summarizing this discussion, we stress that ‘finding Do’ is a first step toward engaged, active listening and will serve as the foundation for future work.

Activity 2.2

We play short excerpts (~30 seconds) of music, usually a single verse or chorus of a song, and ask students to locate the tonic pitch.

We discuss three specific strategies with students:

  • • Sing the melody until you settle on tonic (stable, home pitch).
  • • Listen for the bass at the beginning/end of a phrase or the melody at the end of a phrase. These pitches are often good candidates for tonic, although not always; in some cases, listening for where the melody ‘should’ go is also a good strategy for identifying tonic.
  • • Listen for the half-step Do/Ti relationship to make sure that you have settled on Do (rather than Mi or Sol, which will have a whole-step relationship to their respective lower neighbors).

For the first lesson, the instructor could encourage students to sing aloud so that they can hear their vocalization ‘fit’ with the music. This exercise can also help weaker students start to develop a sense of key.

Activity 2.3

Repeat the same activity as just described but ask students to initially audiate the pitch rather than sing aloud; after the excerpt has finished, ask students to sing their selected pitch as the excerpt plays a second time. This approach allows students to work independently rather than being influenced by their peers and still allows them to self-correct when they hear their pitch sung with the music.

Students can also work in pairs and sing the pitch to each other to check their work, give feedback, and adjust as needed.

Excerpts with increasing complexity can also be used at this point, so that students can begin to grapple with more ambiguous harmonic implications. Some possible complexities that can be introduced are:

  • • Progressions that could be interpreted in either the relative major or the relative minor (example: D major/B minor in the chorus of Shawn Mendes’s ‘There’s Nothing Holdin* Me Back’).
  • • Examples that are initially ambiguous or under-determined but that eventually lead to a clear tonic (example: Taylor Swift, verse and pre-chorus, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’).
  • • Examples that entertain different tonics in different formal areas (example: Clean Bandit, ‘Symphony,’ that can support a C minor interpretation in the chorus and Eb major in the verse).4


Plan: assessed in individual appointment with instructor or ТА.

Grading rubric: pass/not pass (with opportunity for reassessment).

Criterion to pass: student can correctly identify the tonic in at least two excerpts within two hearings. Excerpts are drawn from two different genres (i.e., classical and pop) and are approximately 30—45 seconds in length. Students can hum or sing along with the excerpt as it plays and submit their final answer by singing their selected pitch.

Guide-Tone Method

Once students have learned how to match pitch and identify the tonic in pieces ot real music, they are prepared to begin expanding those skills to understand harmonic motion.

One of the most relevant and accessible methods that builds on these prerequisites is the guide- tone (GT) method (Rahn and McKay, 1988). Following Stevens’s (2016) implementation of the GT method, students apply the ‘Do/Ti Test’ by singing along with the music, matching each harmony to a primary GT. This GT will be either Do or Ti/Te, depending on the mode and chromatic harmonies in use.5 Students spend significant time in class singing aloud to a variety of stimuli, from single chords to real pieces, always listening to the music and to the responses of their peers as they go. This approach encourages students to continue developing the critical connection between their aural and physiological responses to sound (Klonoski, 2006). Students are encouraged to experiment with different GTs as they listen, and they can critique their own and others’ responses and self-correct as needed. Most importantly, students often enjoy the process ot listening carefully to music that is popular outside of the classroom, and consequently are engaged with the activity from the outset.

As students apply the Do/Ti Test to real music, the sequence of GTs that they sing is called the ‘guide- tone line.’After they have become comfortable singing the GT line, we ask them to begin audiating GTs as they listen and to notate their GT line on a one-line staff. Students indicate Do or Ti/Te by writing a note (with the appropriate duration) on or below the single-staff line, as demonstrated in Activity 3.3. We initially present examples that consistently use either Ti or Те and ask the students to indicate which inflection they hear at the beginning ot the staff.6 On the whole, we find that this approach provides our students a friendly way to bridge hearing and notation while keeping their focus on the stimulus.

Students encounter GT singing and audiation multiple times, both inside and outside of class. We have found that consistent out-of-class practice is necessary for developing fluency with these skills. We require our students to practice at home using GT listening exercises hosted on our course management system and in an online sight-singing practice environment.7 We focus intensively on hearing the GT line for approximately three weeks and continue to develop this skill throughout the rest of the semester. We find that it takes significant time and intense focus tor a majority of our students to develop fluency audiating GTs. This time is well spent. While students are learning to correctly sing, audiate, and notate GTs, they are also developing a variety of fundamental skills critical to their future success, including singing and audiating while listening, matching internal sounds with a stimulus, and noticing tension or discrepancies between audiated sounds and the stimulus. Equally important are the attitudes and mindsets students develop during this stage of the process, including a habit of active listening, critical self-reflection, a heightened aural awareness, and confidence that they can productively engage real music by ear. This time also allows us to identify students who struggle matching GTs with the stimulus and to directly address aural roadblocks before proceeding to more challenging activities. Singing GTs while listening has several benefits that apply beyond the classroom. For instance, when students encounter unfamiliar harmonies or difficult passages in real music at concerts, they can learn to hear through them without losing their tonal bearings, sustaining Do until they return to harmonies they recognize.

In-Class Activity No. 3: GT (i.e., Do/Ti/Te) Lines (Weeks 3-5)

In order to scaffold the experience of harmonic hearing for the students, we follow up on the ‘finding Do’ task by taking approximately three weeks to focus only on separating Do, Ti, and Те before adding any additional complexity to the response. Assuming that students are comfortable with identifying the tonic, they can primarily focus on discerning the harmonic rhythm and determining which chords Do does not ‘fit.’

Activity 3.1

At the piano, play a key-establishing progression (KEP) and ask students to sing Do out loud. While students sustain Do, play a single chord and ask students to either continue singing Do or move to 77 (or Те) if they ‘need to,’ based on the fit of the GT to the chord. Students often pick up on this distinction quickly; during subsequent iterations, the instructor can ask students to sing softly, and finally to use audiation only, instead of singing aloud.

We initially use only the major mode and limit the harmonies to I, IV, V, and vi. After some initial exposure, we can introduce minor mode chords and even chromatic harmonies that still have a simple Do, 77, or Те guide tone. Both root position and inverted chords can (and should) be used at this point. Inverted chords can sometimes cause students to second-guess the appropriate GT as they sense the instability of the chord or react to new overtones. We discuss these problems with the students in class in order to help them improve their application of the Do/Ti Test.

Activity 3.2

Instructors can also improvise short excerpts (e.g., in the style of waltz using root position and inverted chords) and students can respond in real time using singing or other response methods such as ‘clickers’ (Duker, 2013).

Activity 3.3

Moving quickly to real music, we choose examples with slow harmonic rhythm and repetition (i.e., a four-bar progression played once and then repeated to form an eight-bar chorus). We give the GT line to the initial examples, and students conduct and sing as the music plays. As students gain confidence, they begin independently determining the GT line, followed up by group singing and discussion. We usually provide two hearings for this activity; the students also hear an internal repetition within each hearing, resulting in a total of four times to listen through the progression.

The examples include major, minor, and modal excerpts that demonstrate a mixture of Do, Ti, and Те chords.

Source: Authors.

When introducing this topic for the first time, students may have a difficult time distinguishing which GT ‘fits’ the harmony, either due to incorrectly sung pitches or to students not perceiving the dissonance created if the ‘wrong’ GT is selected. If students are unsure of their answers when this process is introduced, attempting to sing both GTs over a harmony will usually clarify which one ‘fits.’ The next example shows what a student might sing with the Jason Mraz song referenced earlier (the ‘wrong’ GTs are marked in parentheses); students are encouraged to feel the tension of these tones when compared to the ‘correct’ GT.

Source: Authors.

This method can also be a useful practice technique for students who struggle to decide which GT belongs to the chord that they are hearing. In this case, students would be attempting to sense which of the two GTs feels stable or at rest, and which produces a sense of tension.


We usually assess this skill after we have added Roman numeral analysis (see In-Class Activity No. 4). Instructors who wish to assess this outcome before moving on to later expansions could adopt a differentiated assessment practice, allowing students to notate, sing, or play a GT line on their instrument.

When we first introduce the Do/Ti Test, we intentionally choose examples that avoid many of the melody-harmony conflicts often found in popular and classical pieces.8 However, as the semester progresses, we introduce pieces that challenge listeners’ application of the Do/Ti Test. As they become more adept at using GTs, students solidify their ability to aurally parse out melodic embellishments from the underlying harmonies in the musical texture. For instance, in Brad Paisleys ‘She’s Everything’ (Example 21.1), the acoustic guitar’s lower-neighbor riff on Do may confuse students who cannot distinguish this figuration from the underlying harmonic tones. Later, when students begin identifying harmonies by ear, other melodic elements in Paisleys introduction have the potential to frustrate students’ attempts to ‘figure out’ the chord progression based on discrete pitches (e.g., 4—3 suspension in mm. 4 and 8, sustained Do and Mi in m. 7, emphasis of tonic triad in the solo). Despite these surface features, Paisley’s song nevertheless remains a fairly straightforward example for our students, both in regard to identifying GTs and harmonies. In tact, we have found that many students can often intuit the distinction between melodic embellishments and underlying harmonies without direct instruction.

From Guide Tones to Hearing Harmony

The Do/Ti Test focuses students’ aural strategies in a way that supports development of harmonic hearing. Once students are comfortable singing GTs while listening, their next step is recognizing that GT lines categorize harmonies as those that are consonant with Do (De-chords) and those that are consonant with Ti (Ti'-chords). This elementary bifurcation immediately simplifies identification

Example 21.1 Guide-tone Line for Paisley, ‘She’s Everything,’ mm. 1—8: simplified transcription and primary GT line.9

Source: Authors.

by limiting the possible diatonic harmonies in each category. Our students are then able to make further harmonic distinctions by building on the GT line and using other active listening techniques. Because we seek to build fluency and confidence with harmonic hearing, we limit the harmonic vocabulary at this stage to four chords in the major mode: I, IV, V, and vi. Three ot these chords (I, IV, and vi) are Do-chords and require further aural analysis. Within this limited palette, all 77- chords are dominant (V) in the musical examples we choose. Some students find that coordinating other harmonic perceptions such as quality (e.g., the minor Do-chord is submediant) or functional characteristics (e.g., the Do-chord that feels like ‘home’ is tonic) with the GT line can enable them to immediately identify harmonies, especially within this limited harmonic set. Although we avoid emphasizing a deductive approach, we encourage students to draw on these perceptions to clarify their harmonic hearing, and we reference these elements in class when advantageous. Later in the semester we introduce the supertonic (ii), which gets its own GT (Re), notated above the single-line staff. In the second semester of study we introduce other diatonic harmonies and progressions in the minor mode.

We teach two strategies that enable students to identify harmonies. In both strategies, students are encouraged to conceptualize harmony as triadic collections of pitches that could occur in various inversions, sequences, and rhythms. Prior to introducing these techniques, students sing arpeggia- tions ot short harmonic progressions in order to gain familiarity with solfege collections and chord qualities (Ottman and Rogers, 2011; Johnson, 2013). We encourage students to think of harmonies holistically so that they can know, sing, and audiate the pitches, solfege, and quality of each chord.

Example 21.2 GT figurations. Source: Authors.

Singing ‘GT figurations,’ the first strategy we introduce, emphasizes and reinforces this holistic harmonic conception. Using this approach, students sing arpeggiations around the primary GTs Do and Ti. These figurations, described by Rahn and McKay (1988), include the root, third, and fifth of each diatonic harmony. The arpeggiations each begin and end with a primary GT, as shown in Example 21.2. Our students ‘match’ these GT figurations to the harmonies in the stimulus and label the harmony with the corresponding Roman numeral. By singing patterns that move above and below the GTs Do and Ti, students can also develop a spatial awareness of each harmony in relationship to the tonic. Many students find arpeggiations useful in music with slower harmonic rhythms, or in practice exercises in which they identify single harmonies played in a tonal context. Learning to sing simple figurations around GTs prepares students for more advanced applications, such as singing figurations to identify chromatic harmonies and modulations (Stevens, 2016).

A second strategy is to sing secondary GTs, which students can notate in solfege above or below their primary GT line (see Example 21,3d). Secondary GT lines typically begin on Mi or Sol (assuming a tonic start) and are referred to as the ‘Mi-line’ or ‘Sol-line.’Just as the primary GT line is limited to the notes Do, Ti, and Re, the Mi-line involves the notes Mi, Fa, and Re, and the .SW-line is created using Sol and La. For many students, the Mi-line has the most practical value, as it allows them to differentiate I/vi and IV and can be easily sung at both fast and slow tempos. Example 21.3 shows how students would apply primary GTs and either secondary GTs or GT figurations to identify the harmonies of the introduction to Paisleys ‘She’s Everything.’ Even though most students only need to use one method (or even one secondary GT line) to identify the harmonies in this passage, we encourage them to learn and apply both methods as they listen, since having a ‘backup’ method can help students reinforce perceptions, avoid errors, and check their work.

Example 21.3 Paisley, ‘She’s Everything,’mm, 1—8: Primary GT line, GT figurations, Secondary GTs, and Roman numerals/bass line, notated as four measures with repeat.

Source: Authors.

In-Class Activity No. 4: GT Figurations and Secondary GT Lines (Weeks 5-8)

Once students are comfortable singing the GT line, we discuss how to use figurations and secondary GT lines to explore and move within the chords they are hearing. Through this experience, students can then identify the harmonies and assign Roman numerals.

Activity 4.1 (cf. Activity 3.1)

Students determine the GT for a single chord played in context of a KEP (we initially limit the harmonies to I, IV, V, and vi in major). As before, we encourage students to sing GT figurations out loud initially and then transition to audiation. We encourage them to sing and audiate these arpeggiated patterns even when they may have already deduced the harmony, as is often the case with 77-chords. If the chord is a Do-chord, we encourage students to sing through all three of the possible figurations to help them hear how the arpeggiations match with the stimulus and avoid prematurely settling on an incorrect ‘match.’

Activity 4.2 (cf. Activity 3.2)

We utilize pop music excerpts as the primary source for practice. Examples that feature slow harmonic changes are preferred due to the time needed to audiate the figurations. We play the excerpt four times and advise students to use the first two hearings to determine the GTs and the remaining two hearings to determine the figurations.

The ‘Sung response’ shows what the students would sing and audiate; we ask students to sing this response rather than writing it out so that we can help students focus on sound over sight. For later practice and assessment purposes, we would ask students to submit the ‘Written response,’ which summarizes their harmonic hearing of the excerpt.

Source: Authors.

Activity 4.3

After initial practice with the GT Figurations (at least one week), we introduce secondary GT lines. We first write the possible chords (within our limited harmonic palette) and primary GTs on the board, and then prompt students to provide similarly stepwise lines beginning on Mi and So to fill out the chord tones. The completed diagram for this exploration is given later.

























Source: Authors.

Excerpts with faster chord changes (such as the example shown here) help to demonstrate the benefits of secondary GTs as compared to figurations. We often ask students to work in pairs at this point, as students can assist each other in hearing the faster harmonic changes.


Plan: This skill could be assessed in class (on paper), or in person (sung or on an instrument with verbal commentary). In addition to the normal four playings of each excerpt, we often give an extra hearing during assessments to allow students an additional opportunity to check their work.

Grading rubric: This activity is assessed on a 1—4 developmental rubric. GT lines are graded more strictly than Roman numeral labels since the GT lines are foundational to successful harmonic hearing.

Source: Authors.

Hearing Bass Lines

At this point in the course, most students are able to correctly identify simple harmonies by ear using only GTs supplemented by figurations or secondary GTs. We next ask students to begin dictating the bass line in solfege. Our overarching strategy is to encourage students to begin by using GTs and then progressively add other complementary techniques in order to build a holistic hearing of the harmonic progression before focusing on the bass line; each step should inform the next. That said, some students who are still struggling to correctly implement the Do/Ti Test may find that developing an awareness ot bass motion can help them more accurately perceive harmonies. Our overall goal is that students are able to synthesize multiple perceptual streams such that a convergence ot musical evidence helps them crystallize their harmonic understanding.

In the first semester, we focus on helping students identify' the single, structural bass pitch for each chord, reducing out any ornamental tones. To encourage functional thinking and focusing on skills that are ‘truly aural’ (Chenette, 2018), students use solfege rather than staff notation. In later semesters, students are expected to provide a more detailed account of outer voice motion, but always as an addition to their harmonic hearing, not as the basis for their harmonic perception.

Self-Reflection Journals

Recent research in metacognition, spaced practice, and interleaving (see Ferenc, 2017; Callahan, 2019; Agarwal and Bain, 2019) shows that asking students to complete short self-reflection assignments can be a valuable way of encouraging regular practice outside of the classroom. For these assignments, we often present students with prompts (see Example 21.4) that encourage them to focus on the process of what they are doing and to assess their own progress. Students need not even be asked to report the ‘answers’ that they found, since the intention is to help them practice and engage in self-reflection.

This type of exercise might be used two to three times throughout the semester, or it could be used as a weekly practice journal. Depending on the instructor’s goals, students could be asked to submit their analysis along with a recording of their selected piece so that the instructor can provide more detailed feedback. In order to make the grading workload more manageable for this option, the instructor could also present students with a curated list ot examples from a variety of genres and repertoires.

Example prompt #1

Think about a time this past week outside of class when you sang guide tones (GTs) along with music. If you have not done this, select a piece of music from a repertoire of your choosing that you have listened to recently and try to sing the GT line.

  • • What picce(s) did you work with?
  • • Describe your experience of singing or audiating GTs along with this piece. What things went well and what things could have gone better?

Example prompt #2

For many people not used to this approach, singing and hearing guide tones (GTs) along with the music creates a very different experience.

  • • Briefly compare focusing and listening for GTs with how you normally listen to music.
  • • How does it feel to sing GTs along with a piece?

Example 21.4 Prompts for self-reflection journal entries.

Source: Authors.

This out-of-class work also allows students to learn by using tools that might not otherwise be readily available in a classroom setting. For instance, students could be asked to use a piano to play along with a recording so that they can hear and feel the chord changes more clearly. Students could submit a video or audio recording of this type ot work, rather than simply a written summary ot their results. Instrumentalists could also use their own instruments; vocalists will often benefit from keyboard work to give them an absolute pitch referent. Although instructors might not wish students to be reliant on these tools in the long run, they can serve as a useful learning mechanism since students can be certain of whether or not they have come to the correct answer(s).

Instructor Resources

Finding good examples for use in class can be a challenge, even for instructors well versed in popular genres. Fortunately, there are many resources to aid in finding appropriate examples.

Harmonic Progression Databases

Having a musical database organized by chord progression would be an ideal resource for instructors to rely on when looking for examples to bring into class. Though the repertoire is not the most current, Everett (2009) includes a particularly good list of pieces organized by chord progression (including more unusual and chromatic progressions).

A resource that we use extensively is, a free crowd-sourced site featuring transcriptions ot thousands of songs. Some songs feature only a single section (such as a chorus), while others have more-or-less complete transcriptions, separated into various formal sections (chorus, bridge, verse, etc.). Hooktheory is particularly useful since it allows users to search by using Roman numeral/figured bass notation and presents lists of songs that contain a particular progression. This allows users to quickly find songs with a particular harmonic vocabulary and to easily eliminate songs with progressions that are too advanced. Most songs are also linked to YouTube recordings, allowing users to listen to the relevant portion ot the song while viewing the transcription and also providing immediate access to full recordings of the songs (which can then be used in class).

Since the analyses on are crowd-sourced, the repertoire available is dependent on the users ot the site and the accuracy ot the transcriptions is also not guaranteed. In our experience, most transcriptions tend to be reasonably accurate and will serve as a good starting place when searching for examples; examples should be caretully evaluated before being used (and if a poor transcription is found, then of course one could submit corrections).

As technology becomes increasingly present in aural skills instruction, we anticipate that there will be more resources developed tor training students’ harmonic hearing skills through real examples. 10 We have also found that listening to short snippets of the current hits on one of the Billboard charts will inevitably yield a piece that is appropriate to bring into class. Bringing in such excerpts will usually cause a palpable increase of excitement and enthusiasm. Students really enjoy hearing current hits in their classes, and this offers ample opportunity tor reinforcement of using the GT approach when they hear the piece again outside ot class.


Learning happens as people move in and across the practices of everyday life . . . [and] apply all sorts of learning as they navigate new situations and problems.

- How People Leant II, 137

Beginning with a decision to place habits of active listening, aural understanding, and creative responses to sound at the center of our aural skills classes, we have attempted to bend our instructional approach to equip students with the skills that they need to learn and apply the practice ot harmonic hearing. The habits and strategies that we develop in this first semester form a strong foundation of skills that can serve students well beyond the end ot an aural skills sequence. With this foundation in place, future courses can expand the vocabulary of familiar harmonies or even focus on large-scale tonal shifts, such as developing a repertoire of guide-tone schemas that help one hear through different modulations.

By bending our activities to include only real music for harmonic hearing, we have helped to dismantle the conceptual barriers that students often place between their habits inside and outside of the classroom. Since students are able to successfully engage with real pieces from their first semester, they are also able to build confidence in their own skills and in their ability' to develop new habits and modes ot hearing. Most importantly our students have found that engaging music through active listening and harmonic hearing empowers them with listening strategies that they can apply when encountering ‘new situations and problems’ while listening to and performing music.


  • 1. In the first semester, we typically use a broad range of pieces drawn from popular repertoires (cf., for example, Osborn (2018), Rosenberg (2014), Malawey (2012), Collaros (2000), and Harrington [1991]), including pieces from different cultures that are not sung in English. We also include excerpts from classical and romantic works to show students the broad spectrum of applicability.
  • 2. For the remainder of this chapter, we use moveable-Do and Do-based minor solmization. This approach could be easily adapted to other solmization systems, including fixed-Do, Lu-based minor, or scale-degree numbers.
  • 3. Temperley and Marvin (2008) provide an overview of the cognitive literature on tonic inference and discuss how this activity can be difficult for listeners. See also Anta (2015).
  • 4. Similar challenges can be found in classical repertoire, such as modal ambiguity at the beginning of Beethovens Symphony No. 9, Op. 125. Karpinski (2017) references some good examples of modal ambiguity in his discussion of tonic inference (i.e., Wagners Overture to The Flying Dutchman and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles).
  • 5. The ii chord, with its guide tone Re, is introduced later in the semester.
  • 6. Alternatively, instructors could ask students to assume 77 and indicate Те by the addition of a flat sign, downward arrow, or simply writing ‘Те’ next to the notehead.
  • 7. In the past, we have used NoteFlight and EarMaster to facilitate this out-of-class work. We have opted to use these tools only for the purpose of formative self-assessment and practice, but they could be used for summative assessments.
  • 8. See, for example, Temperley (2007) for a discussion of the ‘melodic-harmonic divorce’ in rock music.
  • 9. The published transcription of this introduction is notated in four measures instead of eight (see Paisley, 2008). We have notated the example as we originally heard the beat, which has the advantage of presenting one harmony per measure, similar to other songs used in class. Due to sonic complexities introduced through the mixing process, we are divided over the presence of the D6 in m. 6 of the electric guitar solo, which is present in the published sheet music.
  • 10. One example of this kind of resource is Applied Harmony (, currently in beta testing. The site features a database of pop songs and gives a multiple-choice set of harmonic progressions.


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