This essay shares a project that is designed to connect first-year ear-training coursework to the functional use of aural skills beyond traditional classroom limitations. In particular, we focus on a second-semester capstone project that utilizes transcription, transposition, composition, and primary-instrument performance of popular music songs using multi-track recording software. In addition to reinforcing the knowledge and skills of the curriculum, this capstone increases student engagement, gives students ownership of their own skill development, and allows them to experience a broader application of their acquired skills. To this project we bring experience and expertise in both music theory and music education: David designed the curriculum and taught the course, while Robin consulted on educational principles and research in music and human learning. After a brief discussion of the concept of transfer and its relevance to the ear training classroom, we examine the details of the capstone, consider some of its challenges, and share examples of student work.

Teaching Aural Skills for Transfer

The traditional aural skills classroom focuses on the development of audiation by means of common-practice repertoire using three central activities: dictation (students notate an unfamiliar melody played on the piano), prepared singing (students sing a notated melody with preparation time, often aided by piano) and sight singing (students sing an unfamiliar notated melody). The concepts addressed within the traditional curriculum become more challenging throughout the course of instruction, but the narrow scope of both style and activity may prevent the application of the student's knowledge and skills to environments outside of the academic classroom. Although we envision our students using aural skills in the practice room, rehearsal hall, or while recreationally listening to music, our students often struggle to connect what they learn in their coursework to these "real-world" applications (Clague et al. 2009).

We can reframe our approach to pedagogy by using the concept of transfer to deemphasize what the learner is explicitly taught, in terms of isolated facts and principles, and prioritize the learner's ability to successfully utilize the information and skills under new conditions. Originating as early as the beginning of the 20th century in the field of learning psychology (see Barnett and Ceci 2002), the concept of transfer references the generalization and application of required knowledge and skills to situations other than those in which the knowledge and skills were originally learned (Duke 2005).

More specifically, learning can be applied in retrieval contexts that are similar to or different from the original environment – these are commonly referred to as near and far transfer. Near transfer occurs when students apply their knowledge or skills in a similar context to what they have previously encountered (e.g., identifying tonic in a Schubert Lied after having practiced hearing tonic in a Mozart aria). Far transfer, on the other hand, occurs when students apply their knowledge in a different context than what they have previously learned (e.g., transcribing a vocal melody from a Beatles song after an in-class dictation of a Beethoven piano melody). Duke (2005) explains that near transfer easily occurs because similarities between learning and retrieval contexts will result in similar applications of skills in the new environment. Far transfer is much more difficult to achieve. If the retrieval context is too different, students are far less likely to be able to transfer their knowledge without intermediate steps and intentional teacher planning.

Many traditional aural skills curriculums are successful at teaching near transfer because of the contextual similarities between learning, application, and assessment of the central activities listed above, but the reason students often struggle to connect their learning to musical experiences outside the classroom is due to the lack of similarities between learning and retrieval contexts, which results in a lack of far transfer. The dimensions of transfer, as categorized by Barnett and Ceci (2002), provide a concrete taxonomy and continuum by which we can optimally tailor our teaching with the goal of far transfer. These dimensions include knowledge domains (from common-practice music to other genres), functional context (from academic goals to personal enjoyment), timing (from short-term learning and retrieval to lifetime application), physical context (from the classroom to the practice room, rehearsal hall, or even singing along to the radio in the car), and modality (from dictation and singing to listening, composing, and playing an instrument). Including these varied contexts in our classroom activities can increase the likelihood of far transfer occurring. (See Chenette 2020 in this volume for further discussion of varied contexts and extended curriculum goals in aural skills instruction.)

Incorporating popular music repertoire is a strategy to facilitate far transfer in many of the dimensions listed above. Most students in our classes are preparing for careers in classical music, but they do listen to and interact with popular music genres in their social lives. The analytical skills students learn in the classroom often fail to bridge the gap between these disassociated musical worlds (see de Clercq 2020 in this volume and Tobias 2015). Extending aural skills to the realm of popular music not only promotes the application of knowledge in a new context, but also transfers the skills to different cultural domains (Tobias 2014). Students engage with popular music through recordings instead of notation (Moore 2012) and participate in listening and sharing activities on digital platforms. As we discuss later, applications like Acapella provide ways to perform and share arrangements of popular music; this participatory and culturally relevant practice offers opportunities for us to bring popular culture into our classroom setting and broaden the contexts in which our students apply their knowledge and skills.

Here we offer one strategy to immediately incorporate transfer-based learning into a first-year aural skills curriculum.

Capstone Project Overview

Our first-year ear training course at The University of Texas at Austin's Butler School of Music is designed to balance the acquisition of aural skills with their application. The instructional calendar is organized around Karpinksi's Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing and adapted from the author's suggestions for pacing and ordering. Ear training classes meet two days a week for fifty minutes, alternating days with a written theory course. In addition to a standard dictation and sight-singing curriculum, students demonstrate their accumulated knowledge and skills by completing a capstone project that consists of several tasks and assignments. To promote far transfer, these tasks utilize students' primary instruments, varied activities that develop skills in multiple domains, and popular music (here, mostly limited to commercial pop and rock genres). The first-semester capstone focuses on the melodic/horizontal dimension of music. The second-semester capstone builds upon this framework and shifts focus to the vertical/harmonic dimension, accounting for the introduction of bass line and harmonic dictation and all the diatonic harmonies. While the discussion that follows focuses on the implementation of the second-semester capstone, many of the ideas can also be applied to components of the first project.

Second-Semester Project Details and Instructional Considerations

  1. Student Choice: select an excerpt from a popular-music song
    • Student selections should be limited to the concepts covered in the class: melodies with limited chromaticism, major or minor modes, and harmony restricted to only diatonic chords. A Spotify playlist is provided to give students viable options, but they are encouraged to choose a selection that reflects their own musical interests and tastes. Student choice and autonomy can generate higher levels of task value and intrinsic motivation (Ryan and Deci 2000).
    • Some student selections may involve musical elements that are more advanced than what is covered during the semester, which may offer an opportunity for students to explore new concepts with instructor oversight – such as using a vii°7 in this student's project or writing a second inner voice part to account for extended harmonies in this student's project.
    • While this project engages with the idea of far transfer from common-practice knowledge to popular music, its design can be duplicated with other repertoires, including folk, jazz, or world music. Near transfer could be achieved using this model with common-practice or even some forms of post-tonal music.
  2. Transcription: transcribe the melody and bass line; identify the chords used in the harmonic progression
    • Students must be able to differentiate between the harmonic progressions of common-practice music (see the phrase model from Laitz 2015), popular music that "conforms" to common-practice conventions (Everett 2004), and songs that alter this conventional grammar and syntax (Nobile 2016). Spending class time comparing students' chord progressions to both classical models and cyclical popular progressions (e.g. I-V-vi-IV) will prevent students from conflating the different harmonic practices and making a counterproductive negative transfer.
  3. Composition: compose a complementary and contextually appropriate inner voice; add to previous transcription
    • Writing an inner voice offers an opportunity for students to compare the principles of voice-leading and chord construction from their written theory class to the contextually appropriate style of their chosen subgenre, i.e., students should transfer knowledge both from the theory classroom to the ear training classroom and from common-practice rules to popular-music conventions. Class time should be used to explore strategies for composing an effective inner voice, including homorhythmic accompaniment of the melody, third- or sixth-based harmonizations of the bass line, or a fully independent countermelody.
  4. Perform and Record: use multi-track software to record 1) singing all three parts on solfege, and 2) playing all three parts on primary instrument; transpose the transcription as necessary for each context
    • Decisions about transposition require an awareness of one's own comfortable playing and singing ranges. Students should not be assigned keys by the instructor, but should instead be given time to experiment under instructor guidance in order to choose the most suitable keys for themselves (Duke 2012).
    • Because the goals of the capstone project require students to sing in harmony and use multi-track recording software, students should be given ample opportunities outside of the capstone setting to practice these skills. This should include singing duos and trios with classmates and preparing recordings of simple two-line assignments early in the semester.
    • An auxiliary goal of this project is to strengthen students' 21st century media and technology skills. We recommend that students use the Acapella app (iTunes or Google Play) for its accessibility and user-friendliness. Other software options include Audacity, GarageBand, or ProTools. Potential technology issues may be mitigated through in-class demonstrations or preparatory assignments early in the semester.
  5. Self Evaluation: complete self-evaluation form to assess performance quality and reflect on overall experience
    • An in-depth self assessment that develops metacognition and self-regulation skills (Zimmerman 2000) is a vital component of this project. It requires that students listen back to their own recordings and apply critical listening and error detection skills in order to critique their performance. It also gives the instructor a window into each student's perception of their own skill development, potentially leading to further conversations about goal setting, practice strategies, or additional support.

Here are two complete projects (1) (2) that contain the written transcription, vocal recording, and instrumental recording, as well as some additional delightful and/or creative videos: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7).

Final Thoughts

Our intent throughout this essay has been to acknowledge the additional effort and planning necessary throughout the semester (or perhaps the year, if you take into account the first-semester capstone) to effectively facilitate far transfer in student learning. Properly teaching for transfer does require more work for the instructor, and simply including this project in the curriculum without adapting one's teaching habits and mindset may not result in the same type of student work we have shared here. The design of this capstone necessitates small-scale preparatory activities (detailed in the previous section), frequent feedback, and mastery-based grading in order to ensure that students do not progress to further steps until they have mastered each previous one (see Michaelsen 2020 in this volume). Students' final products will be of much higher quality, and their learning will be deeper, if skill development is closely monitored throughout the semester. This additional work is worthwhile, as evidenced by excerpts from students' self-evaluations. These comments reflect increased student engagement, satisfaction with their effort, development of self-awareness, and recognition of the diverse utility of their acquired skills.

The capstone project presented here is merely one way of implementing transfer-based principles into the aural skills classroom. It is our hope that the central tenets of the project – in particular, the wide variety of musical activities and application of skills to popular music – may motivate other ear-training instructors to adapt these ideas according to their own pedagogical needs and repertoires. Ultimately, our most important goal as educators should be to prepare our students for a lifetime of successful music making. Instead of assuming or hoping that students will apply what they learn in the ear training classroom to their own professional and personal musical lives, we must set clear long-term goals to plan for transfer (Jellison 2015) based on the ideal ways we envision aural skills being applied in far-transfer contexts. How can aural skills enhance what our students do on their primary instruments in individual practice, applied lessons, and ensemble rehearsals? How do professional musicians use aural skills in real-world situations (including performing, teaching, composing, etc.)? How do students interact with popular music culture differently than the genres of music they learn about in their coursework? Considering the broad spectrum of possibilities for transfer, how else can we design classroom activities to prepare our students for these seemingly unlimited contexts? Keeping our sights set on answering these questions ensures that our efforts in the short-term are not in vain.


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