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    Aural Skills: AP, enharmonicism, chord recognition

    Dear collective wisdom:

    A student in my first-year Aural Skills course is having much trouble with triad recognition. The student has AP (or very close), and can name the pitches played, from about G3 upwards (the student is a violinist). But a D-flat major triad causes trouble: the student hears C# and F, has trouble decding between G# and Ab, and can't figure out what kind of triad this is. Having established that it's a D-flat major triad, a D major triad is heard as being higher--and the student jumps to the conclusion that it's augmented. This student is very smart, but this line of thinking is clearly problematic. Has anyone encountered this sort of thing? Does anyone have a remedy? Feel free to contact me privately if that seems more appropriate:



    John Snyder, University of Houston

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    • 3 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Hi John -- can the student discriminate between a major and minor scale?  If so, then I would try to force the student to think in scale degrees (no note names, no solfege).  Sing up the scale:  is it 1 - 3 - 5?  Or is it 1 - b3 - 5?  You could have the student respond in scale degree numbers (with no note names at all) for a while.  You might take a look at other ear training strategies in an article I wrote long ago in JMTP: “Absolute Pitch Perception and the Pedagogy of Relative Pitch,” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 21 (2007):  1-34.


      Betsy Marvin, Eastman School of Music

    • Hi John, I agree with Betsy's suggests. The problems you describe also show a lack of fluency with fundamentals of spelling, and improving this could help sort out some of the confusion that interferes with aural recognition. I like piano for this, so the student is spelling, feeling, and hearing at the same time. A page of assorted starting notes (or equivalent online tool) would let your student practice building major triads above any root. It might be better to begin with drill of perfect fifths and major thirds. Of course the piano won’t sort out enharmonics so all of this would just be one component of the student’s work. 

      In case it’s appropriate to speak to the student’s violin teacher, you may be able to find opportunities to promote diatonic thinking and hearing within common violin pedagogy. For example, the Galamian method books include major scales harmonized in parallel thirds (and other consonant intervals), written out, with fingerings. Listening for tuning while staring at the music in the D flat major one might do your student a world of good. 


      Justin Mariner, Schulich School of Music, McGill University


      Justin Mariner

      Assistant Professor

      Schulich School of Music

      McGill University

    • Hello John - In the course of teaching aural skills, I’ve seen many students with this issue. Betsy Marvin is correct to point out that genuine absolute pitch is different from very good memory of some or most pitches, which you could call instrumental pitch. Those with absolute pitch know the notes with certainty instantly, like recognizing that a stop sign is red. Students with good instrumental pitch have learned through repetition a memory of certain pitches, but when asked to think of the relationships between them, as in scale or triad arpeggiation singing or dictation, the mental comparisons required force them off the square of their pitch recollection. The more hierarchical or complex the pitch relations are, the more upsetting this can be to the student, especially those who are emotionally attached to their “perfect” pitch. Certain instrumental students can be prone to this, such as violinists, who often begin with the Suzuki method, involving a lot of imitative learning by ear. Listening for the pitch helps them feel secure about their playing. However, it stops them from imagining the pitch relationships that are essential to understanding the motion in the music. They have to learn to ignore their instrumental pitch and mentally compare groups of notes, which also results in better intonation. This requires working with mental pitch relations, and not clinging to listening to external sounds. Also, you might have to explain gently that they do not have absolute pitch. I’ve found that singing drills from Karpinski’s Manual for Ear Training to be useful for such students.

      Judith Petty, Aural Skills Coordinator, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance