02 October 2007

Atonal Ear Training

When I work with my students on intervals, I use the "atonal" system where you count the number of half steps rather than the traditional "tonal" system. In other words, a major third would be a 4, a perfect fifth would be a 7, etc. What I want to know is if anyone else has experience using this system with raw beginners. Purely out of habit, I tend to start with 1's and 2's (major and minor seconds), then add 3's and 4's (major and minor thirds) and so on, hence still kind of following the tonal system even though the terminology is different. Has anyone tried starting with 0's and 12's (unisons and octaves), then 1's and 11's (minor seconds and major sevenths), then 2's and 10's (major seconds and minor sevenths), and so on? I'm wondering whether it might not make more sense to proceed this way, by pairing intervals that are inversions of each other and hence sound more alike. Has anyone tried this?


Scott Spiegelberg said...

Sounds like Samuel Adler's Sight Singing book. I've never tried it with beginners, only with college juniors. It didn't go well, and I haven't used it since I left grad school. The Adler system goes through intervals by size, from seconds to thirds to fourths, etc.

Stefan Kac said...

I first encountered the system in a 20th Century Theory class I took in college. I don't know if our professor was inspired by that book; we didn't use it, and I've never heard of it before, so I'm glad you mentioned it. I'll have to take a look at it. He was (in my estimation) very easy on us in that class as far as the sight singing component was concerned (not that I minded).

One of the things I've hypothesized is that this system is harder only insofar as we are all so much more familiar with the more widely used "tonal" system. In my albeit limited experience, I've found that at least when it comes to written theory, my students find the tonal system to be much more difficult. I think that's because there's more than a little bit of ambiguity and inconsistency in this system: for example, a third plus a third equals a fifth, not a sixth; all of the intervals that are shared by parallel major and minor scales are called perfect intervals (the unison, fourth, fifth and octave) except for the second, which is major or minor, which means that a minor scale starts with a major second interval; and intervals that sound the same can have different names depending on how they're written.

I know it's not worth getting worked up over something that's so firmly entrenched, like inconsistencies in jazz chord symbols, transposing parts, etc. etc. I actually think that learning to simply count half steps first might make things easier in the long run, but that is very much unproven at this point.

Kristi said...

There's also some programs out there for working on atonal ear training, such as:


It does not beat spending time sitting at a piano, but it's a nice activity to include in the mix.