Some thoughts on trying to improve understanding of pitch function in tonal music in undergraduate performers. Dr Christopher Atkinson

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Some thoughts on trying to improve understanding of pitch function in tonal music in undergraduate performers.
Dr Christopher Atkinson

Aural Skills Coordinator

Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT, UK

7 April 2017

Part of my job as Coordinator for Aural Skills training at the Royal Academy of Music is curriculum design, particularly for the 200 or so first and second-year undergraduates for whom Aural Skills is a compulsory module, the vast majority of whom are classical performers. It’s therefore the relevance to performance which I need to keep in mind in curriculum design and this paper will address an area which, for me, is at the heart of musical performance.
I believe, in an ideal world, that a performer performs a piece of music that is retained as sound in their head – their musical inner ear – rather than simply, and unmusically, converting symbols on a score into muscle movements. This provides a possible definition of Aural Skills for this purpose as:
Skills necessary to receive, process, organise, understand, and hence fully apprehend, as conceived musical sound, the music we wish to perform.
The bit I want to focus on is understanding, but, as I think we’ll see, all those verbs may end up being more integrated than it may at first appear.
I hear a lot of student performances at the Academy and on the whole the standard is great; they’re technically very polished and could frequently pass as professional. But without wanting to put our students down, as an educator, I should always be looking for ways in which things could be better, and I sometimes feel performances lack some expressive conviction. The underlying feeling is that the performer doesn’t quite know what it is that they’re trying to express – in other words there is a bit of understanding missing.
This chimes very much with my own experience as a performer. I remember, as a clarinet student, performing the Brahms Eb sonata Op.120/2 and, on a particularly long slow phrase, thinking, ‘I don’t know what the purpose or function of this note is; what am I trying to do with it? Should it be growing; or fading? What role does it play within its surroundings?’ And so on.
Functions of notes could mean a variety of things, but in this paper I want to focus on pitch function in tonal music, and propose the probably much debated notion that greater analytical understanding, of the various pitch functions of the various elements of a phrase of tonal music, results in a better idea of how to express that phrase.
Why should this concern us as Aural trainers? (We teach lots of analytical skills to our students here in a strand that runs roughly parallel to our Aural Skills training). Well, it’s because music is of course sound – not a score – and so you might work out a lot of quasi-mathematical relationships between elements on a score, but if you can’t hear it, you can’t fully understand it. It’s a bit like watching a foreign language film but only understanding it by reading the subtitles.
So what evidence do I have that our students don’t hear the music they play with sufficient analytical understanding?
Well, I have talked to many of them about how they determine pitch in sight-singing and melody dictation exercises, but one can also tell from the points where they make mistakes and the kinds of those mistakes, that they are finding pitches overwhelmingly by interval from the previous or possibly other very recent note, rather than by what is often called scale degree, or by relation to tonal and harmonic context. It is of course this latter which would indicate a more sophisticated understanding of pitch function.
Here, for example, is a sight-singing exercise which all the first-year undergraduates (n = 106) did as part of an assessment last year.

Fig. 1 Aural Skills Level 1 Practical Exam March 2016, Q.2
This, by the way, was marked holistically and therefore probably quite unscientifically but the average score was 60.1%. Looking at it, you can see it was deliberately written to start easy and then get gradually harder (while remaining strictly tonal). Using the interval-from-previous-note method, it starts to get tricky in bar 5 and is pretty challenging from 7 to the end. Obviously concerning for me is the observation that, although the final bars are strictly limited to the harmonic pitches of a simple V7-I, these were probably the least well-performed notes.
I am not arguing for thinking about Roman-numeral analysis during performance;

I believe we should just think the sound, but it should be a sound that is conceived after thorough training, practice and preparation that involves understanding, and there is some evidence that the understanding can be there at a deeper level beneath conscious awareness.

This is going to sound a bit esoteric and Zen, but I’ll tell you anyway. I was lucky enough to go and study in Hannover with a clarinet professor called Hans Deinzer, who taught me to conceive the sound I wished to play, in response to which, my body and instrument automatically (after a few thousand hours of practice) produced that sound in all its conceived details – pitch, attack, tuning, dynamic gradation, colour – and with an understanding of its function. It might sound far-fetched, but that is how I experienced it (when I got it right, which was a minority of the time).
A performance is of course a sequence of such conceived sounds or notes, retrieved from memory which includes a greater or lesser understanding of how they all relate to each other. Looking into the psychology, retrieval of any musical component from long-term memory is enabled by finding the right cue. Context is also encoded in the complex web of memory traces, so recognition of melodic or harmonic context of a note may be part of the cuing process. We also process music in ‘chunks’ (Miller 1956) of notes, which may further be grouped into larger chunks, in order not to overload our working memory, which is thought to be able to deal with only around seven items at once (Miller 1956, Baddeley 1986). Also involved are ‘schemas’ (Snyder, in Hallam et al (eds.) 2009) or previously stored melodic configurations or harmonic combinations or progressions, cadences etc. Correlation of groups of notes to schemas facilitates processing them as a chunk (Levitin 2006).

Sensory Memory

Long-term Memory

Working Memory

Environmental stimulus: Music: sound/score




Response: Performance



Chunking, recognition and correlation with schemas

Fig. 2 A Simplified Model of Music Information Processing

(adapted from the Atkinson-Shiffrin model, 1968)
Thus it seems memory encoding and retrieval skills are integrated with recognition skills: interval recognition and recognition by scale-degree or tonal/harmonic function, ie. our understanding. So when we conceive a sound for performance, there can be a great deal of understanding bound up with it.
I’ve already stated a preference for tonal/harmonic function over interval recognition because of what I believe it may contribute to performance, but there are studies which suggest that the sheer process of recognition alone works better where relation to tonal/harmonic context is more developed (Brattico et al, 2001; Potter, 1990; Sloboda et al 1985).
So how do we improve this? Clearly, familiarity with schemas is important, and unfortunately, at the bottom end of the ability range of our students, we do simply have to do a bit of systematic familiarisation, even by rote. Two of my colleagues Thomas Oehler, and Colin Huehns, have devised sets of singing exercises, possibly from slightly different pedagogical standpoints but, learning schemas is essentially the aim.
But how do we specifically promote the processing of elements in melodies etc. in terms of their function within the tonal/harmonic context? We can do dictation-type exercises in which we ask them to write down the functions of what they hear, rather than just the notes. In other words, write down Roman-numeral chord labels in exercises such as this:

Fig. 3 Worksheet used in Aural Skills Level 1 classroom training

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