Practica Musica 3.0.3, Listen 2.2, MacGamut Melodic Dictation 1.0 and MacGamut Intervals, Scales, and Chords 2.0.
With the aid of computer assisted instruction (CAI) in ear training, academic programs are no longer bound by limitations in human resources. As criteria of flexibility and interaction are refined, students are increasingly able to perform for themselves exercises that can be tailored to address specific handicaps, and to receive accurate and detailed feedback on their personal progress. The result is a significant reduction in the absolute need for human interaction. If the latest crop of ear training software is any indicator, it is conceivable that human interaction, except for guidance and supervision, may eventually become superfluous, at least for everything but the most advanced applications.
Practica Musica may be the most comprehensive software currently available, at least for academic, i.e., institutional, purposes, Ars Nova is well aware of the need to track individual student progress, and has come up with a variety of flexible solutions. A single copy can be personalized for up to four people, which is beneficial for home use or for very small classes. For larger classes the number of student users may be expanded through the use of Student Files, for institutions with only one computer, or portable Student Disks, which are particularly useful if students need to be able to use any available computer. Using either of these options, a Progress Report tracks individual progress through four levels of achievement, and keeps a running count of the points gained in each level. Passwords are available for the protection of personal files (Student File Password) and instructor options (Practica Musica Password); the latter also protects any custom melodies from being opened for editing. With or without the password option, students may see their own report at any time, and instructors may view anyone's report.
Like most available ear training software, Practica Musica is MIDI compatible. (Unfortunately, while it will play back anything to a MIDI sound source, it allows for MIDI entry of pitch only. Rhythms must be added via the mouse or computer keyboard.) A "MIDI Settings" window offers a number of choices for users who are well-versed in using a MIDI instrument. Significantly, however, even with its myriad MIDI options, Practica Musica's programmers have not ignored the need for better internal sound production. The use of finely honed sampled sounds for piano, guitar, and voice has greatly improved the lot for those users without MIDI capability (though a MIDI sound source is still the best option whenever possible).
At startup Practica Musica displays a piano keyboard (or optionally a guitar fret-board) and a single staff. Access to exercises and options is through a series of windows and pull-down menus, a format pleasantly familiar to Macintosh users. Entering notes may be done on the staff, keyboard, or fretboard with the mouse, computer keys, or MIDI instrument keys. A "harmony" setting determines whether notes will stick on the staff as they are entered (up to a maximum of four notes), or will disappear when the key/mouse is released. In "practice mode" Practica Musica will identify any intervals or standard three- or four-note chords played, an application that could prove both entertaining and instructional for students.
Practica Musica labels all exercises "Activities;" students can easily select the activity and the level of play (1 through 4) through a pull-down menu. In the menu, each level is accompanied by a description of included materials, a thoughtful addition that removes the necessity to search through the manual for guidelines. All activities include two features that are extremely helpful to students: staff notation of errors (in addition to the keyboard representation), and a "Play My Version" option that audibly compares the student's answer to the original. Further, exercises composed by Practica Musica are always "fresh," that is, created and ordered randomly, so instructors need never worry about possible repetition of examples.
Activities for ear training include: pitch matching, rhythm matching, interval ear training, chord ear training, and melodic dictation, which includes both pitch and rhythm. The matching exercises require the student to match pitches (intervallically) and rhythms performed by the computer. The dictation exercises are similar to traditional melodic dictation and are divided into three separate activities: pitch only (rhythm is given), rhythm only (pitch is given), and both together. The student has the option of working with "library" melodies, written by the instructor, or with new melodies generated by Practica Musica.
All other activities are multiple choice, with the number of choices available increasing as the level increases. Certain important aspects of these multiple choice exercises are completely out of the instructor's control, which is an unfortunate oversight in what is otherwise a fairly well-rounded program. Intervals are always given both melodically and harmonically, and there is no instructor option to change this. Similarly, in the chord ear training exercise an option bar allowing for arpeggiation of the chord is always present. Additionally, chords are always given in close position and, though inversions do occur in the exercises, the correct inversion is never asked as part of the multiple choice question. Another quirk in this particular exercise is the inclusion of both the German augmented sixth chord and a "doubly augmented sixth" chord (a.k.a. the doubly augmented fourth in traditional theory). Practica Musica's programmers seem to be confused as to the fact that the difference between these two chords is purely theoretical and they sound identical. Yet one or the other can be marked incorrect by the computer, leaving students with a plummeting score that can be salvaged only by a correct guess.
In spite of these oversights, Ars Nova has improved many of the traditional functions of this software in its version 3, and has included some surprising innovations. Customizing potential for the student is greatly expanded through a "Customized Practice" level available in every activity. This option allows the student to choose the precise materials to be covered in any given exercise, including such parameters as interval quality, pitch set (scale or mode), ascending or descending motion, chord quality, inversion type, rhythmic difficulty, range, conjunct or disjunct melodic movement, and overall length of the exercise. Customizing options have increased for the instructor as well. With the purchase of an additional Ars Nova product, Songworks, instructors can have more control over the creation of custom melodies, and can replace the curriculum for any activity.
Perhaps the greatest advancements, however, are the availability of input via voice or acoustic instrument, and the inclusion of harmonic progression exercises. Acoustic input is achieved through Practica Musica's compatibility with Wildcat Canyon Software's Autoscore, which was not available for testing. Even lacking the ability to comment precisely on how efficiently this combination works, the idea is quite intriguing.
Harmonic progression, i.e., dictation of standard practice progressions in four-part voicing, has been conspicuously missing from ear training software up to this point (except for minor applications of two or three chords). It is finally realized in the Practica Musica "Chord Progression Ear Training" activity. In this activity, a series of chords is performed by the computer, and the listener is asked to identify the chords in the progression from a multiple-choice list. Though inverted voicings exist in the examples, the correct answer, again, does not require the inversion, but simply the functional Roman numeral analysis for each chord. If the wrong chord is chosen, Practica Musica attempts to voice the wrong chord in a way that closely resembles the correct chord on playback, a feature that can be of great assistance to students in hearing precisely which aspect of a chord they are hearing incorrectly. One feature that may or may not be helpful, depending on instructor preference, is student control of listenings. Students may choose to listen to the whole progression or any part thereof, including single chords. This option can, of course, significantly reduce the difficulty of the exercise and, possibly, its effectiveness. Another possible problem exists in the custom level, in which choices are limited to twelve "pairs" of chords chosen from a list of standard and not-so-standard harmonic functions. Practica Musica voices chords to avoid parallels and other partwriting errors whenever possible, but the flexibility of the custom level can create some unconventional progressions, voicings, and voice leading. However, as correctly pointed out in the manual, this is not necessarily a problem in the strict pursuit of improved aural skills; nevertheless, it may be confusing to budding theoretical minds.
Overall, this is an excellent program perfectly suited to most academic settings. The long-awaited chord progression feature, to be truly representative of classroom study, will need eventual revision to include open spacing of chords, standard cadence patterns, and more advanced chromatic harmony, The multiple-choice format will also need to be replaced by one that can support more specific answers, including pertinent inversions. Nevertheless, Practica Musica is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, and one that places Ars Nova a step ahead of the CAI pack.
Upon launching the program and attempting to assimilate the eighty-page-plus manual for Listen (an unusually lengthy and daunting manual for software in this category), it is apparent that flexibility has been the overriding concern of Listen's creators. Though Imaja bills this product as "ear training software," the program's own subtitle, Exploring Musicianship, hints at greater aspirations. It is, in fact, quite comprehensive in its attention to aspects of both theory and aural skills, and is easily customized to the individual. It is also unwieldy, complicated, and, at times, confusing. The very same options that make this program eminently flexible give it a pronounced learning curve and render it unsuitable for most academic settings.
Imaja readily admits that they did not intend that Listen be appropriate for group education, but rather for personal use. As such, there is no feature that monitors individual progress for more than one user (though it is already on the table for future versions), nor are there any instructor-only options for guiding basic curricula. There are available "Lab Packs" for five or ten users, and Imaja will create a custom Lab Pack for labs with more than ten Macintosh computers, but these are essentially bulk-purchase discounts. Until it is possible to adapt the program for group use and to limit its plethora of choices by instructor preferences, Listen remains imperfectly suited to the institutional environment.
This stated, Listen still has much to recommend it. Listen is MIDI compatible, has "Balloon Help" for System 7, and uses sampled sounds for the internal Macintosh synthesizer. Though use of the program without at least a cursory perusal of the manual seems impossible, the manual is very thorough. Included are an appendix of musical examples for help with theoretical questions, a glossary of both musical and computer terminology, a bibliography of recommended supplemental music texts, tips for first steps or for improving skills, and suggestions for exercises suitable to skill level.
Listen opens with the presentation of three windows: the Piano, Guitar, and Progress windows. The Piano and Guitar windows are for entering answers to the exercises. In addition, they display the starting pitch to any given exercise, highlight in real time those pitches entered by the user, and highlight correct pitches when displaying answers. The Progress window displays the score for the current exercise, as well as a running tab on correct and incorrect answers (graphically emphasized by the addition of a bar graph).
Although a Notation window displays the notation of correct answers to the exercises, there is no option for students to enter their answers via staff notation in Listen. Entry of answers must be done in the Piano and Guitar windows, or from a MIDI controller. This procedure is a drawback for those who wish to emphasize traditional ear training dictation, for which answers are usually notated by the student. It does force a certain increase in tonal memory, however, especially in a "Growing Melody" exercise where the user must duplicate performance of a melody of gradually increasing length, and the first part of each subsequent correct answer is the previous melody - which can't be seen. It is possible, of course, for the user to keep a notated record on a sheet of manuscript paper, but this seems unusually tedious.
Melodic and harmonic exercises consist primarily of matching and a few multiple-choice drills. There is no rhythmic dictation, and none of the melodic exercises are coupled with rhythm. While it is possible to change the tempo, all melodies are performed by Listen with a steady pulse. Neither are there any exercises in harmonic dictation. Included is a tuning exercise, using the Macintosh internal sound, which asks the user to bring two pitches into a perfect unison. This feature, perfectly suited to the computer interface, is an excellent idea and a very important nod to professional requisites.
The various parameters of the exercises are enormously flexible, so much so that redundancies occur with certain options. For example, Listen's programmers insist on defining a chord as "two or more notes sounded simultaneously," instead of the standard definition that sets the minimum at three or more simultaneous pitches. An "Arpeggiate Chords" option, therefore, applies to intervals as well as chords, thus creating intervals that are performed melodically rather than harmonically - a sensible option, but one that makes superfluous a "Two-Note Melody" exercise, in which two pitches are performed melodically. Most adjustments, however, effectively serve to create a broad spectrum of customizing options. Skill level can be increased or decreased by changes in the scale (all commonly known scales or modes are available, including synthetic scales), range, length of the example, included inversions, chords, etc. Even a "Sound Starting Pitch" function can be disabled, forcing the listener to develop perfect pitch skills. If the wealth of variables seems unmanageable, the creators have supplied an extremely useful option, "Auto Select Materials," which cycles through the appropriate windows automatically, saving the user inestimable time in searching for the necessary items.
It is difficult not to applaud Listen's unparalleled flexibility, even though it appears to be at the expense of some clarity. Though certain basics are strangely absent, this program will perform some very advanced functions that are scarce in other ear training programs. As such, while it may not be suitable as a primary source of ear training assistance for academic institutions, it may be extremely useful as an adjunct.
The MacGamut ear training program comes compiled as two separate. programs, dividing fundamental exercises in intervals, scales, and chords from exercises in melodic dictation. Like Practica Musica, it is specifically designed for academic applications. Student disks for recording individual progress are available, arid there are specific functions and parameters that can be controlled only by an instructor. Though not strong on flexibility, it covers basic skills quite well, and requires minimal or no instruction in its operation.
MacGamut's simplicity and ease of use are immediately appreciable upon startup. Instructions are clearly outlined in a series of screens that direct the student to each successive step. Though the manuals are well written and can be of help with note entry procedures, it is possible to begin work without reading a word. A "Help" menu that covers everything visible on the screen and all student-accessible functions can be used as well. All notes are entered through a MIDI controller or the Macintosh mouse, and everything can be dragged. In addition, MIDI capability allows entry of both pitch and duration.
The Melodic Dictation program initially presents the student with a choice of eighteen levels, accompanied by descriptions of the materials covered in each. Unlike Practica Musica and Listen, MacGamut's melodies are not newly composed by the computer. Instead there is a library of over one thousand examples organized by level of difficulty. The melodies are randomly selected within a given level; the clef and key are randomly selected from choices set by the instructor.
MacGamut's shining point is instructor control. The instructor may set a number of parameters for the exercises, including the timing for introduction of advanced clefs and keys, the percentage of correct answers needed for mastery of a particular level, the number of times an example may be played, the number of times an answer may be checked, and whether the student may control the tempo. Further options include the ability to assign material to different levels (in effect, change the order of the levels), and whether or not to allow MIDI entry of answers, thus emphasizing playing skills or notating skills. Oddly, melody length is preset to a certain number of "spaces" (notes, regardless of length). There is an "Enter/Edit Melodies" function that allows the instructor to edit existing melodies or write new ones, but these are governed by the same limitation.
In a program this simple, few oversights would be expected. The omission of any sort of click or audible tempo indication seems, therefore, glaringly obvious. It would be difficult for students to determine the pulse of an exercise without first hearing the initial few beats, even with prior knowledge of the tempo. Similarly, many of the melodies are quotes from traditional songs or themes from well-known works. This might have the effect of diluting the effectiveness of the exercises, since tonal memory is facilitated by prior knowledge of the tune.
The Intervals, Scales, and Chords program varies only slightly from the Melodic Dictation program. The greatest variance is found in the nature of the exercises, in that all contained on this second disk are multiple-choice. As in other programs, the number of choices increases with the level of difficulty. Intervals are dictated melodically or harmonically, ascending or descending; scales and modes are dictated ascending or descending; and triads and seventh chords are dictated in root position or inverted, depending on the level of difficulty. Parameters set by the instructor in this program are similar to those in Melodic Dictation, but include the option of a "notation requirement" in addition to the multiple-choice answer, and the choice of blocked or arpeggiated chords, or both.
MacGamut is an easy-to-use, well-conceived program that would be valuable for reinforcing the basics of ear training, though it may be less useful for advanced students. Designed for institutional use, it may be best suited to secondary schools rather than to colleges or universities, due to its lack of advanced materials.
The fairly broad range of features and options currently available in software of this type has brought computer-assisted ear training to a level where most institutions would decidedly benefit from its addition to their curriculum. In fact, institutions have everything to gain and nothing to lose, since the programs are intended, at least for now, merely to supplement conventional coursework. With all of its expanding capabilities, however, certain aspects of computerized ear training still leave something to be desired. Unless connected to a MIDI sound source, sound production quality is simply not yet good enough to be of real help, at least in harmonic applications. (This situation may change as software becomes updated to the new series of Macintosh computers. Practica Musica already comes in a version that is compatible with the PowerMac and the 500 series Powerbooks.) Recommended use of earphones improves the sound very little, and using sampled sounds for the internal Macintosh synthesizer is, in most cases, only slightly better. Most programs include no exercises in recognizing harmonic progressions or standard cadence patterns, and those that do have only scratched the surface of what could be truly beneficial to students. Future programs will need to make this function a priority, in addition to addressing more advanced applications, such as vocal input for sight-singing exercises, and interactive CD-ROM formats for critical listening of repertory.
In spite of these shortcomings, working with computer assistance has only positive aspects for students, including a personalized training focus, immediate evaluation of progress, and the availability of increased practice time. The potential benefits to academic institutions are as numerous as the students who may be helped by their own private, albeit electronic, tutor.
ERICA MUHL University of Southern California
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|Title Annotation:||Software Review; Ear training software|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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