Melodic Orientation vs. Dictation

Melodic Dictation

If ear training textbooks with CDs and various online musical trainers fairly represent standard practice, “traditional” melodic dictation is typically a four-bar exercise in which a starting pitch is given, a count-off is sounded, and a series of notes that resemble a melody is played on piano. I have some problems with this…

  1. If there is no accompaniment,  students miss out on a valuable asset for orienting metrically and tonality. How many melodic dictations have I seen that get “off” by a beat or are consistently a step (or two, or three) too high after a leap is missed?
  2. The best students are bored silly waiting for the rest of the class to finish.
  3. The most challenged students struggle with the first notes and never get to the end; they are discouraged seeing the top students wait and are likely hampered by the pressure of holding up the class.
  4. Dictation takes a long time and leaves little opportunity for giving/getting feedback. Even when I walk around looking over students’ shoulders, it’s hard to guide students without revealing details to others nearby.
  5. Little mistakes (a skipped beat, a missed leap, a chromatic step written as a diatonic step) can cause big trouble and a lot of wasted time.
  6. Dictation doesn’t build some basic skills (most important among them, I think, being how to orient tonally without being given a tonic or starting pitch).

Melodic Dictation Orientation

My favorite type of dictation activity turns many of these problems on their head. I call these elegant little exercises melodic orientations, and they look like this:

Notate the first eight tones of this melody, adding all necessary information for notation. The key signature has four sharps.staves

Then I play an audio clip, like this:

Students freak out the first time I ask them to do this; they don’t know where to begin. So we discuss it: what do they need to do to write down these paltry eight notes? They need to…

  • …choose an appropriate  clef. Treble will do fine.
  • …determine the meter and choose a good time signature. If they like 3/4, then great. If they feel 6/8 better represents the meter, that’s OK, too. This exercise doesn’t teach them to recognize that it is a minuet and that 3/4 is more appropriate.
  • …determine the mode – is it E major or C-sharp minor? They also need to write the symbols in the correct order: clef, then key signature, then time signature.
  • orient tonally, locate a tonic pitch, and determine the scale-degree of the first pitch, and figure out what pitch-class it should be. Kudos to the student for choosing the right octave, but that is just gravy as far as I’m concerned.
  • …observe that the music starts with an anacrusis and choose a note-value for it.
  • write the next seven tones of the melody, making sure that the pitches are correct and the note values are proportional to the first and right for the meter.

I will typically play the full clip twice to allow students to “feel the rhythm” and choose a good time signature. Then I play the tones they need to write down twice, asking students to memorize the pattern and sometimes to sing it back using a neutral syllable like “la.”

Students never freak out again now that they know the drill. It’s a fun activity that lets students make a lot of decisions in a short amount of time. It helps them build “real-world” skills. It lets them miss something (or get something right) and not have to struggle (or wait around) very long before moving on to the next example.

A bonus: literature in aurals class

Here’s something else that’s fun: each of my “orientation worksheets” (I have divided them into sets of 5-8 that fit on a page and can be a good 1/2 class session activity) has a theme that focuses on different musical sources. So far, I’ve made sheets for The Beach Boys, Dvořák, The Beatles, Händel, Haydn, Beethoven, Mancini, songs made famous on YouTube, Canadian folk songs sung by Alan Mills, Gershwin, music performed by Julian Bream, Soul tunes (Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” is a hard one!), and Japanese folk melodies. Students are beginning to volunteer their own (I understand one made from video game themes is on the way), for which I will gladly offer extra credit.

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