RTRL.69: Effects of Tonal Training on Ear-playing and Sight-reading in Beginning Instrumentalists (Bernhard, 2004)


Bernhard, H. C. (2004). The effects of tonal training on the melodic ear playing and sight reading achievement of beginning wind instrumentalists. Contributions to Music Education, 31(1), 91-107.

What did the researcher want to know?

Does tonal training have an effect on beginning wind instrumentalists’ melodic ear playing and sight reading achievement?

What did the researcher do?

Bernhard taught two groups of sixth-grade beginning band students, twice per week for 10 weeks. At the beginning of the study, students’ tonal aptitude was measure using a subtest of the Musical Aptitude Profile, a published music aptitude test. During the 10 weeks, both groups of students learned melodies from two traditional beginning band method books. The control group learned the melodies using traditional training (learning/identifying symbols in notation and associating them with instrumental fingerings or slide positions), and the experimental group learned the melodies using tonal training (using singing and solfege to develop tonal audiation). When learning each melody, the students in the control group (traditional training) engaged in the following:

  • visually identified pitch letter name of each note
  • visual identified fingering/slide position of each note
  • played the melody by sight/notation on their instruments.

When learning each melody, the students in the experimental group (tonal training) engaged in the following:

  • listened to the researcher/teacher sing the melody on “loo”
  • sang the melody on “loo”
  • listed to the researcher sing the melody with solfege
  • sang the melody with solfege
  • played the melody by ear on their instruments
  • played the melody by sight/notation.

At the end of the 10-week instruction period, Bernhard tested each student on their melodic ear playing and sight reading achievement using two established assessments (the Measurement of the Ability to Play by Ear and the Melodic Sight Reading Achievement Test). The ear-playing assessment required students to listen to and play four-beat ascending melodic patterns, and the sight-reading assessment required students to look at and play short melodic patterns. The audio-recorded performances were scored by two independent adjudicators. Bernhard used statistical analysis (multivariate analysis of covariance, or MANCOVA) to examine whether students’ ear-playing or sight-reading varied depending on the type of training received, as well as whether tonal aptitude had any effect.

What did the researcher find?

Students who learned using tonal training (singing/solfege) scored significantly  higher on the test of ear-playing than students who learned using traditional training (letter names). There was no significant difference between the two groups on the sight-reading test. Additionally, students with higher tonal aptitude performed significantly better on both the ear-playing and sight-reading tests than did students with lower aptitude.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Although some may consider the ability to play by ear a special “talent,” the results of this study suggest that anyone’s ability to play by ear can be strengthened through instruction that emphasizes tonal audiation. Instrumental teachers might consider incorporating singing and solfege into their lessons, as well as teaching students to play melodies by ear/rote.

It is possible that Bernhard did not find a significant difference in sight-reading ability due to either the short length of the study (10 weeks) or the type of tonal instruction (singing melodies). Azzara (1993) conducted a longer study (27 weeks) of beginning instrumentalists that also involved singing/chanting/playing tonal patterns and rhythm patterns with solfege/syllables as well as improvising, and he found that students’ performance of both prepared and sight-read etudes was significantly higher among students who experienced ear-based pattern instruction with syllables and improvisation compared to students who did not receive such instruction. In addition to singing/playing melodies by ear, instrumental teachers might consider incorporating tonal pattern and rhythm pattern instruction with syllables into their teaching as well as improvisation.

RTRL.37: Ear Playing and Aural Development in Instrumental Music (Baker & Green, 2013)


Baker, D., & Green, L. (2013). Ear playing and aural development in the instrumental lesson: Results from a ‘case-control’ experiment. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(2), 141-159.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does experience with playing an instrument by ear help students’ aural skill development?

What did the researchers do?

Baker and Green examined 32 instrumental students (ages 10-14 years) taught by four teachers. Sixteen of the students experienced ear playing strategies, and the other 16 learned only from notation. Before the instruction period began, each student was given a test in which they were asked to listen to a recording of a short melody twice and then play it back on their instrument (without notation). Then, for a period of 7-10 weeks, half of the students experienced instruction that incorporated ear playing strategies. These included playing along with a recorded pop-funk bass riff by ear, playing a classical piece by ear, and choosing a piece in any style to learn by ear. After the instructional period, all students were tested again. Each student test performance recording was rated in terms of pitch accuracy, contour accuracy, rhythmic accuracy, tempo accuracy, and closure (stopping before or continuing until the end).

What did the researchers find?

Analysis revealed that the students who had experienced instruction that included ear playing strategies achieved greater gains than students who had not.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Playing by ear is a skill that can be learned. Providing students experiences with playing instruments by ear will improve their ability to do so!


For more information on helping students develop their ear playing skills, see the book Hear, Listen, Play! How to Free Your Students’ Aural, Improvisation, and Performance Skills by Lucy Green.

For more information on informal music learning, see this post, which summarizes a study by Dr. Julie Derges Kastner and includes ideas for application and links to resources.