Steinberg's The Ear
Aural Training Software for Atari ST
Can you tell a minor third from a major seventh, or an augmented triad from a diminished triad? - Steinberg have a program to teach you how. Simon Trask lends an ear to a program with a difference.
As a useful alternative to training your ear to distinguish between synthesised and sampled strings you could train it to distinguish a Dorian from a Mixolydian mode.
AMONG THE AVALANCHE of MIDI software which threatens to engulf us nowadays, there's an area which the software houses seem to have forgotten (or perhaps not even considered). You may be able to compose 54-track sequences, put them through a sophisticated algorithmic process and print out the results in music notation. You may be able to edit synth patches and samples with great precision, and juggle patch libraries with great dexterity. You may be able to record your music digitally and cut it up as if razor blades were a thing of the past. And you may be able to record every nuance of a 24-track mixdown and fine-tune it at a later date. These processes are all available as part and parcel of late '80s music-making.
Yet, compared to the above categories of software, there's precious little software which actually educates you in music. Even scorewriting packages tend to assume that you know your quavers from your crotchets.
The potential is there to base music education around its natural medium of sound, rather than around the medium of the printed page. The potential is there to develop a highly interactive approach to music education, with the computer acting as teacher and being able to adjust its teaching to suit your particular strengths and weaknesses.
BY NOW, STEINBERG'S The Ear would probably be cowering in a corner if software could do such a thing. Why? Well, it isn't going to shake the educational world to its foundations, but then it isn't intended to. Well, what do you expect for 50 quid?
As you might guess from its name, The Ear is an aural training program - and I don't mean it teaches you the best way to clean your teeth. For those of you in the dark, aural training involves learning to recognise and name intervals, scales and chords, and, by extension, melodies and chord sequences - by ear. It's a skill which an benefit any musician, yet usually it's taught only as part of an academic music training.
Steinberg's program is very easy to use. You can all but do away with the manual, which is probably a good thing in this case ('nuff said, m'lud). The first thing you must do is click on the OHR.ENG file icon - if you click on OHR.DT, you'll end up with the German language version of the program. When the program loads, you're presented with a "good luck" message.
In true WIMP fashion, you call up windows by clicking on various options found in the pull-down menus. Across the top of the screen are five menu headers: Desk, Intervals, Scales, Chords, Dictation and Options. Steinberg have forgone the STs internal sound chip for playback; instead you'll need to hook up a MIDI keyboard and set it to receive on MIDI channel one (or in Omni on mode). You should also select a clean-pitched sound such as acoustic piano (no sense in making life unnecessarily difficult, is there?). The software will now play musical intervals, scales, chords and melodies on your MIDI instrument, wait for you to choose the right answers (or the wrong ones, as the case may be) and keep a score of the results. Your score for the current exercise and your total score are displayed at all times along the bottom row of the screen.
Clicking on "Info and Quit" (on the Desk menu) pops up a window prompting you to click on "I want to go on" or "I hear pretty good, QUIT!!!". Assuming that you want to go on (after all, you've just shelled out £50 for the privilege), you can advance to the next menu, which is Intervals.
THIS SECTION OF the program provides you with a choice of three tests: Big-small, Successive Notes or Concurrent Notes.
Big-small plays two intervals and expects you to say which is the bigger of the two. You do this by clicking on First Interval, Second Interval or None boxes, at which point the program will highlight the correct box. Click on "Next pair, please" and the program will play you the next pair of intervals.
You also have the option to hear the intervals as many times as you want before making your choice. If you want to make life more difficult for yourself, you can specify in the Preferences window (under the Options menu) the number of repeats allowed before the program marks you down as a failure and progresses to the next pair of intervals. Finally, if you can't take any more, clicking on the "Stop It!!!" box will return you to the main screen (this is a feature of all the exercises).
The other two interval exercises ask you to identify single intervals. The entire range of possible intervals is covered, and in fact if you want to make life more difficult for yourself you can specify that the intervals range over anything from one to six octaves. As with Big-small, you click on the correct box and the program highlights the right answer and clocks up a success or failure on the scorecard appropriately. Again, you can listen to an interval more than once before giving your response.
YOU WANT SCALES? You got 'em. The Ear might not be on a par with Nicholas Slonimsky's famous thesaurus of sales, but it will give you major, harmonic minor, melodic minor and natural minor, together with all the church modes (except, for some reason, the Locrian), Hungarian, chromatic and whole-tone. The clever dicks among you will know that the major sale is the same as the Ionian mode and the natural minor scale is the same as the Aeolian mode. Fortunately, The Ear knows this as well.
The program plays a scale for you (rising and then falling) at a user-definable tempo and then waits for you to click on the correct scale-box. As with the intervals, you can request to hear the sale more than once before committing yourself.
FROM THE CHORDS menu you can select either triads or four- and five-note chords, in both cases with or without inversions. Useful additional features allow you to choose whether or not the lowest note will be accented and/or shifted down an octave - the idea being to make identification of the lowest note easier, particularly for inversions.
"Scales: The Ear might not be on a par with Slonimsky's famous thesaurus, but gives you major, harmonic, melodic and natural minor, church modes, Hungarian, chromatic and whole-tone. "
The triads you get are major, minor, augmented and diminished, while the range of four- and five-note chords is necessarily more extensive but not comprehensive. How do you fancy recognising dominant, major, minor, minor/major and diminished 7ths, major 9ths (with and without the 5th) and a major triad with added 6th!
Chords are really an extension of the intervals exercises, and again the idea is to learn what a particular chord sounds like. As an aid to hearing which notes make up a chord you can ask The Ear to arpeggiate the chord for you.
Once the program has played a chord for you, you must click on the correct box - and yet again you can ask to hear the chord more than once before making up your mind.
THE GOING REALLY gets tough here, because The Ear plays only atonal melodies - in other words, you've got no tonal reference points to work from.
Although the screen presents you with a piano score (which includes a rather unorthodox number of leger lines between the treble and bass staves, incidentally), you can neither place notes on the stave using the mouse nor enter them from a MIDI keyboard. No, you'll have to get out the old pencil and manuscript paper, which seem a bit out of place when every other exercise allows you to tell the program what your answer is. Consequently, the only way The Ear can mark you down as a failure is if you ask to hear the melody more than the specified number of times.
To see if you've got the answer right, you click on the "Look at it!" box and the program writes the melody onto the staves. Incidentally, you're only dealing with pitches here, not rhythms.
Finally, you do get some control over the difficulty of the exercise, through being able to specify the tempo (40-280bpm), the note range (from 7-30 semitones) and the number of notes (8-20).
FROM THE OPTIONS menu you can call up the Preferences window. This allows you to set such parameters as the note range for the exercises, the duration of the notes in the intervals and chords exercises (up to one second), the number of times you can listen to each interval, scale or chord before you're marked down as a failure, and the velocity level for the accented note in each chord.
These parameters, together with others set in the individual exercises, can be saved as a setup file to disk for subsequent recall. Finally, you can display and print out a list of scores for every exercise, and clear the score table when you wish to start afresh.
BEGINNERS BEWARE: THE Ear is not a structured learning program. I can't help feeling that anyone starting from scratch would feel as if they'd been thrown in at the deep end and left to sink or swim. Although you an vary the difficulty of the exercises to a modest extent, I don't think any of the exercises are pitched (so to speak) at a simple enough level for the beginner. For instance, why not have an intervals exercise where all the intervals are played on the same root note? And why not have a tonal melody dictation option?
A rather silly design shortcoming, which seems to run counter to the aims of the program, is that you can't click on intervals, scales or chords and listen to what they sound like. You always have to take them in the (random) order that the software provides them.
But it's certainly not all bad news. Overall The Ear is a good program, with the advantage that it isn't so simple that you'll outgrow it after a short while. What's more, the exercises are valuable for keeping educated ears on their toes (if you see what I mean).
Maybe I'm expecting too much of The Ear, but aural training software could offer much more than Steinberg's program provides.
Price £49.90 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask