Saturday afternoon, November 7, 2–2:50 CST

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Gary Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition: Its Influence Twenty Years Post-Publication and Future Directions

Cynthia I. Gonzales (Texas State University), Chair
Daniel Shanahan (The Ohio State University), Respondent

Session Handout

Gary Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition: Listening Skills

Timothy Chenette (Utah State University)

Timothy Chenette teaches aural skills and music theory at Utah State University. His aural skills pedagogy research explores cognitive foundations, innovative methods, and particularly how to teach the elusive skill of identifying chords within a progression. In addition to simply improving instruction, this research is inspired in part by a desire to make music teaching more inclusive, accessible, and creative. His pedagogy and early music research have been published in Journal of Music Theory PedagogyMusic Theory OnlineEarly MusicCollege Music Symposium, and Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy.


In one-line dictation, students must encode a fleeting auditory signal and interpret it in relation to a tonal and metrical context in light of norms of notation; in polyphonic and harmonic dictation, they must additionally parse multiple voices and consider norms of counterpoint, voice leading, and harmony. Addressing such complex tasks, Karpinski’s (2000) greatest contribution to listening skills pedagogy is his emphasis on musicality. Over and over, Karpinski emphasizes the need to present music in realistic conditions, particularly avoiding key and meter cues and “atomistic” strategies such as isolated interval identification; in harmonic dictation, Karpinski urges instructors to avoid relatively unmusical four-part dictation followed by “harmonic looking,” in favor of listening for the bass, intervals above the bass, and voice leading, in service of developing the ideal endpoint of “Gestalt” (holistic) listening.

I will survey how these perspectives have been synthesized in contemporary instruction, as well as how they have been taken in new directions by Urista (2016), Stevens (2017), de Clercq (2014), Sayrs (2019), and Chenette, et al. (2019), among others. In short, the foundation laid by Karpinski is still in place, and most research since ASA’s publication has either developed his ideas in more detail or explored their cognitive foundations. I suggest some of the most promising areas for future study include further investigation into the role of stock patterns and music theoretical knowledge in chord identification, as well as further exploration into the ways instrument-based imagery and physical motion aid in all kinds of dictation.

Gary Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition: Sight Reading

Cynthia I. Gonzales (Texas State University)


In the lengthy ASA chapter titled “Sight Reading,” Karpinski explores the complex network of skills and knowledge required to sight sing successfully, including vocal production, solmization, scales, intonation, visual tracking, metric and rhythmic thinking, harmonic thinking, and structural singing.  This presentation will highlight recent research on two components of music reading: visual tracking and cross-modal competence.

Technological advances in the 21st-century allow increasingly refined studies of eye movement. Puurtinen (2018) reviews 15 studies since Goolsby’s seminal 1994 publications on eye movement while music reading. Ocular motion alternates between fixations and saccades—the eyes mostly stopping to process the visual stimuli and the eyes shifting to the next fixation. Holmqvist, et al., (2015) propose that information is acquired only during fixations. The length of these fixations in milliseconds, as reported by various researchers, range from 200–400 ms to 500–700 ms.

Turcotte & Sala (2018) engaged EyeWorks software to record subjects’ singing and eye movement. Pupil diameter and fixations reveal the cognitive load. Preliminary results suggest that their subjects fixate mostly on the initial measures of a sight singing excerpt.

Related to visual tracking, cross-modal competence reinterprets the familiar aphorism “seeing ears and hearing eyes.” Drai-Zerbib and Baccino (2005, 2012, 2014) confirm that expert music readers’ eye fixations and durations of those fixations are fewer and shorter than less competent musicians. Investigations of multiple modalities (vision, audiation, and motor processes) hold promising outcomes for aural skills instructors to develop and incorporate effective pedagogical methods.

Gary Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition: Cognition of Aural Skills

Leigh VanHandel (University of British Columbia)


Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition was grounded in the literature of music perception and cognition, which has exploded as a discipline in the last twenty years.  ASA engaged cognition topics including attention, memory, simultaneous and parallel processing, and Gestalt psychology, and related them all to the pedagogy of aural skills. Since then, there have been numerous studies on these and other topics in cognitive science and music cognition, including key finding, statistical learning, application of psychoacoustic principles to voice leading, and more. In addition, the field of educational psychology has grown, advocating for pedagogical best practices that take into account recent research into how we learn, resulting in a wealth of knowledge and understanding of how cognition relates to learning in general. As Elizabeth Sayrs noticed at the 2019 Pedagogy into Practice conference, cognition (both music and otherwise) played a large role in the research presented at the conference, including the role of implicit and explicit learning on mental representations of auditory images, current research into absolute pitch, and how working memory and cognitive load relate to pedagogical approaches in the classroom.

This lightning talk will contextualize Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition in the cognition literature of the time, and will highlight recent music perception and music cognition scholarship that has refined the foundation that Aural Skills Acquisition established.