Sunday 11-12:30 ET

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Cora Palfy (Elon University), Chair

Keeping the “Ear” in “Ear Training”: Incorporating “Blind Hearing” for Improved Aural Skills Pedagogy

Alexandrea Jonker (McGill University)

bio for Alexandrea Jonker

Alexandrea Jonker is a doctoral candidate in Music Theory at McGill University. She received a MM from Michigan State University and a B.Mus from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Alexandrea has presented research at the Society for Music Theory annual meeting, and several regional and graduate student conferences. Her two main research interests are the music of Vivian Fine and Johanna Beyer, as well as aural skills pedagogy. Her work has been published in the Routledge Companion to Music Theory Pedagogy, and her paper on “blind ear training” was recognized with the Student Paper Award from the RMSMT regional conference and the Dorothy Payne Student Paper Award from the MTSMA regional conference in 2021. Alexandrea is a two-time winner of the Innovative Learning and Teaching in Music award at McGill University and currently holds a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


Straus (2011) characterizes “blind hearing” as the methods that blind musicians use to learn and listen to music and participate in music making. While nominally aural skills classes concentrate on a student’s ability to listen musically and “think in music,” in reality these classes rely heavily on visual components such as writing dictations, sight-singing, and working through interval drills. Quaglia (2015), Johnson (2016), Pacun (2009), and
Saslaw (2009) explore ways in which blind students can be taught in the core music major curriculum. These studies, however, focus on written theory classes and often necessitate the use of braille notation or segregated learning. In contrast, this paper takes Straus’s “blind hearing” as a starting point and argues that by teaching aural skills entirely without the mediation of visual components, instructors can not only accommodate any blind students in their classes but improve the aural abilities of all students. First, I present ten learning objectives based on blind learning preferences, such as reliance on rote and embodied modes of learning. Then, following the precepts of Universal Design for Learning, the second section of the paper proposes a set of “blind” activities students can do in order to achieve these learning objectives, including melody sing-back, singing triads and intervals, and improvisation, among others. By shifting our learning objectives and activities from ones based on notation to those completed aurally, we can accommodate and improve the learning of all students in our classrooms. 

Supplementary Material(s)

Beyond Gestalt Listening: Interdisciplinary Models for Harmonic Dictation

Timothy Chenette (Utah State University)


Of all the areas of traditional aural skills instruction, harmonic dictation is perhaps the most under-researched. This is for good reason: it is difficult to monitor what is going on in students’ heads as they listen, and this difficulty is compounded when the aural stimulus involves multiple voices that together create chords. In the face of this lack of research, the hugely influential description of “Gestalt listening” in Gary Karpinski’s Aural Skills Acquisition invites analogies to identification of nonmusical objects, suggesting that chords can become “instantly recognizable—in the same Gestalt manner we recognize a well-known face, a familiar face on the telephone, or the taste of a common spice” (2000, 119). While Karpinski does not pursue these comparisons further, an exploration of other areas where identification is crucial can offer new insights into harmonic dictation and lay the groundwork for future research.

I will propose models from four other fields of study that offer new ways of considering harmonic dictation: subitizing, the phenomenon from math education where quantities become instantly recognizable without apparent counting; adult language learning; facial recognition, a model suggested by Karpinski; and figure-ground differentiation, as described in Gestalt psychology. I will explore the research about these models and their implications for aural skills pedagogy, then explore figure-ground differentiation in more detail.

Supplementary Material(s)

Analyzing Melodic Lines in Sign Language Music

Anabel Maler (University of Iowa)

bio for Anabel Maler

Anabel Maler is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Iowa. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago with a dissertation entitled “Hearing Form in Post- Tonal Music.” Her research has appeared in Music Theory Online and the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, and is forthcoming in Music Perception, Intégral, and the Journal of the Society for American Music. Most recently, her coauthored article “Rhythmic Techniques in Deaf Hip Hop” appeared in Music Theory Online. She is currently working on the first monograph-length analytical study of signed music, Seeing Voices: Analyzing Sign Language Music, which is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. She has presented her research at regional, national, and international conferences and currently serves as the Chair of the SMT Committee on Accessibility and Disability. She previously taught at Indiana University.


Music created and performed in a visual-kinesthetic or tactile modality presents challenges for our existing methodologies in the field of music theory. In this paper, I explore the concept of melody in signed music, showing how sign-language musicians associate relationships in the signing space to relationships in the melodic realm. Existing theories of melody are largely based on the notion that melody involves pitch, but signed music does not necessarily involve sounding pitch. Is the concept of melody still useful or informative for understanding and analyzing music in a visual-kinesthetic modality? I argue that melody remains central to signed music, and that sign musicians use directionality of movement, location of signs, holds, movement size, and movement duration in order to establish kinetic lines that are equivalent to melodic lines in aural music. By defining signed melody in terms of common melodic competence (Stefani 1987), I further identify three key elements of signing melodic behavior: periodic duration, rise-growth-fall curve, and continuous movement. 

Through analyses of signed songs created by a wide variety of Deaf musicians, this talk traces important trends in the creation of melodic lines across signed music traditions. The examples range from early percussion songs like “Boat, Drink, Fun, Enjoy,” to arrangements of the national anthem, to popular songs like Rosa Lee Timm’s signed arrangement of Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away.” In analyzing these works, I create a framework for understanding how signed music creates both single melodic lines and polyphonic relationships in this important and undertheorized musical genre.