Developing a technical ear training program: Part one - Do your homework

I’ve developed several technical ear training programs over the years, the majority of which were created as part of my PhD research into technical ear training / critical listening. The most notable of these programs is the free, OSX-based SAE Parametric Equaliser Training app, which was designed to teach users to identify the centre frequency of a parametric equaliser applied to any imported audio files. To be specific, I have developed frequency-spectrum-based TETPs – some designed to train students to identify frequencies (pure tones), but most were designed to train students to identify the centre frequency of a parametric boost or cut, applied to music. I’ve also published several papers on the topic over the years. There are many other technical ear training programs available to the public, of course, some free, some not; some useful, some not. Whether or not these programs (including mine) are effective / meet their goals (some don’t have clearly stated goals to begin with) is open for discussion. More importantly, establishing how to measure if these programs are effective at all is a current and much-argued topic within TETP researchers. I explored this in my PhD thesis and I will be exploring it further in upcoming papers on the topic and extensively throughout this blog. It’s an important and routinely overlooked topic, so be prepared to revisit it.

This post heralds the beginning of the development of a new, frequency-spectrum-based TETP. Based on the plans in my head, it will quite easily be the most advanced publically-available TETP developed to date.

This post heralds the beginning of the development of a new, frequency-spectrum-based TETP. Based on the plans in my head, it will quite easily be the most advanced publically-available TETP developed to date. Most importantly, the development of this program will be based on research and best-practice in the field, with a strong focus on student outcomes. Any training program worth its salt must have appropriate, clearly-stated goals and training program developers must demonstrate that students that undertake their training program meet those goals. This topic is of such importance that I’ll be devoting an entire post to it, and then revisiting it ad nauseam.

Anyone that is considering developing a useful TETP needs to have a thorough, detailed understanding of the development of TETPs over time, the relevant research in the field, and ideally will have built a few of these in the past and learned from their mistakes. However, research in this field is limited and some researchers have unfortunately drawn conclusions based on very limited evidence. Indeed, it is difficult to highlight best practice in the field as based on reliable, robust evidence. But all is not lost. There has been some excellent research into stimulus signals and reproduction over loudspeakers and headphones by Sean Olive, Floyd Toole and others. Olive has also written extensively on training expert listeners for product evaluation and development and released the Harman How to Listen technical ear training program – a version of the in-house program that was used by Harman to train employees and expert listeners. Jason Corey from the University of Michigan (one of my PhD examiners) has also done considerable work in this area, releasing two versions of his free, web-based technical ear training applications covering all manner of TET tasks to accompany his book Technical Ear Training: Critical Listening for Audio Professionals.

Arguably, the first TETP was developed in circa 1969 by David Moulton. Moulton created drills using pink noise and a 10-band graphic equaliser to help teach a client at his recording studio what certain terms and frequency bands sound like. Moulton used these drills in his university teaching, and they were also incorporated into the National Public Radio Music Recording Workshop curriculum from 1984 through 1996, and have been used at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Emerson College, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the University of Maine at Augusta, the University of California, New York University, the Danish Acoustical Institute and the National Broadcasting Corporation. It was a consumer-targeted program that would go on to be released as the Golden Ears training program in 1995 and become one of the most widely known and respected programs in the history of technical ear training.

In 1982, F. Alton Everest, author of the widely-acclaimed Master Handbook of Acoustics books, presented a paper titled ‘Instruction in critical listening’ at the 72nd AES convention in Anaheim, California. The paper was based on his Manual for critical listening: An audio training course, which describes the first commercially available technical ear training course, now one of the most widely cited and respected critical listening courses in use today. Everest’s critical listening course, released on cassettes, was designed to accelerate the process of learning to ‘detect minute deviations from accepted norms of audio quality’, and to demonstrate the ‘close relationship between audio faults and audio technology’ alongside the training program. In his seminal paper, Everest suggests that ‘the discriminating aspect of human hearing surely can be improved through training and experience’ and that this improvement can be accelerated through a structured training program, although no evidence of the effectiveness of the training program has ever been presented. In 1986 Everest released the Manual for auditory perception: An audio training course (shown here) in which he presented 'eight units designed for instruction in the psychoacoustical aspects of human hearing’. The training course again featured a manual and cassettes, but unlike the original course that was devoted to technical ear training, the Manual for Auditory Perception course focused primarily on psychoacoustics and auditory perception. In 1997 the two programs – Manual for critical listening: An audio training course and Manual for auditory perception: An audio training course – were combined and released as Critical listening and auditory perception: The complete audio-visual training course. Two years after Everest’s death in 2005, Critical listening skills for audio professionals was released. In a similar manner to the 1997 release, this book was divided into two sections: the first focused on critical listening, and the second on auditory perception. The audio material was again released on CD, but in MP36 format (320kbps).

Greenberg and Huddleston (1971) detail the earliest documented occurrence of a student-targeted TETP in the literature. The authors describe a syllabus that was written for music students, part of which featured a mechanical ‘videosonic machine’ that projected slides and simultaneously played back audio. The machine, with its limited frequency response of 80-8k Hz, was designed with several goals in mind, one of which was to aid music students to develop an awareness of instrumental tone colour as an important element of music. The TETP consisted of audiovisual materials that introduced students first to instrument families, then to the tone colours of individual instruments.

The most widely published upon student-focused TETP was the Timbral Solfège / Solfeggio program delivered at the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland in 1974 and variations of the course continue to be delivered today. Utilising the Italian word solfeggio – the name of a music education method used to teach memory for pitch – the Timbre Solfeggio TETP, first reported by Andrzej Rakowski and Andrew Trybuła, was developed by Andrzej Rakowski, Krzysztof Szlifirski, and Tomas Letowski to accompany the traditional music solfeggio course the creators also taught. It was embedded within the academy’s Tonmeister program and was designed to train and improve students’ sensitivity to relative differences in timbre and their memory for absolute timbral references. Letowski later adds that a secondary goal of the Timbre Solfeggio program was to ‘develop a set of qualitative descriptors to provide unequivocal codes (language) for exchanging information regarding timbre impressions’. This early iteration of the program consisted ‘of a series of [mono] listening sessions devoted to various acoustic phenomena’.

No discussion about TETPs would be complete without highlighting the contribution to the field made by Rene Quesnel at McGill University in Montreal. Quesnel first detailed his TETP and resulting performance data in his 1990 master’s thesis titled A computer-assisted program in timbral ear training – a preliminary study. Quesnel subsequently published many papers detailing his Timbral Ear Trainer and Timbral Ear Trainer II TETPs. Quesnel's experiment which compared the performance of students that trained using his software to that of professional engineers is the most widely-cited evidence that TETPs are effective; a point that I rebut in my thesis and one that I will again address throughout this blog.

In 2010, Jason Corey published Audio production and critical listening: Technical ear training, a book focused on technical ear training that included a CD-ROM containing software modules that align with each section of the text. The aim of the book and associated software modules was ‘to explore critical listening as it relates to typical types of audio signal processing’ and to ‘present some ideas for developing critical listening skills and potentially reduce the time it takes to develop them’. Corey hypothesised ‘that increased sensitivity in one area of critical listening (such as equalization) will facilitate increased awareness and sensitivity in other areas (such as compression and reverberation) as a result of overall improved listening skills’.

In 2017, Corey released the second edition of Audio production and critical listening: Technical ear training as part of the ‘Audio Engineering Society Presents’ series. Unlike the previous version that included a CD-ROM disc containing the technical ear training applications, the new version of the text was released along with new, publicly available web browser-based version of the applications developed by David H. Benson. The updated text ‘includes information on objective measurements of sound, technical descriptions of signal processing, and their relationships to subjective impressions of sound’.

The adaptive nature of this TETP is of particular interest as I am considering including an adaptive feature in the TETP I develop.

Kaniwa et al. developed an adaptive personalised technical ear training program entitled Personal Timbral Ear Trainer that controls the training task based on the trainees’ previous performance. The program is based on Quesnel’s Timbral Ear Trainer program, but has been modified to be adaptive in nature. The system modifies the presentation of frequencies based on each individual student’s performance on previous questions. Frequencies that a student performs poorly on are flagged as ‘weaknesses’ and are subsequently presented more frequently in the program. The authors suggest that the adaptive nature of the program allows students to ‘effectively study technical listening without an instructor’. The adaptive nature of this TETP is of particular interest as I am considering including an adaptive feature in the TETP I develop.

There are many other publically available TETPs, however, my doctoral research focussed only on frequency spectrum-based TETPs for which published papers or texts were available. I will, however, be reviewing the features of many of these TETPs at various stages throughout the development of my new TETP. My next post will focus on the critically important task of establishing suitable goals for a TETP.