Cognitive Approach to Developing Strong Relative Pitch in Younger Students: II – Expectation and the Drone

Acquisition of Aural Skills

Do not allow the frustration of playing out of tune plague your musical training.  During the 9th and 10th centuries of Gregorian Chant, you need to realize that an ‘A’ may not have been the same ‘A’ the next town over – or next church over, for that matter.  “Key” notation was used to identify function, ‘A’ did not mean A=440hz.  It wasn’t until the 19th century and constant inclusion of instruments – fixed lengths of an object – where an actual “key center” became common practice.  Today, you know A=440hz giving you the ability to create a set of expectations (schema) in which to practice.  Patrick Colm Hogan asserts that there are numerous schemas in LTM that help guide our assignments of structure to the incoming stream of sound. (p. 18)  Schemas in music generate expectations about the kinds and order of musical events; they serve as frameworks for memory, increase chunkability, and help us form representations in LTM. (Snyder p. 101)  According to Huron, expectation serves three functions: motivation, preparation, and representation.  Huron further postulates that expectation allows us prepare suitable motor responses and craft suitable perceptual strategies.

It is the formation of expectations where I expect greatest results from your students using the drone practice method as part of their musical upbringing but before we go that direction I first need to set the stage.  This blog will focus on the learning ability of an orchestral horn player – an instrument of a certain length which can be altered by adding or subtracting lengths of tubing (values) and/or choosing alternate partials in which to play.  In order to play this, or any instrument, many schemas are rehearsed and applied.  For instance, to play a note on the horn requires correct left and right hand placement, good posture, proper embouchure development, proper mouthpiece placement, proper jaw position, proper tongue position, proper teeth position, proper inhalation of air, proper exhalation or air, proper aperture reaction, and a stable buzz constant enough to properly sound a pitch for a length of time.  Those 12 chunks of data take a tremendous amount of practice and rehearsal.  Each one of those chunks has a long, hierarchical list of chunks of their own which take their own amount of rehearsal.

Before jumping into the drone method there is a simpler way to go about starting down the path to strong relative pitch – Singing!  I mentioned in the first blog that Daniel Levitin produced a study about Absolute Memory for Musical Pitch.  The study concentrated on asking various participants to sing back a pop music melodies from the Beatles to the Stevie Wonder – whatever it was they happened to know.  He discovered that most participants were able to sing back the melody without any prep within 2 semitones above or below the original key (within 4 semitones) and most intervals within the melody they sang were true.  Why not apply this to the horn (or any instrument)?  I will describe to you the three-pronged method, known in the brass realm as Sing, Buzz, Play.  It is exactly how it sounds.  Sing the melody, buzz the melody on your mouthpiece, and then play it in the horn.  There is a matter of consistency involved, the melody sang is generally short enough to rehearse within the focus of conscious awareness keeping it readily available – by being encoded categorically based on learned LTM categories (from blog 1) – allowing for an accurate comparison when the melody is then buzzed in the mouthpiece.  Once put into the horn the melody is always more in tune intervallically, has a bigger core to the sound, and that sound quality is more consistent throughout the range of the melody.  It is important to remember that processing familiar stimuli is faster than processing unfamiliar stimuli (Huron, p. 63).


The purpose of expectation is to create perception used to facilitate quick and accurate responses.  As an educator, you take it upon yourself to convey accurate information regarding what your student will practice and how their expectations should be mapped out.  With the use of the drone method, the training in developing acute relative pitch hinges upon the student’s understanding of the interval.  Pitch proximity will present the brunt of the method.  Listeners/performers are faster to form pitch sensations when the stimuli are embedded in sequences where successive pitches are close together – a melody that moves by step.  By contrast, listeners/performers take longer to form pitch sensations when the pitch distance separating successive tones is large (a leap). (Huron, p. 75)  It is the purpose of the drone method to attack those large intervals and develop a successful schema to help a student interact with their environment with ease and efficiency using heightened anticipation to evaluate various mental representations – Is the interval in tune or not? Is my note in tune with the section or not? Is it in tune with the orchestra or not? etc…

It is through the recognition of inductive failures where schemas can be altered or an entirely new schema can be created.  An arsenal of mechanisms must be developed in order to properly defend oneself against the tyranny of “those who play out of tune.”  To paraphrase Karpinski, tonality provides function, which can act intuitively or consciously as a guide in aiding memory for such general features as tension and resolution and such specific features as scale degree and harmonic function.  Playing intervals against a drone requires the student, guided by their expectations, to learn to react quickly and effectively against what they are presented.  It is that reaction (or the learning of that reaction – “recognition”) in which the consistent employment of the drone method, using ‘just’ interval recognition, provides.

The Drone Method

I think it is important for you to know where I am coming from when it comes to droning.  I have been trained in the Christopher Leuba/Jack Herrick interval method of drone practice.  Both Leuba and Herrick (both now retired) were highly sought after performers and educators from the Chicago style of horn playing.  It is that method I will share with you but instead of using the popular analog Peterson Strobe Tuner (costing upwards of $850) we are going to use the Tonal Energy (TE) iTunes App ($3.99 in the Apple App Store).  It is just as effective and informative in developing highly categorized schemas.  There are several more apps out there but TE is attractive, intuitive, and correct.  Practice Center and Tunable are among several others out there but Tuneable, for instance, has some fundamental problems with ‘Just’ intervals being atrociously out of tune.  I will not go into great depth in how to use the TE app in various keys or intervals within this particular blog.  We will look at one interval, the major 3rd.

Here are a few things to remember before we start, when a listener approaches a piece of music, that listener brings to the table all past musical experiences. (Shaffer, p. 7)  The limitations of working memory prevent large amounts of data to be continually processed through the focus of conscious awareness but the process of cueing information from long-term memory back into the FOCA by the process of droning keeps comparable data available.

The key of Bb, on the horn, is a widely used key by composers and it is the key we will use in this short demonstration.  Remember that the horn is not played in concert pitch but played in the key of F, therefore, the sounding pitches are actually sounding down a perfect fifth – a very difficult thought process for our AP friends!  The image below is a screenshot of the TE app with a Bb droning in the background.  The ‘smiley’ face is a great indication that things are going well.  Please know that I am going to be using a lot of arrows.  The arrows are pointing to the various displays in the tuner and the arrows themselves are not actually displaying anything, they are arrows.  When I indicate that the yellow arrow is displaying X, what I mean is that the yellow arrow is pointing to something which is displaying X.

The yellow arrow represents temperament.  The blue arrow represents the actual frequency of the tone being played and the red arrow indicates how many cents (sharp or flat) the pitch produced.  In this case, the tone generated is 311.1Hz = Eb concert (a horn Bb).

muscog TE slides.pptx

The slide below shows how TE would visually indicate a Bb that is not in tune with the standard, equally tempered, A=440hz tuning method.  The red arrow shows the pitch played is approximately 10.4 cents sharp and the blue arrow displays actual frequency being played.  You will notice the lack of a ‘smiley face,’ the white arrow points to how TE would react visually.

muscog TE slides.pptx (1)

The slide below shows an in tune, equally tempered D.  Pay attention to the what the blue arrow is showing.

muscog TE slides.pptx (2)

The slide below displays a Bb that has been centered upon using Just intonation (yellow arrows).  The orange arrow points to a new variable, the Equal Temperament pitch indicator.  Because we have set the tuner on Just intonation in the key of Bb our droning, 311.1 Hz Bb will display 0.0.

muscog TE slides.pptx (3)

The slide below is a fantastic visual.  The tuner is set with Just temperament in the key of Bb.  The pitch sounding is a D (from above).  Because the tuner is in the key of Bb it is doing what it can to politely tell the player that they are atrociously out of tune!  The red arrow indicates that player is 13.7 cents sharp accompanied by a red semi-circle on the outer edge of the tuner’s circle.  Do you notice the blue arrow from before?  The player is playing a 392Hz D like before and the orange arrow indicates that the D is at the correct frequency in equal temperament.  Most young students have higher developed visual schemas than aural schemas (google visuospatial sketchpad).  This kind of visual representation displaying what the player is producing will immediately create a response to bring the pitch down (next slide).

muscog TE slides.pptx (4)

The previous slide indicated that something must be done in order to play the D in tune in the key of Bb.  Bring it down, with the help of the TE tuner we now know how much.  The orange arrow indicates how far to bring it down in order to get the red arrow to display 0.0.  The blue arrow produces a frequency required for the player get there.  ‘Smiley face’ achieved!

muscog TE slides.pptx (5)

The Leuba/Herrick interval method is an important frame of reference that must be taught but it can have it drawbacks if you are not careful.  The most important thing to remember is that this method is based on interval names NOT note names.  Also, the title ‘Bb’ is one category.  The drone is an instant feedback mechanism providing those quick recognition opportunities.  The Delta Learning Rule highlights how the drone can give feedback isolating different categories of sound and allow the brain to separate those categories through failure.  The delta rule posits that the growth in the strength of association between a cue and an outcome is error driven: The associative strength changes in magnitude proportionally to the discrepancy, or error, between the actual magnitude of the outcome and the magnitude predicted by the current associative strength (Kruschke and Bradley, 1995).  If a student does not recognize an out of tune interval they have to unlearn their associations by creating new neural pathways and continuously redefine their schemas.


Yes, music theory knowledge (acquisition of aural skills) would go a long way but there is still no guarantee that knowing that V often goes to I or that the leading tone is the 3rd of a V chord and should NOT be played high (the Leading Tone is a function NOT an emotional tool – It is bound by rules, don’t change them!).  Those are instructions, not solutions.  The solutions rely within recognition. Recognition requires expertise. Expertise is developed by immediate feedback.  Immediate feedback is offered by those who have highly categorized and developed schemas.

I can attest that many students have deficiencies when it comes to accuracy while processing pitch related tasks.  One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to simply ‘remove variables.’  Playing a note on the horn involves more tasks than I can count (as we went over in the first blog), consequently, using a drone with a young student would actually detract from their cognitive and musical experience due to the overwhelming sensation they will encounter.  It would be best for your student to be proficient enough to play constant pitches without any major mechanical issues.  That does not mean that they should not drone.  Remember Sing, Buzz, Play?  How a student process the encounter differs from their contemporaries.  It occurs with regularity for a student to play what I request and present no real attempt to adjust with the drone because they have never been made aware of the change that is required.

It is in WM where recognizable auditory problems take place (ADD/ADHD as one extreme and simply not paying attention as another) and must be realized in order for a young student to properly develop a strong relative pitch because when learning a new task it is WM where mastering a task is achieved.  Since working memory depends on STM, the task at hand must be efficient because STM span can hold only about 7 elements at one time (The Miller Number 7∓2) while working on a cognitive task.  Research has shown that a student’s WM capacity is a good predictor of his or her ability to accurately retrieve information, which is important because precise retrieval of acquired information is needed for learning to occur. (Ecker, Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Chee; 2010)

Clifford Madeson and John Greinger found that listeners indicated a preference for intonation as opposed to (tone) quality.  They went on to suggest that music instructors may be overemphasizing the importance of tone quality and that time would seem to be more profitably utilized in the attainment of good intonation. (Gary Moody, 1995)  Knowing this I postulate that the broad spectrum of consonance AND dissonance is a learned trait rather than something that is innate.  Schoenberg stated that consonances are accordingly the first overtones, and they are the more nearly perfect the closer they are to the fundamental. (Moody 1995)  Your student must acquire both theoretical and aural information such as roman numeral analysis development (function) and knowledge of timbral differences (droning) to find greater success in their personal, chamber, and ensemble playing.  After reading this you may find it odd for me to offer this suggestion but it is important to get away from the drone and trust the schemas you have developed in order to know what direction an interval or harmonic structure should be placed.  The main reason is simply due to context.  The ‘D’ we worked on earlier was played in the key of Bb.  If your student is to play that D in the key of G like they trained themselves to play it in Bb they would discover a major problem thus creating surprise, frustration, and confusion.  Teach the interval, not the note name.  Having a visual cue provides valuable information but reliance on the ear to achieve proper intonation is crucial.


The last argument I hope to drive home is that BOTH music theory/aural skills AND droning are required to create a highly sensitive relative pitch palate.  Every instrumentalist’s first challenge is to learn to differentiate between the “sonorities of intonation” and the characteristic sonorities of their instrument.  Leuba believes that to acquire this ability the player will gain this understanding rapidly through the instrument (by playing), than by learning concepts in the isolation of the solfeggio class, and later applying these to the instrument.  To a point he is right.  It is not my intent to play the opening to Mahler 5 on the trumpet anytime soon, I am a horn player.  That is my job and it is with that instrument where I will employ whatever is required to “not be the problem.”  That is a decision I have made which, as you have observed, proves me to be reliant on my instrument and, consequently, the ensembles in which I perform.  It is at this point I believe Leuba to be unclear.  I stipulate to have highly sensitive relative pitch it would be prudent for instrumentalists to be cognizant of intervallic relationships equally with their instrument and without.  There are the different categories that any note could occupy and the larger the number of finely grained categories created requires a lot of feedback in a quick time frame!  Use a drone like you would use a metronome.  Use it as an intense learning tool, not a crutch!

Jason Michael Johnston

DMA Candidate, University of Colorado at Boulder



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