Chapter 13 – Dictation

A perturbed man writing at a typewriter

In this chapter, we will take your transcription skills and apply them to the specialized task called “dictation.” Some people use these terms interchangeably, but we will differentiate the two:

  • Transcription refers to any time we write down something we hear. We will use the term particularly when the task allows (theoretically) unlimited time and plays to work through the process and/or when we are transcribing multiple parts.
  • Dictation refers to a more limited kind of transcription, most commonly done in a classroom, with a limited number of plays and a limited amount of time, and usually focuses only on rhythm, melody, or harmony.

Why pursue both? Dictation requires a slightly different focus from more permissive forms of transcription. In particular, it requires a higher degree of focus and makes greater demands on our use of memory. As such, our chapter on transcription focused more on analysis/understanding and notation, while here we will focus more on the earlier stages of attention/focus and memory. We believe the transcription-related skills are ultimately more important for most musicians, but dictation does have some unique and potentially valuable aspects as well.

It’s pretty well established in cognitive science that we can’t increase the size of our working memory. So what’s the point of focusing on this? All people, and especially musicians, benefit from developing good attention and memory habits to most efficiently use the memory capacity they have. So we’ll give what advice we can for building these habits and strategies.

Keep in mind that building new habits and strategies requires what cognitive scientists call “executive function,” referring to the mechanism in our brains that makes decisions about what to pay attention to and how to approach it. Executive function, however, can be impaired by tiredness, anxiety, and stress, so anytime we’re affected by these, we may have a harder time building our skills.

Of course, if you had to work a night shift and you’re now in a morning aural skills class, there’s only so much you can do. But both instructors and students need to keep in mind the negative effects of stress on executive function. To the extent that dictation becomes a high-stress event, the habits and strategies we’re looking to reinforce will probably become impossible. That defeats the purpose!

So as much as possible, we encourage students to practice mindfulness and centering, and we encourage instructors to create welcoming environments and grading policies that show students that they are not under threat.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  1. Describe the processes necessary to take dictation, including how they differ from the similar process of transcription.
  2. Determine an appropriate meter and key for music they wish to dictate.
  3. Set an intention in order to engage in goal-directed listening.
  4. Use chunking and extractive listening to strengthen their memory of dictation melodies.
  5. Notate music they hear, relatively quickly.

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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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