Technical Ear Training: Mastering the Art of the Invisible

Webster University's School of Communications is one of only four schools in North America offering courses in technical ear training. Students are working hard and quickly seeing the results.

ST. LOUIS, December 4, 2013 - Timothy Ryan describes his job as “dealing with the invisible.” As an assistant professor of audio production in the Webster University School of Communications, he knows his students face a unique set of challenges in their training.

“Lighting is visible, costumes are visible, scenery or sets in a movie are visible but sound is the invisible 300 pound gorilla in the room,” said Ryan.  “Developing stable internal reference points is the only way to deal with it.”

The Technical Ear Training courses are designed to do that. The term “ear training” is usually associated with musicians and their ability to identify notes, pitches, melody and chords only by hearing.  But training your ear isn’t just for musicians, the audio aesthetics and technology department at Webster University is one of only four schools in North America currently offering courses in this type of training.  

Students who finish the program are able to quickly identify issues with both live and recorded sound and be able to fix the problems in a fraction of the time that is typically required.

“A large part of our job is focused on making things sound ‘good,’ whether it’s dialog for a movie, a recording, live sound or video games,” said Ryan. “The ability to know why something doesn’t sound good and to fix it very quickly is a huge advantage for our students over students graduating from other schools.”

The classes require roughly four hours of hands-on work each week.  Students engage in a series of exercises using interactive software that is being developed by a team of researchers, including Ryan.  In each of the exercises, the tonal characteristics of an audio file are repeatedly changed and the student is tasked with identifying or repairing the alterations.  Webster, McGill University and two other schools are offering this form of technical ear training but the programs are structured differently at each school. Webster’s small class sizes allow for a different way of teaching the material.

“I have three to four students in each section of the class.  We cover about 20 minutes of lecture each week, after which the students each get a chance to sit at the console and do the exercises while I coach them.  I have one student working at the console while the rest of the group observes,” said Ryan. “Everyone perceives things differently.  I can tell them how I hear but that’s not necessarily how they’ll hear something.  Having other people in the room to share their observations has been really helpful to the students.”

Vincent Falcone is one of the students in the class and said the experience has been “ear-opening” and appreciates what it will do to help him find a job once he graduates.

“There are very few people in this world that have had the chance to take advantage of such a course,” said Falcone. “In such a ridiculously competitive field as audio production, it will always be about what sets you apart – what do you have that makes you better than this guy? What can you do that he/she can’t? Technical Ear Training is a great example of that and additionally, the skill sets that we’re building can translate into multiple facets of the industry, most notably music recording, post-production work, and live sound.”

The main benefit of Technical Ear Training is that it allows audio engineers to work more quickly and effectively.

“For most audio engineers, if there is something wrong with what they’re listening to, they’ll turn up a frequency and they’ll move it back and forth until they find the bad thing and turn it down – it’s like hunt and peck on a keyboard. This training teaches students to hear that a problem exists, identify the frequency of the problem from an internal reference and modify the audio spectrum accordingly.”

The program began during the Spring 2013 semester.  While it started as a one-semester special topics course, Ryan hopes for it to become a required two-semester sequence for all audio majors. Ryan went through two years of technical ear training while earning his doctorate in Sound System Engineering at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and has introduced the program to Webster University. 

“During the time I was taking the ear training courses, I was doing a lot of work with music festivals where you don’t have much of a sound check,” said Ryan. “You get the band set up on stage and you start to build a mix as they start playing. The summer before I started taking ear training, it would take me 30 minutes to get a band to the point where they sounded right. After two years of training, it took me five minutes.”

Kody Dennis, a student in the class, said the course has helped him in a similar way in his work at Fellowship at The Point church.

“I think the point that I really noticed the difference was about four or five weeks into the semester,” said Dennis. “I was working at the church and there was a strange resonance in the voice coming out of the main speakers. I remember being very excited because it was a slight issue, but I was able to hear it and know exactly what frequency the problem was at and fix it in a matter of seconds.”

As students complete their assigned exercises, the training software records the students’ scores, and also data regarding response time, indecisiveness and reliance on an external reference.  These data help Ryan give accurate feedback about each student’s performance and also provide insight into the ways that the students are learning the material.

 “We’re at the beginning stages of our research.  The goal is to study the students’ developmental and learning processes in an attempt to determine more effective and efficient ways of teaching this material.”

Developing this very sensitive hearing can be a challenge but for the students, the work is worth it.

“The class is fast paced and it never gets easy because there is only one way to teach yourself how to hear these very small and specific nuances,” said Mark Krus, a student in the class. “But it becomes a natural thing that you can hone in on and it's already a powerful tool on my work-belt after less than eight weeks. I use what I learn in Technical Ear Training every day and will for the rest of my career.”

For more information Technical Ear Training or the Audio Aesthetics and Technology department, please visit the School of Communications website.