This chapter addresses an age-old issue by revisiting a hypothesis that has underpinned much academic study of, and training in, Western classical music for probably centuries: (in general terms) that performers are able to perform better the greater their understanding of the music they are performing. The discussion here is limited to understanding of the functions of pitches within tonal music from what is often called the ‘common-practice’ period (roughly, J.S. Bach to Mahler). The context further limits the discussion as a case study in aural-skills training curriculum design within a first degree (Bachelor of Music) program for music performance students.

The study assesses evidence that undergraduate performers lack sufficient understanding of pitch function in tonal common-practice-period music, gathered through observation of performances, of conversations and interviews with students, and of the aural-skills training process. Rigorously scientific conclusions are prevented by the subjective nature of many of the assessments and judgments involved – what counts as ‘sufficient’? – and the difficulty of apprehending and measuring ‘understanding.’ But these difficulties do not prevent meaningful engagement with and reflections on the issues, evidence, and data. I therefore conclude that there is a sufficient case to be made for regarding understanding of pitch function as something that can and should be addressed (perhaps even primarily) through aural-skills training, and then I look at some ways in which this can be tackled in the classroom within an undergraduate degree program.