This chapter places real music at the focal point of students’ harmonic listening strategies. The methodologies and lesson plans that we describe result from our decision to approach the skill of harmonic hearing using examples drawn exclusively from popular and classical repertoires. We initially made this decision based on two key objectives: teaching students to listen critically rather than simply dictate and helping students develop active listening skills relevant to a variety of repertoires. Transitioning from didactic examples to real music necessitated creating a methodology that could adapt to the many variables (e.g., texture, tempo, rhythm) of real music yet remain accessible to first-semester students. This methodology prioritizes active listening and increases the relevance and applicability of these activities to hearing in various contexts, thus helping our students to develop the ability to ‘think in music’ rather than simply ‘think about music’.

Traditional approaches to harmonic hearing often present a simplified, idealized stimulus (e.g., hymn-like progressions) and require complex responses (e.g., dictation of outer voices, Roman numerals, and figured bass); the approach outlined here flips this situation. Students interact with complex real-world examples, but they provide only a simplified response initially: first finding the tonic, and then singing the primary guide tone line (Do/Ti). Improvised arpeggiations and bass lines are later added to this primary line, eventually yielding answers similar to a traditional harmonic hearing exercise. Since they are encouraged to habitually practice with real music, students are able to more easily apply these skills outside of the classroom, increasing the relevance for students and often their motivation and engagement.

When we immerse our classrooms in the messiness of real musical examples, we encourage students to actively listen with the understanding that they may not be able to process everything. By providing a scaffolded approach to active listening, we create an environment where students learn to engage with pieces at their current skill level; as they see their responses become more detailed and complex, they learn that developing the habit of active listening will increase their perception and understanding over time. Bending our methodologies to the demands that real pieces make on listeners helps students embrace their development of harmonic hearing – a key part of their ability to think in music – and sets them up to use this skill throughout their musical lives.