Universities, colleges, and conservatories around the world cram students in rows and force them to huddle over staff paper as they listen to short passages played on classroom pianos. Students strain to focus on these fleeting pitches and rhythms, and scribble furiously as they try to translate sounds into symbols. Why do we force our students to take dictation? For what reasons has this practice become ensconced in music curricula from Arkansas to New Zealand? There are very few vocations in which listening to several iterations of a brief passage and then writing it down in pencil is a quotidian skill. Nevertheless, this is a nearly ubiquitous pedagogical requirement. If few or none of our graduates will find work that requires them to take dictation, then why require students to take dictation during their schooling?
This chapter takes a close look at the many skills necessary for listeners to translate musical sounds into notation, with an eye toward the practical applications those skills find in musicians’ daily lives. Among those skills are focused attention, short-term musical memory, pulse inference, meter perception, perception of rhythm proportions, contour perception, tonic inference, perception of scale-degree function, plus a strong working knowledge of how to notate rhythms and pitches in various clefs, keys, and meters. This chapter explores diverse applications of these skills in various career paths – those of performers, teachers, composers, arrangers, editors, scholars, and others – tracing the many manifestations of what Bruce Benward called ‘the seeing ear.’