Skillz D‎ > ‎


MT001D Advanced Tonal Skillz 

Marc Lowensetin, Instructor [ / 818-731-0548]


The object of Skills D is to ensure that you attain the amount of bad-*ss skills necessary to realize that honing and using these skills is a life-long adventure that can have relevance and even can (gasp) enrich your musical life. All attempts will be made to make the course as relevant to the various real worlds of music as possible, but there are a few dry sounding goals which you must achieve. These goals are somewhat subjective but can be summed up roughly as follows:

By the end of the class you should be able to

•sight-sing anything within your comfortable vocal range with a reasonable pretense of confidence, speed and accuracy 

•argue cagily about what ‘reasonable’ means 

•take down with a high degree of accuracy the dictation of any kind of reasonably paced monophony 

•continue the now bitter discussion about ‘reasonableness’

•hear and identify common practice tonal functions and progressions and any kind of modulation 

•hear and identify common jazz progressions and substitutions 

•identify all notes in any kind of four note collection 

•survive in the Kyzyl-Kum desert armed only with a tuning fork and a copy of Modus Novus

•take mostly accurate dictation of moderate amounts of increasingly complex polyphony 

•identify large-scale formal modulations 

•describe and possibly think about the relevance of froo-froo terms such as ‘restricted pitch-set  qualities’


During the class we will discuss, explore, freeze-dry, stumble across and taste many different strategies and tricks for achieving these goals including (but not limited to) cellular improvisation, memory games, linear prolongation, advanced kooky sequential thinking, shifting analytical frameworks, and of course drill, drill, drill and practice and drill. And just because I often forget my own name doesn’t necessarily mean that when I forget yours you don’t have to answer. That was a joke, but only sort of.


There will be tests about every other Thursday. This is not out of any sadism, or at least any overt sadism, but is because learning these skills is necessarily an incremental process. The tests will all occur individually, in person, in my office so as to alleviate any peer pressure. I will try to take notes and re-test any items from previous tests as appropriate. The tests will be graded, but the grades will be of course relatively unimportant compared to the skills acquired. 


is therefore pretty much mandatory. There is an astonishingly small number of unexcused absences you can rack up without getting an NX for the entire course. That astonishingly small number can be described as x where x < 4. Sadly, the fact that Art Openings are Thursday nights does not constitute grounds for excusable absences.


The required textbook is Lars Edlund’s Modus Novus. It is available at and other places. In addition there will be numerous handouts and practice sheets and even an assignment or two for you to find your own challenging music to sight-read.


A high pass will signify a growing mastery including 

•the demonstrated ability to sing through anything in Modus Novus at a constant tempo with few if any mistakes 

•the demonstrated ability to quickly identify any three-note cell 

•the demonstrated ability to take dictation of any 5 note melody and any four note chord on three hearings 

•the demonstrated ability to be happily inventive in identifying creative ways to improve your sightreading and aural analysis

A pass will signify a growing understanding and skill including 

•the demonstrated ability to sing through anything in Modus Novus at a constant tempo with 

only a few mistakes and stops here and there 

•the demonstrated ability to identify any three-note cell 

•the demonstrated ability to take dictation of any 5 note melody and any four note chord on about five hearings 

•the demonstrated ability to be somewhat inventive in identifying creative ways to improve your sightreading and aural analysis

A low pass will signify some understanding and skill including 

•the demonstrated ability to sing through anything in Modus Novus with a few mistakes and stops here and there 

•the demonstrated ability to identify most any three-note cell 

•the demonstrated ability to take dictation of any 5 note melody and any four note chord on about seven hearings 

•the demonstrated understanding of what is required to continue improving in the future.

A No Grade will signify 

•a lack of sufficient effort in trying to understand and improve your sightreading 

•an inability to get through more than a few notes at a time in Modus Novus 

•an inability to identify most three-note cells 

•an inability to take dictation of any 5 note melody and four note chord 

An NX will signify that you have missed more than two classes with unexcused absences.

The most important thing_______________________________________

though, is that you work steadily throughout the semester. I will have posted office hours and am available whenever else you can find me. Have fun, and be actively amused. Or, like, else!

Pedagogy __________________________________________________________

The basic pedagogy of this course is to explore as many techniques as possible to see what will work for each student. Some of these techniques are systematic.  Others seem a little wilder.  

While it may seem to make sense to master one of these techniques at a time, I actually believe the opposite. I think that it makes more sense to introduce them all more or less at once.  Although this makes for a somewhat bewildering, chaotic beginning of the course, it’s actually better in the long run, because many of these techniques reinforce and work synergistically with other techniques, and to get those cooperative effects, it’s best to throw everything in the pot more or less at once and then look at a lot of literature and see how each different way of looking at unfamiliar music works best in different circumstances.

In other words, the first two weeks of this course is confusing.  But that is allegedly in order to make the entire course a little more  . . . provocative? So, because the beginning of the course might be overwhelming, I’m providing an outline of the different main topics and techniques we will explore.  You are not expected to master any of these early in the semester, but you are expected to be familiar with all of them to the extent that you can demonstrate how you might be able to use them.


This consists of repeating the same interval in the same direction throughout the range of your voice (and where possible beyond.) One goal of practicing interval cycles is to get a sense of the saturated, ideal, platonic sense of the interval separate from any familiar context.  It will force you not to think of intervals as fragments of melodies.  [You can sing one major sixth up while thinking “N...B!...(C)” but that is much harder when you have to immediately go up another major sixth.  Of course, having said that, once you can do interval cycles at speed, it’s kind of cool and useful to do just that -- rapidly change your former, familiar context to far away keys.]


Being able to sing and hear fast octave transfers is very useful for reading, absorbing and performing music with very large ambits and large leaps. It’s also very useful for practicing hearing two or more voices at once, mentally leaping from one voice to the next.  Like all of these techniques it’s best practiced with a sense of humor.  Start by singing a tune you know very, very well, but make sure that no two consecutive notes are in the same octave that they’re supposed to be.  Keep doing it until you can achieve an embarrassing fluency.  Then, use this technique to transpose wildly leaping melodies so that they are compressed into one or one-ish octave.  It helps make seemingly non-tonal music seem linearly understandable. Then, practice singing two part music jumping from voice to voice until you can hear each line independently.  Really, it’s pretty dorky.  But  dorky/cool, not just dorky/dorky, if you know what I mean.


Cellular thinking is related to set theory.  Others would say that it’s an attempt at making set theory actually, you know, relevant (as if theory should be about things you perceive...)  Still others would say that that comment is unnecessarily snarky.  But, as Mr. Lear once said “O reason not the need.”  Right.  Anyway,  Cellular thinking means that you are hearing, reading, and reproducing small bits of music with recognizable, limited intervallic content, independent of order and octave. What’s cool about this is that when you take away order and add octave transposition, there are really very few cells, which makes it ways to learn and recognize all of them -- at least all of the three note ones, and many of the common four note ones.  Another benefit of this way of thinking is that it unifies horizontal and vertical thinking for a whole class of combinations that you might not be used to thinking about ‘triadically’.  Put another, better, way, it’s a great way to systematically learn the links between non-tonally functional chords and melodies.


It’s a great idea to be able to quickly identify and/or produce any color/added note above a purported ‘root’.  When you can do that relatively quickly, it’s possible to hear the ghosts of jazz added chords in even the most non-tonally functional contexts.  For instance there are a heck of a lot of maj7#11s as well as #9s to be evoked in Webern, which is another way of saying Anton was attracted to 014 and 016 sets.  Not that there’s anything the matter with that.  Another great use of Jazz added chord contexts is hearing intervals between non-triadic color notes.  In other words, it’s challenging (er, in a good way) to think of a major sixth as that distance between a 13 and a #11 (and then a #9.)  It’s another way of hearing intervals in many different contexts


All of the above can be combined to hear and remember chunks of music quickly.  Even if you don’t get all of the details, it’s a great to have a number of different ways of categorizing larger groups of notes and phrases, and to be able to identify entire styles and describe to yourself what it is that makes that style a style.


Finally, it’s very important to realize that all tuning is necessarily relative and that there is no 

perfect system possible.  This is both frustrating but very liberating.  And potentially very, very nerdy.

And throughout it all . . . .MODUS NOVUS  yay! really.  It’s cool. And Swedish! More on this later. Much, much, much more.  Oh and also this:


It is very important to not regard the perception of sound as the perception of truth.  Our minds interact with what we hear in very strange ways.  The reasons it does this is that it is evolutionarily advantageous to organize information from our environment.  We’ll talk a lot about different manifestations of this.  In the meanwhile here are just a few weirdnesses:

McGurk Effect

Shepherd Tone Illusion

This one following is a bit rushed, but can be used as an outline to investigate further:

and there’s this:

which I’m going to try and get and put on reserve in the library . . .