Developing Aural Skills with Card Games

Introduction by Aaron Butler

Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s vision of musical education was joyful and kind. He said, “It is the function of teachers, by care and perseverance, to create in students’ souls the ray of joy.” (Rhythm, Music and Education, 1915)

Herbert Henke connected this to the delight of puzzles. In a 1999 interview he said, “It’s vital to arouse curiosity when you teach music. You must offer a bit of surprise, like completing a puzzle” (For the Love of Teaching, 1999). Here, in Herb’s own words from vol. 22, no. 2 (Winter/Spring 1996) of the American Dalcroze Journal, is the joy—and intrigue—of musical puzzles. [Explore more of the archive here]

Herb Henke’s Article

There is no doubt that Émile Jaques-Dalcroze was a clever, imaginative teacher. One only has to read eyewitness accounts of his eurhythmics classes or consider his solfège-rhythmique approach to the teaching of ear training and sight singing to verify this description of him.

Today we would probably call many of his teaching techniques “game strategies” because they contain the elements of fun and challenge. Reading a simple scalar melody with insertions of different key signatures every few measures, for example, requires quick-reaction and alert awareness of whole- and half-step placements. Meeting the challenge and hearing the abrupt key shifts can provide amusement and a sense of accomplishment that leads the reader to want to repeat the exercise with a new set of key signatures.

Jaques-Dalcroze emphasized that his teaching approach should be adapted to fit each teacher’s particular strengths, interests, and setting. Eurhythmics is not a step-by-step method that never varies, even though there is a logical sequence for learning that underlies the teacher’s planning. This pedagogical freedom has been both a strength and a deterrent in the dissemination of Jaques-Dalcroze’s ideas. The freedom has allowed eurhythmics to be adapted for use in many different environments—artistic, educational, and therapeutic. However, the expectation that the teacher must take the initiative to develop a teaching plan rather than follow a preconceived set of instructions dissuades many persons from committing themselves to the use of eurhythmics in their work.

Ear-Training Games using a Deck of Cards

The playing card game strategies described in this article should be considered as possible teaching ideas that might fit under the umbrella term of eurhythmics. Would Jaques-Dalcroze have approved them? Who knows, but they do contain elements of fun, challenge, and easy manipulation of simple material that are the hallmarks of eurhythmics teaching. They also require the student to concentrate, to respond to aural stimuli, and/or to produce tonal patterns on command. The strategies reflect the author’s interest in puzzles and solitaire, both of which are wonderful devices to avoid dozing off while mindlessly watching television. Everyone who reads this article is encouraged to try playing each game with a set of playing cards while sitting in a comfortable chair with a lap board or in front of a desk or table. Then shuffle the cards and play the game again. Your ability to sing scale degrees and intervals will be improved with practice.

Those who use the playing card game strategies must be careful to adapt the level of difficulty for their own teaching situations. Success comes in the careful balancing of challenge and fun: too simple is boring and too hard is frustrating. Feel free to change content and to invent different strategies as “spin-offs” from what is presented here.

Before you begin

The Deck:

Each person should have one or more sets of playing cards, ace (1) through eight. For the teacher’s use, a set of giant-sized cards purchased in a novelty shop will be an advantage. Playing cards are an advantage because they can be read easily from more than one position. If playing cards are not available, it’s simple to make facsimiles on 3×5 file cards. It is helpful to have a mixture of black and red numerals on the cards. When the games require students to work together, they should sit on the floor or around desks/tables, pairs facing each other or in small circle groups. Often it is advisable to have two or three students sing while sharing the same cards in order to help one another be successful. 

Scale degrees games:

In these, each card will represent the number of a major scale degree. Use any keys that are comfortable to sing or play. Eventually, these games can be played in the minor mode or even in other modes if the instructor wishes.

Interval games:

In these games, each card number represents an interval. Naturally, students tend to be confused by this change from the preceding games. One way to deal with the confusion is to use only black numbers for scale degrees and red numbers for intervals. Most of the games deal with the intervals that occur within the diatonic major (or minor) scale. For instance, in the major scale “1 – 3” is a major third, “4 – 2” is a minor third.

Ten Progressive Ear-Training Games

Game No. 1 

The teacher holds up each card in random order for the students to sing. The student may respond by singing syllable names or numbers, depending upon the teacher’s preference. The cards are shuffled and the game is repeated. The obvious adaptation is to begin with only 1’s, 5’s, and 8’s, or only 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s, or whatever limited number of pitches the teacher thinks is appropriate for the group.

Game No. 2

Students turn up their own cards and work individually. Another possibility is for the students to sit in a circle, each turning up one. Each student sings the pitch indicated by the card and the group immediately follows by echo-singing that pitch or by singing the correct pitch if the individual student erred.

Game No. 3

The teacher plays a scale degree and the student puts down the appropriate card from the ones held. When all of the cards are put down the entire group of students sings the pitches in order from left to right. Again, the game can be as difficult or as simple as the teacher determines. For example, it could be played with just two different pitches: “1” and “3.” Everyone, of course, must have the same number of cards, such as four “1’s” and four “3’s.”

Game No. 4

Put down a vertical double row of cards. An example might be “2 – 5 – 4 – 8” in the row to the left and “3 – 1 – 6 – 7” in the second row. The student must sing “3 – 2,” “1 – 5,” “6 – 4,” and “7 – 8.” If desired, the student can be directed to sing each interval twice using the words “3 – 2, major second,” “1 – 5, perfect fifth,” etc.

Game No. 5

Each student has eight cards representing a major scale. The teacher plays four intervals such as “2 – 5, 8 – 7, 3 – 1, 4 – 6.” The students place the correct cards down in front of them. Be sure to ask the class to sing what they have put down in front of them after the cards are in place.

Game No. 6

The teacher holds up cards in random order after establishing the pitch on which each interval is to be created. If “1” is the first pitch and each interval is sung ascending, then the card numbers coincidentally represent both intervals and scale degrees. But if “8” is the first pitch and each interval is to be sung descending, the card numbers truly represent only the intervals to be sung. Other scale degrees should also be used as the first pitch for each interval. The issue of ascending or descending intervals must be decided by the teacher. The direction to be sung can be announced each time. Another possibility is to use the playing card suits. For example, if red cards are being used, the hearts can represent ascending intervals and the diamonds can represent descending intervals. If both ascending and descending intervals are to be sung from a given pitch, remember to choose a key that is vocally comfortable.

Game No. 7

This game can be played with the teacher holding up the number cards or with two or more students placing cards on the table in sequence. The first pitch sung is “1.” The card shown indicates the interval to be sung. The next interval shown by the next card is to be sung from the last pitch, and so on. The person showing the card would announce “ascending” or “descending.” For example, if the key is C and the first four cards are “4-ascending, 6-descending, 2-ascending, and 3-ascending,” then the pitches to be sung would be “C – F, F – A, A – B, B – D.” (The underlining represents pitches below “1.”)

Game No. 8

Individuals can practice singing both scale degrees and intervals by dividing cards into two piles of black and red numbers. Turn up a black card and sing that scale degree. Turn up a red card and sing that interval ascending or descending from the pitch sung on the scale degree. Turn up another black card for a new scale degree and another red card for a new interval to be sung. Another more difficult version of this game is to turn up the red card first and then the black card. The challenge is to make the black card scale degree the second note of the interval to be sung.

Game No. 9

 The cards can be used to go beyond diatonic interval singing. For example, use just two suits—hearts representing major intervals and spades representing minor intervals. Decide on the first pitch from which each interval is to be built. Then sing ascending or descending major or minor intervals according to the card shown. As in Game No. 8, it can be more difficult to use the agreed-upon scale degree as the second note of the interval rather than the first.

Game No. 10

Students have both red and black cards representing as many intervals as the teacher wishes to use. In this game red signifies a major interval and black signifies a minor interval. A beginning experience might be to use just the numbers “2, 3, and 5.” The teacher then plays either melodic or harmonic intervals of major and minor seconds, thirds, and fifths. The students place red or black cards on the table in the order of the intervals played. When checking accuracy after all of the intervals are played it is a good idea for the teacher to play each interval and ask the students to echo-sing it.

Closing Thoughts

Skill development requires practice. However, repetition without thought or without change becomes very tiresome and unproductive. The advantage of using card games lies in their easy manipulation of basic musical material, the fun of using playing cards in an unorthodox way, and the need for students to react actively and quickly to aural and visual stimuli. The games will be enjoyed if the teacher carefully adapts them to match the students’ level of musical development so that a feeling of success rather than frustration is engendered. When all of these considerations are taken into account, the games can be a valid part of the eurhythmics experience.

This article was originally published in the Winter/Spring 1996 issue of American Dalcroze Journal, vol. 22, no. 2. It was then re-published in the Spring 2023 issue of Dalcroze Connections, Vol. 7 No. 2.

About Herb Henke

Herbert Henke (1931-2015) was Emeritus Professor of Eurhythmics and Music Education at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. He held voice and music education degrees from Oberlin and the doctorate from the Univ. of Southern California. His License in Dalcroze Eurhythmics is from Carnegie-Mellon Univ. In 2006 he was awarded the Diplome Superieur Honoris Causa by the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze.

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