Question: An atonal dictation question is part of the exam I'm preparing for. Do you have any advice on how to prepare for it?
I really don't know how I'm supposed to write down an almost random series of notes... Thanks for your help in advance.
Albert's reply: Unlike tonal dictation, in which you can train yourself to recognize a note's position within the scale, atonal music has no tonic that functions as an aural center of gravity. In the lesson on interval ear training, I described how to learned to recognize each interval as it appears within the major scale. Learning to recognize scale degrees is, in the long run, a more effective method of ear training than the common method of learning musical "crutches" in the form of the opening interval of famous melodies.
However, since atonal music has no identifiable scale degrees, you'll have to revert to a more basic level of ear training, learning to identify all intervals within (and a few beyond) the octave. You can use most any ear training software for this purpose, as all of them feature this sort of interval training. There are some available online for free, although they tend to have clumsy interfaces due to the limitations of web programming at the time these programs were written.
I actually wrote a little ear training program in Python that runs in a Linux terminal. It gives the user an exercise based on input parameters (number of notes, intervals), and the user inputs the answers by playing the correct notes on a MIDI keyboard. It's useful precisely for atonal dictation since that's what I programmed it to do. However, it was just a little experiment and I never bothered to program a graphical interface or anything of the sort, not to mention that relatively few of us are Linux geeks. (There's hope for even us though: I'm writing this on a Mac. ;-)
If you're dissatisfied with online ear training, you can download GNU Solfege, a free, open source ear training program that undergoes regular development. Its basic interval identification module will help you in your atonal dictation.
When it comes to the actual exam, you'll need to treat each interval separately (e.g., minor 3rd, perfect 5th, major 2nd) in succession—precisely what we don't do when dictating tonal music. This is an area in which training without a tonal context will be beneficial.