Tag Archives: aural tests

Learning a New Language

Since I started teaching singing, I’ve been struck over and over again how much learning music is like learning a language. Music speaks in its own way – by learning to play our instruments we are learning the words and sentences that allow us to convey meaning. When we start to unpack notation, we’re learning to read (and write) all over again. We develop our ability to understand through listening to music, so we can appreciate and enjoy not just one, but many levels of music, just as in conventional language we learn to appreciate poetry of language as well as the message it’s conveying.

Just like a language, we use and move in all four linguistic realms:

The Realms in Music

These realms are often quite disconnected, like in the image. We do things which cover all of them, but we don’t think of them as all together. Schools take a lot of the burden of listening, but don’t do much with speaking or reading and writing. Private music lessons focus lots on speaking and some reading (playing from notation), but not much on writing. Well, until the dreaded Grade 5 theory approaches, and then it’s a crash course through the minimum to pass.

As a teacher, I’ve come to realise that really, learning music looks a lot more like this:

Bringing the Realms Together

It’s important to develop the relationship between all the different aspects of learning, otherwise vital skills, like writing down what you hear (or, dictation) get missed out!

We want to cover all these areas in lessons like this:

Integrated Learning

We want students to be able to do the skills in the in between brackets long before they go to conservatoire. Dictation isn’t hard, it just needs practice, as does sight-reading. Being able to identify differences between music as written v. as played might seem like a party trick, but it’s actually key to the kind of self-awareness that means students can fix their own mistakes both in playing and composing.

I’m currently working on building a curriculum of musicianship for singers that takes into account all these different areas to make sure my students go out into the world not just able to sing, but as singers and musicians.


What do you think? Do you have any ideas on activities which can tie different “linguistic” areas of music together? Add your comments below:

ABRSM Exams – Supporting Tests: Aural Tests

NB. The Information about the content of the aural tests is not in the singing syllabus, but instead can be found here:

Aural tests are very easy to neglect. They are a small portion of the exam marks, and only take a few minutes at the end of the exam. They can seem unimportant. Nothing is farther from the truth!

The marks for aural tests can make a big difference to the outcome of an exam, especially when a candidate is borderline. Don’t leave them until the last minute!

Unlike for sight-singing, there are several good resources on the market. I’ve used all of these:

The first two books are essentially collections of tests which can be used in lessons. They both now come with a CD which means candidates can buy Aural Training in Practice for use at home. Improve Your Aural is more of a workbook which covers preparation exercises to help students unpack the requirements and transition from the skills in one grade to the next.

Aural training for the next grade should, ideally be started after the last one, so that students are confident with the requirements long before the exam rolls around. This aspect of general musicianship can also be supported using the materials for practical musicianship exams which have activities which are similar to the aural tests, but more wide-ranging. I have also found that Hal Leonard’ s Basic Skills Rhythm Without the Blues and Ear Without Fear  work really well as supporting materials for aural perception, particularly for students who already read music (and so Go for Bronze and Jolly Music aren’t appropriate).

From around Grade 5, it’s also important to supplement the aural test practice with wider listening to help students get more confident with identifying styles and suggesting composers. From around aged 9 or 10, I start doing listening activities with students, and help them create a History of Music binder which supports this aspect of aural training. Follow this blog for more on the History of Music project, which I will be posting about over the next few months.

With all this in place, candidates should be approaching the day of the exam with confidence. Next week’s post is on tips for putting all this together and succeeding on the day itself.

–> Next post: “Putting it All Together”

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