What’s the point of Aural?

This question seems particularly pertinent as I help prepare another crop of students for their piano exams. The question was, in fact, put to me last week by a student of another teacher (Clarinet) who came to me for some extra aural training ahead of his Grade 5 exam next week. I found myself quoting from the ABRSM website when I said “Aural tests help to train your musical ear, and to help you make an important link between listening to music and playing music”.

I think most of us who took music exams as children would agree that, along with sight-reading, the aural tests were the most dreaded element of the graded music exam. I can still remember being “trained” by my music teacher at school, Mr Weaver, and, in my nervousness, finding it almost impossible to sing a simple major third or fifth. (I was also tested for perfect pitch when I was about 12, in front of the entire class, which was excruciating and cringe-makingly awful.) One of my students, Laurie, absolutely refuses to sing for me and so when we come to the part of the test, where he is required to sing an echo, we mime (or I sing it for him), on the strict understanding that he will sing at his exam!

Joking apart, as well as forming an integral part of the graded music exams, training the musical ear is a crucial process for the developing musician. Intelligent and informed listening lies at the heart of good music making, whether listening to others, or to oneself, and is fundamental to music training, especially for performance. The key aspects from the Prep or Initial stage are:

  • Identifying and clapping a pulse
  • Clapping a rhythm
  • Singing and echo or pitching notes in a sequence
  • Identifying simple features in an extract of music – e.g. detached or smooth playing, loud or soft

As one proceeds through the graded exams, additional skills are tested

  • Identifying a rhythmic or pitch change in an extract of music
  • Identifying features such as staccato, legato, dynamic, tempo or key changes
  • Singing and identifying intervals
  • Identifying cadences
  • Learning to appreciate music from different periods – e.g. Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Jazz

What bothered me while working with the other teacher’s student last week was that the child had no idea why he was required to take an aural test, hence my explanation about training the musical ear. Being able to identify a pulse is crucially important, for any musician, and those of us who have played in ensembles or orchestras can surely still remember the player/s who could not keep time. I regularly do pulse and rhythm exercises with my teacher, and anyone who has learnt ‘Bah-Ba-Doo-Bah’ (John Kember, ABRSM Grade 2 syllabus) with me this term has had to do a lot of clapping and counting to master the syncopation in this piece.

Singing is also incredibly useful as a musician, and I often sing (not especially well!) to demonstrate a line of melody or the shape of a phrase. So much music follows a “singing line”, and singing a phrase rather than playing it demonstrates “natural shaping” which comes from the innate rise and fall of the human voice. It’s a pity that so many students are reluctant to sing because I think if they were more prepared to try it, they would find phrasing music so much easier.

When I worked with the clarinet student last week, I was astonished at his lack of knowledge of music history and the distinct periods in classical music. He did not even realise that the piece he played for me was jazz! He came armed with a book on how to improve your aural, and, flicking through it, it fell open on a page about the main periods of classical music. Each one – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – had four bullet points identifying the key features. When I played an extract of a Gershwin Prelude (No 2 – the middle section) he reeled off the salient features of Baroque music – and my heart sank.

If one doesn’t develop an appreciation and understanding of different kinds of music – and not just ‘classical’ music, but jazz, rock, pop, world, ambient, electronic etc – how can one properly understand how to interpret and play a piece properly? One of the first things I do when looking at a new piece with a student is set the music in context. When we study Bach, we look at the kinds of keyboard instruments he was writing for (I have pictures loaded onto my iPad) and listen to Bach played on the harpsichord or organ. While working on a simplified version of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ with a student recently, I played both the sung version and the quintet to him. Result: the next week he was beginning to play the piece with clearer phrasing and a nice sense of the “song line”.

I was very fortunate when I was growing up: my parents were keen concert-goers and LP buyers, and of course there was live music in the house because my father played in both a wind ensemble and an orchestra. From a very early age, I went to concerts, and my tastes and knowledge developed quickly. Listening and playing were normal activities for me – and remain so today. But many children who are learning instruments now are doing just that – learning the instrument, without being taught an appreciation of music. Perhaps their parents are not interested in music, or the school is not encouraging an appreciation? I admit I’m on something of a mission to encourage my students to both play well and to love music: if just one or two of them remember what they did with me as students when they are browsing iTunes or similar when they’re older, and they download some Beethoven piano sonatas, or one of Schubert’s String Quartets, then I can consider my job well done.

So, there is a lot of point to aural – and it is important for us, as teachers, to explain WHY!

5 Comments

  1. Hello Lottie, and thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that a good teacher should include aural and sight-reading practice in all lessons, regardless of whether a student is studying for an exam. I try to do this with my students, and encourage them to listen to as much music as possible.

  2. I hated some parts of the aural test (for example, singing back either the upper or lower part of a short phrase) but that was mainly due to problems with my hearing; other parts (such as sight-singing, clapping the pulse) I loved because I was good at them.

    However, I think it’s a shame that aural skills have to be on the syllabus. Any good teacher should be developing the skills in the student as a matter of course, as part of teaching them how to be a musician. My clarinet teacher was very good at that, and later orchestral playing really helped to develop my aural skills further – whereas my first violin teachers (I had six over my ten years of string lessons) and windband conductors were less than inspiring, and didn’t seem to attempt to develop musicianship. [I’m not bitter; I can draw on the experience as good examples of what not to do! Though had I not had my clarinet teacher or the good orchestral experience, I probably would be very bitter.]

    Theory also is something that I believe should be taught as a matter of course. It was my clarinet teacher who sparked my passion for music – I’d been playing the violin for five years by then and merely enjoyed it – by teaching me theory as part of learning how to play. He’s not the most technically accomplished teacher I’ve ever had – I’ve played in orchestras with better clarinettists in that sense – but he was the best teacher I’ve had, because he started me very firmly along the path to musicianship.

    That was a bit of a ramble, but your post expressed very well what has been on my mind at times for the past couple of years: I have a friend who is learning to sing and to play the piano, who is still quite under-confident at Grade 2 level. So I’ve been teaching her lots of aural skills to build up her confidence, so that when she tries using the skills to help her play or sing, she finds they work; I’m also learning to lead singing workshops – so general musicianship, but especially aural skills, have been on my mind.

  3. I’m the exception to your rule in that I used to adore aural – it was the one thing I was really good at, having learned at a very young age to identify styles and instruments, and taught myself to play the piano fairly decently by ear before starting lessons. I found sight-reading a minefield, especially with the piano (trombone was fine with just the one line, but two notes at once, moving at different times or in different directions? Nightmare), I was never properly prepared for scales, and there was always a risk of one of the pieces going wrong, but I felt on safe ground with aural tests. I remember telling a trombone examiner that the Chopin piece he played was probably a mazurka rather than a waltz because of the stress pattern, which brought an impressed reaction. I must have been an insufferably self-satisfied child (and clearly haven’t changed much since, or I wouldn’t be boasting about it now).

    The ABRSM may have abolished this, but my memory is that the pupil can ask, instead of singing a phrase back to the examiner, to play it back on the piano. I imagine this might have a very limited appeal, especially among non-pianists, but I have a dim memory of having done exactly this in one exam, both for the sake of a bit of variety and (probably more pertinently) because my voice was breaking and so I had only a tenuous control of my register.

    • Hello Gareth.

      I also loved aural and have always been good at sight-reading – a skill I continue to practice. I was a similarly insufferably smug child! I took great pleasure in correctly identifying music (genre, period, composer etc) in music class at school, which surprised & irritated my music teacher, as I could also be a very argumentative & rebellious child! I once had a dreadful row with him over the correct definition of “bucolic” when I used it, entirely appropriately, in an essay on the Pastoral Symphony. I still use the word whenever I can. “Redolent” is another favourite….!

    • For aural tests Grade 4 and above one can choose to sing or play the phrase as an echo, probably due to the wider ranges and in/compatibility with maturing (yet sadly oft-unused) voices.

      I wasn’t a self-satisfied child – I had far too little confidence for that – but I did know a lot more about music than most of my peers. I remember telling my clarinet examiner that a piece was Baroque, and when asked why my answer was ‘well it’s by Bach’ as if it were the most obvious thing. Whether I elaborated or not I can’t remember, but they seemed mildly impressed.

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