Some Thoughts on Developing Aural Awareness

Aural training – or ‘aural skills’ – formed a significant part of my own formal music education throughout secondary school. Aural skills exercises typically demanded that we identify short rhythmic, melodic and two-part melodic/harmonic phrases, and then realise them through staff notation. We would have limited hearings and no external points of reference (other than a starting note for melodies) with which to realise these musical ‘fragments’. I enjoyed the challenge of these exercises, and I was aware of the benefits they provided to my musical awareness – they fed my analytical mind.

The approach taken towards developing aural skills at secondary school was responsive to the demands of the then Music: Senior Syllabus[i] document. Aural skills examinations under this syllabus included rhythmic dictation, melodic dictation, and two-part melodic dictation components. My teacher essentially ‘taught to the test’[ii] – our preparation for these examinations largely consisted of us doing preparatory versions of the questions within. Through these experiences we were taught to listen analytically – to listen for the common features and tendencies of melodies and harmonic progressions – to think almost mathematically and formulaically. Listening holistically, or musically, felt secondary. Viewed this way, the approach felt somewhat removed from encouraging deep musical understanding or developing intuitive musical awareness. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that, as Swanwick[iii] identifies, these analytical fragments did serve to feed my intuitive mind with data.

As commonly happens, I adopted the same approach in my first years of teaching – I taught aural skills the way I was taught aural skills. I quickly became aware of the challenge that this approach presented many of the students. The identification and appraisal of a musical phrase often wasn’t the problem – the students generally listened musically – it was the demand on realising their response to the music in notated form that was problematic. Notation often got in the way. Many of these students were missing ‘analytical fragments’… With this being the case, I was not convinced that this approach actually tested aural awareness… at least it did not allow these students to demonstrate it.

Sustained questioning and reflection has seen a shift in my approach to teaching aural skills in the early secondary school years. The traditional model of aural skills – for students in compulsory music education – is seldom meaningful as it is so decontextualised. I am now endeavouring to embody a more comprehensive approach to aural skills – to musicianship as a whole. Central to this is an unashamed study of the ‘parts’ of music, but they are positioned in a context; they contribute to, but are subservient, to the whole.

Aural skill development in my early secondary school classrooms now exists under a broader banner of ‘aural realisation’. I have settled on this term (for now) as I think it best reflects the shift in the way I approach the development of aural awareness. The word ‘realise’ means to become fully aware of something; to understand something clearly; we ‘realise’ music – both the analytical fragments of data, and the combinations of this data into a whole – in ways that (hopefully) develop a deeper and more robust understanding of it as a communicative tool. We engage with the rule structures of music and ‘play’ with them first hand. As Bruner[iv] states, “play has the effect of drawing a child’s attention to communication itself, and to the structure of the acts in which communication is taking place.” Through this we seek to link together aural and written forms of music communication more meaningfully; we aim for fluency with sound and symbol as supportive communicative structures.

Now, back to the approach to aural skills examinations…! As a result of this thinking and reflection, the approach to the assessed product is somewhat redefined and reflective of the playing with music as a communicative tool. We realise – or make real – music in three main ways: from a) an aural context to an aural context, b) from an aural context to a written context; and, c) from a written context to an aural context. I have labelled these elements aural realisation, transcription, and reading respectively. It is not limited to solely a ‘sound to note’ approach. In a little more detail these elements consist of:

  • Aural realisation: aurally re-creating sound heard
  • Transcription: notating what is heard
  • Reading: reading notation to convey intended sound

I feel that this approach is more reflective of the many and varied musical ‘environments’ that students encounter. Hopefully for many it opens up a ‘reason why’ we do this in the first place!

The approach to assessment has also been reshaped. No longer does it take the shape of a formal examination – whereby students have limited time and hearings to respond – but rather it exists on a much longer timeframe. The assessment task is housed on an online course platform (LMS) that allows the students to access the files to complete the task over a period of several weeks. The task is completed independently and in the students’ own time, and hopefully encourages more sustained engagement in working with musical data as a tool for communication. On the LMS platform the students see (with the files embedded ready for download) the following:

  1. Aural Realisation: Using your computer you are to video record yourself singing the melody that is on the LMS (AR Task tab, then locate 1. Aural Realisation). This melody is a recording (no notation is attached) and you are to replicate this melody with your voice.
  1. Transcription: You are to write out the melody that is on the LMS using staff notation (AR Task tab, then locate 2. Transcription). You may write this by hand, or you may use Sibelius[v] to notate your work. You are to attach a handwritten or printed copy of your transcription to this task sheet.
  1. Reading: Using your computer you are to video record yourself singing or playing the melody that is on the LMS (AR Task tab, then locate 3. Reading). If you sing, you may use any syllable you wish. This task will involve you reading from printed music – you may spend as much time as you need to prepare yourself for this.

Together, these cover the elements and intentions of more traditional approaches to aural skill development; however, I feel that working in this way gives me a more definite picture of the level of aural awareness of a student. I feel that this approach also provides additional breadth to meaningful development of aural awareness in a compulsory early-secondary music classroom.

This week, my Year 7 students have begun handing their aural realisation tasks in. Discussion with some of the students throughout the process revealed some promising insights. In our next class I will invite some formal feedback about the process to gain some understanding of what the students thought of the task. Also, after marking all of the responses, I will also reflect on the suitability of such approaches in developing aural awareness in students.

I admit there is some confusion in terms and articulating my position here, but ‘getting it out there’ is yet another layer of my own reflection – a thinking out loud. Thanks for ‘listening’… and feel free to comment. I’m here to learn just as much as my early-secondary students are…


[i] The Music: Senior Syllabus (1995) (Board of Senior Secondary School Studies) was implemented between 1996 and 2005.

[ii] Despite this not being best practice, it was, on some level, necessary. Limited curriculum time and a heavily assessment-driven syllabus likely forced her hand. She was (and still is) an excellent teacher, and she developed our aural awareness through many other musical experiences. Despite this viewpoint, this comment is certainly not a slight at a great teacher, or the robustness of a great syllabus! As an inspirational colleague recently suggested: “Those who went through the 1995 syllabus came out as bloody good musicians!”

[iii] Swanwick, K. (1994). Musical Knowledge: Intuition, Analysis and Music Education. London: Routledge Falmer.

[iv] As cited in Swanwick (1994) as above – p. 94.

[v] Sibelius is a music notation program.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. MrClements says:

    Reblogged this on Mr Clements and commented:
    Some very interesting ideas here!


  2. Eliza says:

    What you said is so true – students can’t really make a connection between aural training the way it’s been done traditionally, and musical skills. I’ve been trying to integrate aural training and musical knowledge, into the process of teaching pieces to my students, so that giving them an aural test is just a check on what they already know. Instead of the way I was taught it – separately, and just for an exam. It’s easier with students who’ve been with me as beginners, but I sometimes struggle with students who’ve learned before with other teachers, in the traditional method of doing aural separately. Would love to have ideas for teaching these students quick…


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