I have recently discussed a way to approach the different sections of practical ABRSM exams, this article will discuss the aural tests in more detail.
The aural section is usually the part that most students’ dread as it is often the section that gets very little coverage within music lessons. However, a little focus on this section can help you to achieve the higher grades.
Mark All grades
18 Quick, accurate and perceptive response.
15–17 Good response. Minor errors or hesitation.
12–14 Approximately half the tests correctly answered. Evidence of awareness, despite hesitation and error.
Below Pass standard
9–11 Slow and uncertain responses. Inaccuracy in parts of all tests.
6–8 Very slow and mostly incorrect responses. All tests entirely inaccurate.
0 No work offered
For each grade the aural tests section are split into four parts. Grades 6, 7 and 8 are a little bit more involved and have subsections for the four different sections. Part 1 of the aural tests for grades 1 to 3 require you to clap the main pulse of a piece of music and identify whether it is 2, 3 or 4 time. For grade 4 upwards the first tests require you to sing back a phrase or phrases played by the examiner.
For the second part of the aural tests you are required to sing back, as an echo, music played by the examiner, and from grade 4 you will need to sing notes that are written down in the clef of your choice.
The third part of the aural tests cover questions about the music the examiner plays you. For the earlier grades you need to spot changes in rhythm or pitch and then later on you will need to talk about particular features, including cadences and modulations.
The last part of the aural tests require you to answer more features about the music that the examiner plays for you. For the earlier grades this will include features such as dynamics or tempo and then later on you will need to do this as well as identify if the piece is in 2, 3 or 4 time or 6/8 time.
How to approach each section:
Part 1 – The best way to approach this is to listen to lots of music and practice the skill that is required. Just switch on the radio and find the main beat and clap along with it. Find Classic FM or Radio 3 to get a wide range of music with different time signatures. A waltz will be in 3/4 time and has a characteristic umm pah pah feel so it is relatively easy to spot. More confusing can be whether it is 2 or 4 time. The main thing to listen for here is the melody as well as the main beats in the bar. This can give you an easy clue to whether it is 2 or 4 time.
Part 2 – When asked to sing back a phrase as an echo, the best approach is just to go for it. Sing the phrase back immediately without a gap. This can help in a couple of ways as it cuts down the time you have to forget it and also makes you look more confident as the pulse is not lost. When singing the upper or lower part of a phrase, the best preparation for this is to sing in a choir or to practice singing a harmony part along with some of your favourite songs on the radio.
Part 3 – For this exercise you will need to spot changes in the way a piece is played, and then to answer questions about different features of the music you hear. Questions will include the following features: dynamics, articulation, tempo, tonality, character; as well as identifying character, style and period. Picking out features such as changes in dynamics (volumes) and tempo (speed). It is a good idea to use specific musical vocabulary at this point so learn the necessary terms such as mezzo piano, forte etc. for dynamics and Andante, Allegro, Rallentando, Accelerando etc. for tempo. You may well be asked to pick out cadences for the later grades, so it would be good to learn how the different cadences sound and the chord numbers required for them. (For example, a perfect cadence uses chord V to chord I). The later grades require you to be able to identify root, first and second inversion chords. These elements do require practice and in the later grades this extends the knowledge picked up during the Grade 5 theory exam.
Part 4 – For the final part you will need to identify features of the piece of music. From grade 4, you will also need to identify whether the music is in 2, 3 or 4 time as well as 6/8 in grades 7 and 8. For this part of the exam it is well worth spending time listening to a wide range of pieces, either on the radio, the internet or attending live concerts.
The best idea with the aural tests is to take control of what is required and start work on this independently. Very often within your weekly lessons, there is simply not the time to cover all of this as well as scales, pieces and sight-reading. Take the initiative and begin developing your own musicianship and listening skills – the work that you put in will pay dividends in the end and help not just with the exam but everything that you do musically.