I’ve been poking around looking for different thoughts on teaching Aural Skills and came across two interesting blog posts about this topic. The Pianistic Wordsmith notes that Teaching Aural Skills is Hard.
For the non-musicians reading this, aural skills is a two-pronged course focusing on ear training that every music major must conquer, and nearly everyone struggles immensely with a few aspects of it, because developing your ear in new ways is a very hard thing to do. One side of the aural skills coin is dictation, which teaches students to be able to see what they’re hearing – to visualize and write down the notated music for melodies, chords, rhythms, complex chorales, and other musical elements. The flip side is sight singing, which is the exact opposite: teaching students to be able to hear what they’re seeing. It’s relatively easy to sit down and push the keys, press the valves, or pluck the strings on our instruments as we see them on the page, but a much taller order is to be able to look at a piece of printed music, hear in your mind exactly what it will sound like when played, and sing those notes out of thin air with no accompaniment to check yourself against. Aural skills is kind of a rite of passage for musicians. It’s a very hard course for a lot of undergrads, and developing these skills that don’t translate into propositional knowledge is challenging at best, torturesome at worst.
In spite of the challenge, you should read through the entire post. There is a nice example of a cooperative learning project for the final exam and the excellent results make this an idea worth trying.
Toby Rush has some thoughts about why teaching aural skills is so difficult in his post on Aural Skills is a Funny Thing.
I would wager that most Aural Skills teachers look forward to teaching Music Theory more than they do Aural Skills. The reason for that is simple: Aural Skills classes are usually taught by Music Theory professors.
Sure, that makes sense, right? After all, Aural Skills is part of Music Theory. Except for one thing: it’s not. Aural Skills is not Music Theory and never was.
This is interesting, because it’s exactly opposite of what I like to say about music theory and aural skills, that they really are about the same thing, just two sides of the same coin. When I teach music theory I like to stress the sounds that the music will make and encourage my students to listen closely to them and memorize how an authentic cadence sounds differently from a plagal cadence and what parallel 5ths sounds like.
Yes, the Aural Skills curriculum correlates well with the Music Theory curriculum, and it is primarily this reason that the Theory faculty usually teach the classes. But they are different disciplines. Music Theory is, as I’ve usually defined it, the art and science of figuring out why music sounds the way it does. It is the exploration of what makes music tick. Aural Skills is something entirely different: it is the development of physiological skills, both aural and oral, that are necessary for a professional musician or music educator.
I can’t really argue with Rush’s thoughts here, but perhaps the analogy that works best for my thoughts are that music theory is to aural skills as learning about writing is to reading out loud. Speaking is a different skill than learning to write well, as learning about the structure of how music sounds is different from learning how to understand what music sounds like visually.
. . . over the course of the last decade I’ve learned a few interesting things about Aural Skills:
- It’s not only a different discipline, but a different type of discipline: it’s physiological (involving mind and body working together) rather than purely cognitive;
- Research in Aural Skills pedagogy (the science of teaching aural skills) is a hugely underdeveloped field; and
- I have come to find the stuff fascinating.
Regarding his second point, I wonder if some of the strategies used to teach reading may be helpful with aural skills. At the very least, research on effective reading instruction might offer interesting avenues to explore for new research in aural skills pedagogy. Any grad students out there looking for a thesis topic?