Improve your Aural Skills – ABRSM

Aural tests – two words that strike fear into the hearts of all students taking ABRSM exams.

But, they needn’t be so scary. The tests don’t count for a massive portion of the marks awarded for either exam board, so the bad results won’t be catastrophic for your overall result. However, do well, and those marks might be the difference between a merit and a distinction.

The questions for ABRSM aural tests are basically the same for every grade:

  1. Singing a phrase from memory
  2. Singing from a score (not the early grades)
  3. Listening to a piece and talking about its features
  4. Identifying a cadence type, a modulation, and specific chords
  5. Clapping and rhythm from memory and identifying the time signature

Not every grade will include all of these questions, and the format is occasionally a bit different, but the fundamental areas targeted are the same.

Singing from memory is one of the most dreaded questions. If you find this question difficult, try these strategies:

Think of the melodic shape rather than individual notes – does it rise or fall? Does the melody stay on the same note at any point? Are there any notes that the melody returns to frequently? Even if the pitching of the notes is not completely correct, you will get marks for getting the basic shape right

  • Break the melody up into phrases in your head and think of it (and its shapes) in these blocks
  • Keep the starting and ending note in your head in between listens to see whether these are the same
  • Don’t panic! As soon as you start thinking about whether you are right or wrong, you will falter and lose whatever you may have remembered – keep your focus and be confident in what you are singing even if you don’t feel confident in its accuracy

Singing from a score is an easy question to improve: the best solution is to join a choir. Getting used to singing from a score on a regular basis is only going to help you. But if the perfect sight-singing is still eluding you, have a go at these:

  • Spend some time with IMSLP and YouTube or a piano. Get some simple choir music and test yourself – IMSLP is a free sheet music library that will have thousands of different scores you can use. Then, look up the music on YouTube or play it back to yourself on a piano
  • Look for patterns that you already know – arpeggios, scales, any note combinations that you know from songs/pieces you have played or listened to
  • Try going through a section of sight-singing one note at a time in front of a piano. Sing the starting note while playing the note on the piano. Then sing the next note without the piano, using the piano to check whether you are right. After a while, you’ll get used to what different intervals sound like
  • If you are an instrumentalist, get used to tuning your own instrument – there is no better way of training your ear to pitches, particularly if you are a string player

Alongside singing from memory, talking about the features of a piece is one of the most dreaded questions of the aural tests. The pressure of having to say answers of more than a few words can be quite daunting. But prepare well, and you needn’t feel the stress:

  • Spend as much time as you can listening to unfamiliar music – just a few hours will make a difference. Make the most of car journeys, time waiting for the bus, or school break times to listen to something new, even for just a few minutes. As you listen, try and think of a few things you could talk about, however vague – even just noting that something has a lot of different parts is useful
  • Make the most of resources online and with your teachers – there are plenty of lists of vocabulary if that is something you are struggling with
  • GCSE and A-Level Music students: use what you know from your courses! Describing music as homophonic or disjunct is equally useful for your July exams and Grade 7 piano exam
  • Look up the pieces you are playing online and see what has been written or said about them. This might help you get some ideas about how to describe music

Identifying cadences, modulations and specific chords is a test reserved for later grades. If you are a Grade 1 or 2 student, you can stop reading now, but everyone else read on about how to tackle one of the more challenging questions:

  • There are techniques that can be used for this question, but simply doing lots of practice and listening to lots of music can be the answer. Ask your teachers for recommendations of pieces with conventional cadences or modulations and see if you can simply spot them when you hear them
  • Get to grips with the vocabulary you need for this question before trying to answer it. If the phrase ‘modulating to the relative minor’ means nothing to you, look up what everything means before trying to tackle this question. Also, bear in mind that different grades will require knowledge of different varieties of chord and cadence, so check out the syllabus first
  • Use the ABRSM app. For a small cost, the aural training app offers a multitude of questions and advice on how to approach this question
  • Develop your sense of pitch and recognising intervals. An understanding of common interval patterns for cadences and modulations can be really useful – a perfect cadence tends to follow a specific pattern in the bass, and modulations often use chromatic movement in the bass, so listen out for these clues

The questions on clapping rhythms and identifying time signatures can be deceptively simple and can make or break an aural test score:

  • Listen out for the time signature when you listen to the whole piece – the earlier grades will only hear the excerpt, but later grades will hear an excerpt from the piece that you have to talk about its main features for another question. Use that time to start listening for the time signature
  • Find out which time signatures will be used at what grade – there’s no point guessing 9/8 for Grade 1 when that time signature isn’t included in the exam until around Grade 7. Also suss out whether you need to be specific (i.e. the piece is in 2/4) or whether you can be more general (i.e. the piece is in simple duple time)
  • Much like singing from memory, break the clapping segment down into small, manageable chunks and then string them together
  • Keep a metronomic pulse going in your head throughout listening so that you can see how the rhythms fit into each beat, if something sounds really complicated

We hope some of these strategies help. Good luck to all Millfield students taking ABRSM exams this term!

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