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Music Theory results – update 6 April

Modifications to aural tests in 2011

Why are aural skills important?

Developing students’ listening skills through aural training is an essential part of a music teacher's role. This is because musical, intelligent and informed listening lies at the heart of all good music making, whether it is listening to yourself playing or listening to the music making of others.

Listening leads to learning and is fundamental to any musical training programme, especially one that involves performance.

ABRSM examines this skill in various ways throughout the practical exam – but the aural tests are the focal point when it comes to assessing the candidate’s ‘musical ear’. By integrating practical aural activities in imaginative ways throughout every lesson, preparation for the exam can be a natural extension of what is already an essential part of the student's musical experience. Students should find that the kind of responses they make in preparing for the tests, and on the exam day itself, are a reflection of their growing musical awareness and development as performers.

As the exam approaches, teachers will naturally wish to prepare their students for the specific tests to be included in the exam. The Specimen Aural Tests (published in July 2010) and Aural Training in Practice volumes (published in 2011) are fully refreshed and improved resources to help you and your students feel confident about the tests.

Reviewing the tests in 2011

We were keen to take the opportunity that a revision of the support materials offered to also review the presentation and content of the tests. We looked in detail at our syllabus and identified a few corners where a slightly different approach would allow the tests to run more smoothly and become more approachable for the candidate, as well as making the assessment more consistent and precise.

We went through the test descriptions and the examiner rubrics (the form of words used in the exam) making sure that everything was clear and unambiguous. Particular attention was given to making the rubrics as clear as possible for candidates whose first language is not English.

In terms of the tests themselves, there are a few minor modifications that will have relatively little or no noticeable impact on candidates, as they simply streamline the requirements. These are all detailed below. However, in the case of Test 1C, we felt that a slightly different test would provide a better starting point and more even progression to Grades 2 and 3.

The new 1C Test

Candidates were previously asked to identify a change in the rhythm of a two-bar phrase. They could describe this in words or, if they preferred, raise their hand when they heard the difference and then explain it in simple terms. Our experience is that for a small proportion of candidates, particularly the very young, this proved to be a bit tricky even when they clearly heard there was a difference.

We now ask Grade 1 candidates simply to identify whether a change of pitch affecting one note occurs near the beginning or near the end of a two-bar phrase. This is a much more approachable way of assessing the skill of noticing a difference at Grade 1. It also provides a better step towards similar tests at Grades 2 and 3, where candidates need to identify whether a change was one of rhythm or pitch. Incidentally, at Grade 2 we now use the terms 'rhythm' and 'pitch', rather than 'rhythm' and 'melody', as a rhythmic change also changes the melody.

An example of the new 1C test with the rubric the examiner uses is illustrated below.

New rubric: Now I'll play a phrase twice, but with a change to one of the notes the second time. Tell me whether the change was near the beginning or near the end. Here is the key-chord [play] and the tonic [play]. [Count in two bars and play the phrase for the first time.] And now with the change. [Play the altered phrase without counting in.] Was the change near the beginning or near the end? ... Thank you.

Test 4C (i) musical features (also applies to Grades 5, 6 & 7)

Here, candidates are sometimes asked to describe the character (or mood) of the music. This may be followed up with a question about which features of the music create that mood.

Although this is a rather subjective area, the assessment is really about whether the candidate can relate musical features to the overall character. This is an important skill, as listening attentively and recognising the features which contribute to a particular character helps to inform students’ own communication skills in performance.

In the revised tests examiners will therefore ask something along the lines of 'What in the music gives this piece its character?' This places the emphasis firmly on perception of musical features.

Tests 5C (i), 6D (i) and 7D (i) musical features

Here, candidates will no longer be asked about any rhythmic feature of the piece, although they will continue to be asked to clap a rhythm back in part (ii). The word 'form' will also be deleted, as in reality questions about form are difficult to establish, especially given that candidates have heard the short piece only once.

Questions on phrase structure will be retained at Grades 6 and 7 since these provide a more realistic approach.

Test 6C cadences

There will no longer be the requirement within this test to state whether the music is in a major or minor key. This is rather a simple requirement for candidates at this level, and is actually introduced earlier as 'tonality' in Test 3D.

So, Test 6C will be simply to identify if the cadence at the end of a phrase in a major or minor key, played twice by the examiner, is perfect or imperfect.

Test 7C (ii) chords

Here the tonic second-inversion chord will no longer be included. So the Ic-V cadence will not feature at this level, although it will remain at Grade 8.

Test 8A (iii) chords

The identification of chords for 8A will consist of a single approach chord and the two final chords of the cadence – i.e. three chords in all. The new rubric is shown below.

New rubric: Now tell me what the last three chords are. First, I'll give you the key-chord, then I'll play through the three chords you need to name. Here is the key chord [name and play] and the three chords [play the chords slowly in sequence]. Now I'll stop on each chord for you to name it. Here is the key-chord again [play]. First this chord..., now this one... and the last... . Thank you.

Test 8C modulations

Recognising a modulation to the supertonic minor will no longer be required for Test 8C. In addition, for modulations at Grade 8, candidates will need to either state the relationship of the new key to the tonic (e.g. subdominant) or name the new key in actual pitch terms (e.g. F minor), but they will not need to do both.

Supporting information

Mock aural tests


A number of tests allow for a second attempt or for an additional playing by the examiner, if necessary. Also, where there is hesitation on the part of the candidate, the examiner will be ready to prompt, if necessary. In any such cases, this will affect the assessment.

Deaf or hearing-impaired candidates

Deaf or hearing-impaired candidates may opt to respond to alternative tests in place of the standard tests, if requested at the time of entry.

Modifications in 2011

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