Assessment of Dictation

This section is addressed to teachers as much as to students.

It has long been traditional to grade dictations by assigning a certain number of points for each pitch and a certain number of points for each beat’s rhythm, plus perhaps a few “global” points for setting up the right key and time signature and perhaps for good notation. When applied at the beginning of a learning process, this rewards students who are already skilled and penalizes those who most need to learn. Applied at any time, it communicates that perfection is expected. While high standards can be a good thing, it is important to remember that dictation (as compared to transcription) focuses on skills of memory and attention that are negatively affected by feelings of threat or stress. This can result in students who are not immediately successful experiencing a downward spiral of feelings of failure causing negative self-image and stress, which in turn causes additional feelings of failure. When this happens, those who meet initial difficulties may feel like they are never able to improve.

We encourage both teachers and students to consider their specific goals for doing dictation and to use those goals to motivate their practice and grading procedures. The grade communicates to students what is important, motivates working on specific skills, and gives the instructor a clear way to connect dictation to specific outcomes. Here are a few examples:

  • If you are working on identifying key and meter by ear, then the majority of the student process and the grade could be focused on whether students apply an appropriate time signature, seem to be using rhythmic notation appropriate to that time signature, write an appropriate key signature (or tonic and mode above the staff), and begin and/or end on the right note.
  • If you are working on simply understanding/teaching the process of dictation, then students should focus on structuring the process, so a completion grade might be appropriate.
  • If you are working on a specific musical device—say, arpeggiations of the subdominant chord, or dotted rhythms in simple meter—the majority of students’ focus and the grade might be focused on detecting where these occur and notating them correctly.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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