Teaching Music with Aural Skills

If you’re leading an ensemble or a member of a chamber ensemble that shares leadership, you have the responsibility to think about how to teach the music that you will be performing. This is often very difficult, particularly if you’re working with inexperienced musicians, and leaders sometimes resort to teaching by rote. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it fits your goals, but sometimes it can slow the learning process down and feel “unmusical.”

In addition, many ensemble directors—especially those who work in schools, colleges, and universities—have educational goals for their students. Integrating aural-skills thinking into the rehearsal process can help ensemble members learn to think for themselves in terms of key, meter, and more.

Recall that one of the central themes of this text is the importance of context, particularly key, meter, and tempo. Though we haven’t discussed it much yet, we should also add harmony/chord progression to that list. Adding an awareness of these factors from the beginning of the learning process can make that process more effective and sometimes quicker. In addition, if musicians learn music without that context (say, a part at a time), then when they are suddenly faced with the context (all playing together), it can be disorienting and require yet another learning process.

How can we teach music in a way that supports our musicians while making sure they have the context they need to facilitate their learning and understand the music? This is a huge question, with many nuanced answers. We’ll just give three principles here:

  1. When communicating with your musicians, make sure you’re referencing the context. For example, it is our experience that choral directors often reference intervals when helping their singers find difficult notes. This gives a certain small amount of context, but it may be even more musical and effective to draw on the larger context of the accompanying chord(s) (pointing out, say, that they are moving from the root of one chord to the third of the next, and perhaps playing that chord progression for context) or the key (pointing out that they need to find, say, scale degree 6/la). The way you do so will of course depend on the education your musicians have and their standard practice: you might use solfege and technical terms, or merely demonstrate while helping them track the chord/key with an accompanying instrument.
  2. Use the bass to help your musicians hear their relationship to the key and chord progression. The bass is strongly associated with chord progressions, so having it sound while another section is practicing or learning their part will help that part hear some of the context without being distracted by large numbers of other sounds.
  3. Finally, think about which parts have natural relationships. These might be similarities (say, two parts often move in parallel thirds) or pointed contrasts (say, one part always rests while the other plays and vice versa). These parts can be very useful to learn together since each provides crucial context for how the other will sound.

Activity: Rehearse a sight-reading ensemble

Goal: Integrate fundamental aural skills into the rehearsal process (the director); practice sight reading in an ensemble (everyone else).

Before you start: You’ll need an ensemble; we recommend a 1- or 2-on-a-part choir; working with singers typically requires the highest level of thinking about context, since singers don’t have the aid of an external mechanism in finding pitches. You’ll also need some music to rehearse; we recommend notated choral or instrumental music with 3–5 independent parts. You may be able to find such music in a sight-singing anthology, but it’d be great if you can check some music out from a score library or find some on IMSLP or CPDL.


  1. Assign each member of the group to a different piece of music or section of a piece. Each person will act as ensemble director for their assigned excerpt. It will be helpful if everyone has some time to look over their section, consider how to orient the ensemble to key and meter, consider what in the excerpt will be most difficult, and relate everything to context (key/scale degrees, meter/rhythmic cells).
  2. Each person should take 10 minutes to lead the ensemble in sight-reading and rehearsing their assigned excerpt. Whenever there are difficulties, the leader should offer advice related to aural skills—the numbered list of ideas above may be helpful. Since the group is not working towards a performance, you can focus on integrating aural skills into the process rather than teaching the music in the quickest way.
  3. Once everyone has taken a turn leading the ensemble, engage in self-evaluation or discuss how things went as a group. What types of aural skills were the most helpful to the ensemble? How was each director able to integrate these into their rehearsal? What might have been able to be done better?


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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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