This OER aural skills text is designed to support aural skills instruction at introductory levels, particularly college/university/conservatory classes with names like “Aural Skills 1,” “Ear Training 1,” “Musicianship 1,” and “Sight-Singing 1.” The text may also be useful for teachers of high school AP Music Theory or other pre-college classes, though it has not been tailored specifically to the needs of students studying for the AP Music Theory exam.
Before we start, we should emphasize that this textbook—officially published in December 2022—is still under active development. Fortunately, we still think this book can be useful to everybody in some way. This page has notes to instructors on how Foundations of Aural Skills differs from other aural skills texts, advice on using it as a primary text, advice on using it to supplement an existing curriculum, approaches to assessment, a quick guide to other current aural skills Open Educational Resources, and a sketchy short-term development plan for the text.
If you ever find that you have suggestions or feedback for us, please don’t hesitate to share it. We request that you offer your feedback at this Google form.
If you decide to use the book in any way, please let Tim Chenette know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Book vs. Traditional Aural Skills
Most instructors will be aware that many existing aural skills curricula and texts are derived primarily from the content and ordering of a music theory curriculum, filtered through two tasks: sight singing and dictation. We are trying to move away from that model, for reasons too numerous to express here.
As you consider how this book may be of use in your own teaching, we draw your attention to the following principles, which we have sought to prioritize in the creation of this text.
- Accessibility. With their focus on notated music, heavy reliance on working memory, and limited vision of what student success looks like, aural skills classes are notoriously inaccessible to students who don’t have certain specific abilities and habits. This text has been designed with accessibility in mind, with a particular focus on trying to make everything transparent to those who use screen readers. In addition, we present different visions of what aural skills look like, from improvisation to playback to transcription to sight reading, offering success to students with different backgrounds and goals. Finally, we explicitly recognize that students bring different abilities and experiences to the class: for example, when we call for the use of the voice, we try to offer alternative approaches for those whose brain-voice connection is problematic. Inevitably, there are accessibility challenges that we have not yet addressed, but we welcome suggestions and commit to making aural skills acquisition accessible for as wide a range of individuals as possible.
- A focus on aural fundamentals. Common aural skills tasks like sight singing and dictation require or benefit from an array of abilities, including hearing with reference to key and meter, hearing sound in your head (“audiating”), directing your attention to different parts of the music, and relating music to internalized models. In fact, many instructors say they use sight singing and dictation largely in order to teach students these abilities. We’re convinced, however, that students who don’t have a foundation in each of these areas won’t develop them automatically. So the initial chapters of this text draw students’ attention to these important skills and give them strategies for improvement.
- Connections outside of the classroom. We want aural skills to be something musicians do all the time—not just when they’re in the aural skills classroom. We have a series of chapters dedicated to different manifestations of real-world aural skills: improvisation, playback, transcription, sight reading, and leading or participating in an ensemble. In addition, activities in all chapters relate to such real-world concerns as tuning, communication, conducting, and more. Even traditional classroom activities such as sight-singing and dictation include activities and explanations that connect them to real benefits that musicians can experience outside the classroom.
- Different outcomes. The array of different real-world activities in this text allows some flexibility. Different instructors may care about different manifestations of aural skills and choose different chapters to emphasize, or they may offer students some choice.
- Going beyond notation. The traditional aural skills tasks of sight singing and dictation center “traditional” staff notation. While such notation is a useful skill for many musicians, many pedagogues are exploring how to decenter notation in order to get beyond a focus on pitch and rhythm, embrace oral traditions or traditions with other notation systems, and center creativity rather than replication. In addition, there are many people who struggle with or cannot use staff notation. We use different methods of describing rhythms in our Rhythm Skills chapter, offer Playback as an alternative to Transcription and Dictation (though we also feel that Playback builds skills relevant to these), and offer Improvisation as a way of welcoming in student creativity.
- Welcoming instruments. Many instructors and students have the idea that using an instrument in aural skills is “cheating.” We agree that certain tasks benefit from using the voice, but we are also aware of the extent to which we rely on instrument-based imagery when understanding music. We want to invite students to build and access such imagery, too, so many of the activities in the text specifically call for or welcome different kinds of instruments.
- Learning in groups. So much of what musicians do is collaborative, particularly in ensembles. In addition, “core” classes like aural skills are often important in building community among music students. We embrace group activities throughout the text and include a chapter explicitly dedicated to applying aural skills in an ensemble.
- Empowerment. We have done our best to avoid language about how one “must” do things, in favor of offering paths to new skills. We hope this invites students to bring their own goals and internal motivation into the process of aural skills acquisition.
- Learning, not judgment. Standard aural skills tasks (sight singing, dictation, interval and chord drills) are easy to grade according to a standard of “perfection.” We find this tends to judge students on the abilities they bring to class instead of focusing them on learning, and as a result many students develop fixed mindsets that they are “bad” or “good” at aural skills. Instead of focusing on easy assessment and judgment of student abilities, we have designed every activity in the text as a way to engage in learning. Each activity has a listed goal, presented as the desired outcome of the activity rather than something students need to possess already in order to be successful.
It’s our hope that this results in a welcoming, teaching-based (as opposed to judgment-based), fun, creative, more applicable aural skills curriculum.
We welcome your thoughts—and your reports on how it’s working for you!
Using Foundations of Aural Skills as a Primary Text
As the principles above demonstrate, Foundations of Aural Skills is not simply an OER translation of current commercial aural skills textbooks. While the textbook can be used to support “traditional” instruction (see advice in the subsection below), its primary purpose is to support new models of teaching that are outcome-oriented, creative, diverse, and participatory.
A few general notes about the text:
- First, it is designed primarily to support the first semester or year of higher-education aural skills instruction. Those using the textbook at lower levels may need to supplement the text with additional music theory instruction. While several parts of the textbook (e.g., on chromaticism, form, and mixed meter) may also be helpful at later stages of instruction, these are not as highly developed as the other sections and will require more supplementation.
- Second, it may be helpful to think of the chapters in two main groups: Chapters 1–7 are foundational, preliminary skills (attention, meter, key/solfège, materiality, memory, internal hearing, rhythm skills), while Chapters 8–15 put these skills together to support improvisation, playback (imitation), transcription, sight-reading (vocal and instrumental), ensemble skills, dictation, listening for form, and listening for chords.
Some instructors who are seeking aural skills curriculum reform have already begun to create new models and will want to use this textbook flexibly to support what they’re already doing. Instructors will want to select chapters from each of the chapter groups (fundamental skills in Chapters 1–7, composite skills in Chapters 8–15) that support their goals, and while we think the chapters make sense in their published order, they may be used in any order and combination. (A few sections do link back to earlier material as necessary.) If there are parts of the textbook that would serve your needs better with changes or additions, please feel free to contact us—we would love to make the text better and more useful!
Other instructors may wish to completely redesign their curricula with this text as a reference. The two groups of chapters (Chapters 1–7 on fundamental skills and Chapters 8–15 on composite skills) might naturally support either a first semester and second semester of instruction or the first and second halves of a single semester. Notably, Chapters 1–7 do not absolutely require any use of staff notation, though a few scattered examples do use it as a convenient visualization.
If the textbook is used for just the first semester of the instruction, then the balance between Chapters 1–7 and 8–15 will need to be based on the student body, institutional/curricular goals, and instructional time. In most single-semester uses of the textbook, chapters will need to be skipped. Within chapters 1–7, many instructors may wish to skip Chapter 1 (attention) so as to start building models of meter (Chapter 2) and key (Chapter 3) right away, and Chapters 4–6 are less obviously applicable to current models of instruction (though we urge instructors to consider them). If any of these chapters are skipped, they may still be useful to come back to later: for example, attentional focus is particularly important when doing polyphonic dictation or listening for chords, and this chapter might be very useful to engage with before these tasks. Instructors will also want to consider which skills in chapters 8–15 are most important to them and their students and skip or deemphasize other chapters as necessary.
Finally, the chapters are focused on topics rather than levels and thus potentially go beyond the needs of students at a particular level of instruction. For example, Chapter 2 on Meter starts with simply moving to music, works through approaches to figuring out time signatures, and ends with a brief engagement with hypermeter. Students who have already been introduced to time signatures may not need to go in detail through the first several sections (though we do think that engaging the body is important!), and many instructors will not want to worry about hypermeter in the first semester/year. Instructors are advised to look over the sections of each chapter (which we purposefully keep as short as possible!) and determine which are most important for their goals and students.
Using Foundations of Aural Skills as a Supplement
Foundations of Aural Skills is designed to help aural skills instructors move in new directions. Nevertheless, curricula take time to change. One benefit of an open resource is that it can be used as a supplement to existing criteria without added cost to students.
For those who prefer, or are held to, a “traditional” curriculum focused on identification drills, sight-singing, and dictation, this book can still be useful as a supplement in several ways. First, the chapters on sight-reading, transcription, and dictation have explanations and focused activities that may be helpful to struggling students in understanding how to get better at these tasks and their component skills. (Some teachers may find the explanations helpful, too, in generating new ideas.) Second, each page has creative activities that may be helpful and fun in the classroom. Finally, some of the initial chapters provide instruction that can set a solid foundation for these traditional skills, but in ways that are typically not present in current commercial texts. Chapters 2 (meter), 3 (key), and 7 (rhythm) may be particularly helpful at the beginning of a course.
Other instructors may teach a “traditional” curriculum and be unhappy with it, but lack the time to completely redesign their classes from the ground up. Fortunately, incremental change can be powerful. Here are some potential starting points for bringing new ideas to a class:
- Incorporate some of the text’s activities as warmups. The attentional-focus activities of Chapter 1 and the playback activities of Chapter 9 may be especially helpful.
- Create a 1- or 2-week unit on timbre and texture (Chapter 4), applying aural skills in an ensemble (Chapter 12), or improvisation (Chapter 8). Note that the chapter on improvisation is on improvisation for its own sake, not improvisation in service of developing other skills, which is scattered in activities throughout the rest of the text.
- Be explicit about asking students to draw on their instrument-based kinesthetic imagery when sight-reading or dictating.
- Expand the role of transcription (Chapter 10) in your class, perhaps taking some time away from dictation.
Assessment of student work is a crucial way to communicate priorities, demonstrate appropriate levels of achievement, and incentivize important learning experiences. Unfortunately, many “traditional” approaches to grading aural skills encourage fixed mindsets, lack transfer outside of the classroom, and encourage instructors to avoid creative and group-oriented activities. The traditional tasks of dictation and sight singing are also highly complex activities, and it can be very difficult to tell from student work exactly where problems might lie, much less how to fix them.
Foundations of Aural Skills is full of activities on virtually every page, but these have been designed primarily to support learning, not to make assessment easy. We plan to add more easily-assessable activities and guidance in the future. For now, however, those looking to take a new approach to assessment may find the following questions useful.
- What is the desired outcome of a given activity? “Traditional” aural skills teaching tends to be focused on inputs: the “content” to be learned (typically derived from a music theory curriculum) and the in-class activities (largely interval and triad drills, dictation, and sight-singing). This makes it hard to determine exactly which drills/exercises and what level of achievement to require, and can make it difficult to draw a direct line between any given class activity and real-world skills that students care about. This textbook aims to help you think about the desired outcomes of student learning by having chapters dedicated to specific real-world skills, from playback to improvisation to transcription. Focusing on these and other outcomes can help in determining exactly which activities to have a class engage with, and what to focus on in grading rubrics. It can be especially effective if the primary methods of assessment are as similar as possible to relevant real-world skills. This is a difficult and complicated matter; the book Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe is an excellent resource, and there are quite a few helpful websites with good information about “backwards design.”
- What are the skills and/or competencies students absolutely need to have developed by the end of the class, and to what level? These competencies/skills might range from prerequisites for the next class in a sequence to things that “an educated musician simply ought to be able to do.” It’s important to be reasonable in coming up with a limited list, and some institutions/instructors may not have anything that falls into the “absolutely necessary” category. But if we have a list like this, our grading should prioritize these items. One way to make sure standards are upheld while still encouraging growth is to use some variation of criterion-referenced grading combined with a resubmission or repeat-assessment policy. Criterion-referenced grading involves a list of clearly observable criteria or standards (e.g., “Hum the tonic and identify the mode of a recorded piece of tonal music after listening to its first 30 seconds”), along with an expectation of how many of these standards students must meet (to pass, to get an A/B/C/F, etc.). Typically, students are given repeated assessment opportunities in order to allow time for and encourage growth, and expected to meet the standard a certain number of times over the course of the semester in order to show consistency. If there are other assessed items where the specific standard of achievement is not as rigid, these can be combined with the required items by designating a large portion of each student’s grade contingent on the required standards and awarded “all or nothing,” or by making a percentage of the list of criteria required to pass the class but, for passing students, basing the letter grade on the other activities.
- For each graded activity, to what extent is it about working on process, and to what extent is it about a desired outcome? Activities that focus on process either should not be graded or should be graded in a way that reflects the process more than the outcome. For example, students could be given credit for going through a process in such a way that it is observable by the instructor, or write self-evaluations focused on process. Process-driven activities are especially important near the beginning of a learning sequence—for example, when students are just learning to sight-read—to make sure that those who don’t have prior experience are encouraged to learn rather than discouraged by their lack of preexisting ability.
- Which activities, if any, can be repeated or resubmitted without sacrificing rigor or making too many demands on instructor grading time? Having students return to unsatisfactory work and/or increase practice time can be a really useful way to encourage growth and learning, but having them turn in a resubmission after the answers are already shared may not be useful and swamping an instructor in resubmissions to be graded is impractical. Repetition can be particularly useful in computer-graded quizzes drawing on question banks. Resubmissions may be especially effective for open-ended and creative projects, particularly when the grading will be holistic rather than detail-oriented.
Aural Skills OERs
If you’re looking to adopt Open Educational Resources (OERs) as much as possible in your aural skills curriculum, you may be wondering what else is out there. Here’s the list of what we and our wonderful librarians have found; if you know of other resources, please send them our way and we’ll add them to the list!
- Open Music Theory, Version 2 by Gotham, Gullings, Hamm, Hughes, Jarvis, Lavengood, and Peterson has an introduction to Sight-Singing and dictation, as well as Examples for Sight-Counting and Sight-Singing “level 1” and “level 2” in development by Levi Langolf.
- The Trained Ear by André Mount includes many public domain melodies, formatted to permit either dictation or sight reading, as well as downloadable Sibelius and MusicXML files for these melodies.
- Eyes and Ears: An Anthology of Melodies for Sight-Singing by Benjamin Crowell is an open-source sight singing anthology, downloadable as a pdf or as source code (LaTeX and Lilypond), with printed copies available for a low price.
- The Dictation Resource by Adam J. Kolek is a large graded series of recordings for dictation; the answer key can be requested from the author.
- Free Music Dictations by Jeff Yunek and Benjamin Wadsworth includes a wide variety of activities. Both “Dictation Practice” (with answer keys) and “Dictation Assignment” excerpts (no answer keys) start with protonotation dictations before diving into traditional notation; there are also instructional videos and sight-singing excerpts.
Here’s the current plan for how this textbook will be developed, updated June, 2023:
- Summer 2023: Continue polishing and improving current text; seek peer review and other feedback to determine future directions.
Future directions will depend on feedback and may include:
- Incorporation of more world-music traditions
- Expansion to cover a complete, multiple-semester aural skills curriculum
- Development of more assessment activities, including auto-graded activities
We welcome additional collaborators—please reach out to us if you are interested in working on this project.