The ‘Musical Ear’: What Is It? And Do We Need To Test It?

You’ll know from my other blogs on music education that I’m of the opinion that a lot of what is being examined in our young musicians (and mature ones, taking the dreaded graded exam journey) is outdated and irrelevant. The system has remained much the same for over 80 years, and shows no signs of changing anytime soon. Most academic exam systems have changed over the years, so why have music exams (and I’m looking at you ABRSM) staunchly remained the same all of this time?

Maybe they feel that there has been no better testing system brought to the table? Maybe it’s already perfect, so we shouldn’t mess with the magic? Or maybe music is such a conservative art form that it’s manifesto has simply gone unchallenged?


But let’s look at what’s been going on for all these years…

When we sit an ABRSM exam we are usually asked to play 3 pieces, play some scales, and then do some aural tests and sight-reading. You get marked on each discipline and given a total out of 150, with a mark of 100 needed to pass. This structure has been there for years and years and years… But what does this amount to? What are they really testing here? What did the grey-haired, organ-loft-residing, cricket-watching men have in mind when they invented these tests all those years ago?

Grade 8 Cello done and it’s time to celebrate…

There is no doubt in my mind that the performance aspect of these exams is the number one consideration. Have you played the music accurately, not made too many mistakes, got the gist of the composer’s intentions by obeying the dynamics, articulations and tempi etc? Good. Well done. But wait… what do the other parts of the exam test? The scales, aural tests and sight-reading. What are these examining?

A good question, don’t you think?

The scales, isolated as they are from the pieces learned, are really just finger exercises. Much like learning to type perhaps, or play a computer game and learning the controls. An athletic feat pure and simple. It requires no real musical knowledge, as muscle memory and fingering are really what are at play here. But let me clarify…

Scales are made up of fingering patterns and, perhaps, getting to know the notes of a scale as well. On the piano it’s maybe a 123, thumb under, 1234, thumb under etc etc. These are, at best, a didactic learning skill. A discipline. They are not necessarily connected to the pieces you have learned in any way. OK. Fine. And there’s no doubt that learning patterns is very important in music. But, as I have said in my previous blogs, learning scales separate from learning harmony (and therefore, improvisation) is a complete waste of time, as far as a responsible music education goes.

You can learn finger independence in a great many ways, and scales are not necessarily one of them. In the context of ‘playing your pieces’ they are negligible. And should, perhaps, be part of a different exam… like maybe the current Theory exam – or an altered version thereof that was more relevant to the ABRSM’s intentions (whether they know what they are or not).

So let’s turn our attention now to the sight-reading.

Sight-reading is, once again, another discipline of no importance in a playing exam. It relies on processing skills that some have and some don’t. Of, course your sight reading can improve over time, but in real life, whether in orchestras or ensemble playing you are seldom placed in a position of having to sight-read for a performance. So why exam it?

And finally, the aural tests. Allow me to ask the question: What do we learn from aural training? In my opinion, not much.

Grade 8 Aural done, and it’s time to celebrate…

For the musician with perfect pitch these tests are a dawdle. For musicians without perfect pitch, they are excruciating, and there is not a lot a of middle ground. I’ve taught music, studied it at a high level and still I find that those students without perfect pitch struggle no matter how much training they have. But then, there is not much use for perfect pitch in the real world. It might hurry things along doing a transcription, perhaps, but it doesn’t make you a good performer or an interesting composer – other things are involved for this to happen.

So why do ear training? And why examine it formally? Well, the ABRSM website says that aural tests are there to develop a good ‘musical ear’ – here’s the blurb from their website:

Listening lies at the heart of all good music-making. Developing aural awareness is fundamental to musical training because having a musical ear impacts on all aspects of musicianship. Developing good aural skills is an important part of any music education and the ability to hear how music works helps students with all aspects of their music-making and learning.

Hang on… you’ve given us 4 different ideas here! And what are these concepts in the first place? What is ‘aural awareness’? What are ‘aural skills’? And just how does ‘music work’!?


But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. They seem to say that ‘listening’ is important. OK. I agree, it’s THE most important thing about being a musician. And we can do this, easily, by listening to a whole load of music. But it’s the others I have difficulty with: aural awareness, aural skills and hearing how music works… They are completely undefined. Why? Because nobody knows what they are. And that’s a problem.

Music has always been an art that resides in an illiterate zone. It’s not written about very well, it’s got finite critical expertise, its analysis is characteristically simplistic and it lacks the historical inquiry afforded the other arts. There’s no wonder that no one knows how to examine it; that no one knows what it is. You don’t need to understand it to be able to do it. It’s not rocket science, or medicine, or law, or ??

My feeling is that the instrumental part of the exam should be separate from the scales and aural tests. If playing is what’s important, then that alone is what should be marked.

The idea of ‘general musicianship’ is a misnomer. It is a catch-all term (somewhat like the ABRSM Pratical Musicianship exam that tests a whole load of unrelated stuff ie: memory tests, improvisation, figured bass, score questions etc…) that, as we’ve seen above, cannot be measured accurately unless separated into its proper components.

What they are really seeking to measure are very different things: a) playing ability and b) musical knowledge (in its many different forms). But that isn’t immediately apparent; the term ‘musicianship’ does not point you in that direction.

So, to sum up, do I need to be able to play the notes of an Emin melodic scale? Or is it enough to simply know what they are? If you are a jazz musician then, yes, you need to be able to play it, if you are a classical musician then, no, you don’t, you don’t really need to know what the notes are – unless you’re a composer, then it would help. 😉

And as for having a ‘musical ear’… well, let’s call it ‘the ability to appreciate all kinds of music’; it is a social skill and not the domain of an exam board that wants to test your perfect pitch or short-term memory.


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