A Good Pair of Ears: Conceiving of and Developing Aural Skills in Popular Music Education

Bryden Stillie and Zack Moir


When musicians and music educators consider the area of aural training, many of us have a tendency to imagine students transcribing melodic dictation, identifying chord progressions, intervals, and cadences by ear, and otherwise training to recognize the sonic fingerprint of theoretical/stylistic devices taught in other areas of their studies. Many music students spend a great deal of time (particularly in the early stages of their undergraduate degrees) thinking about structural elements of music such as melody, or harmony, for example, and this leads to a tacit understanding that the very notion of‘aural skills’ pertains primarily to the recognition and identification of the building blocks of these supposedly paramount structural elements. Even a cursory glance at a number of the textbooks available on the subject of aural training (see, for example, Cleland and Dobrea-Grindahl, 2010; Phillips et ah, 2011; Merritt and Catro, 2016) leads one to believe that there is a core set of valuable aural skills that seem to be viewed — by the authors of such books, at least — as ‘essential’ tor musicians, and that consequently become included as aspects of curricula in formal education programs. This means that we, as educators, spend a great deal of time encouraging our students to engage in (almost always decontextualized) exercises that focus on the minute details of these musical features, such as interval recognition, chord identification, cadence differentiation, and rhythmic dictation, for example. While it is undeniable, particularly given the weight of tradition that has come to frame these tasks as central to ‘musicianship,’that these exercises are beneficial to the development of some musicians, we find ourselves in something of a problematic ‘chicken-and-egg’ situation that we need to consider critically if we are to meaningfully serve the needs of the wide (and expanding) range of skills and activities represented by the term ‘musicianship’ for music students in the twenty-first century.

At this juncture, the authors would like to acknowledge that they have a particular practical and philosophical interest in popular music education and, as such, many of the arguments and perspectives in this chapter are informed by this interest and our experiences as educators in this area. Given the increasingly accepted plurality of the term ‘musician’ and the skill sets to which this term pertains, we (the authors) believe that our students, studying popular music in higher education (HE) in the UK, need to develop aural skills that are situated in, and attuned to, a context that will be relevant and valuable to their musical experience and/or aesthetic frameworks. Consequently, this chapter will begin by presenting a brief discussion on the nature of what the authors see as the normative practice of aural training and how popular music education differs from other more traditional areas of the wider field, as we believe that this is an effective way of framing our argument. However, the authors would like to emphasize that, when referring to normative practice in this area, it is acknowledged that this is not the way in which all educators work, with many (on both sides of the unfortunate, and arguably false, ‘popular’/’classical’ dichotomy) feeling similar frustrations and a desire to diverge from established conventional aural training methods by way of improving the experiences of their students.

Many ot the decisions we make as educators are framed by the learning, teaching, and assessment experiences we wish to offer our students. As such, we will use these three areas of practice as lenses through which to investigate aural skills as part ot higher popular music education (HPME). Before doing so, however, a brief consideration of the rationale for considering popular music as distinct from ‘traditional’ music education will be useful in contextualizing the discussion that follows.

Chickens and Eggs

Within the field of music education, educators (the authors included) find themselves in an interesting position that is dominated by the combined influence of‘prestigious’ tradition and the weight of received wisdom. These influences are pervasive but largely unexamined and pass without critique because they can be so ingrained in our practice and comprehension ot the essence of our role as music educators. The area ot aural skills training is one particularly good example ot the way in which the unexamined influence on our practice has an enormous impact on pedagogy, curricular focus, and broader conceptions of musicianship that have serious impacts on the education of young musicians. This is particularly true when we consider those who find themselves interested in areas of music study that are not considered mainstream or that are still considered somewhat nascent, such as popular music, for example. In this sense, the supposed paradox ot ‘the chicken and the egg’ serves as a useful way to conceive of some of the issues that we face as educators in this area. Effectively, we can consider the following question:

What Came first, the chicken or the egg? Or ‘If chickens hatch from chicken eggs, then how did the first chicken hatch from such an egg if there was no previous chicken to lay it?’

As being analogous to:

What came first, the music or the pedagogy? Or ‘Does our music pedagogy focus on specific aspects of music because of the music we value and teach’ or ‘Do we teach and value certain musics because of pedagogic practices and content?’

Considering the issue in this way makes plain the fact that much of what we do as educators is directly influenced by the music with which we are engaging. While such music remains constant, as is arguably the case in many areas of music education (through deference to a canon, for example), the presumed purpose of music education can become conceptually linked to the perpetuation ot said music within education and the broader society (Green, 1997; Moir and Hails, 2019). In such a case, then the pedagogic status quo and associated practices can be argued to be broadly suitable. However, when other musics become the focus of study, and the purpose ot studying music becomes less ‘functional,’ then it is important for us to question our theoretical/technical/structural focus and the pedagogic practices associated with the teaching and learning of these musics and to consider new ‘pedagogical models’ (Smith, 2014, 44) that may provide more learner-centric and valuable experiences. Unfortunately, however, the dominance of Western Art Music (WAM) within formal music education and the ossification of practices associated with the transmission and comprehension of the music have led to a range of people (from the general public, to amateur musicians, to music publishing companies, to music teachers and HE music educators) seemingly crystalizing and curating these practices as those which constitute ‘music education.’ This phenomenon exists in a logical loop in which the more that educators accept and default to pedagogies that are associated with certain musical material, this material becomes accepted, for some, as ‘the music that people

should study,’ as this music is passed from teacher to student, usually in a master-apprentice paradigm, the supposed authority of educators/institutions, the historical significance ot the music, and the purported pedagogical value of focusing on it coalesce to create powerful structures that are difficult to question or deviate from (discussed in greater depth in Moir and Hails, 2019).

The authors do not believe it to be an exaggeration to suggest that, tor many music educators, the perception that ‘it was always thus,’ means that certain conceptions ot music education and ways of teaching and learning have become so crystallized that it is difficult for educators to conceive of any other ways ot thinking. As pedagogies become ossified and are further cemented — through practices that proliterate through continued use ot the wealth of teaching materials that flood the market that have grown up around music education — certain methods become normalized to the degree that they are eventually viewed as the methods. Little attention, however, has been given to the history of these methods, or their intended outcomes. The tried and tested pedagogic methods that have been developed over centuries of music education practices that allow for the transmission of certain types of music are clearly not suited to all musics and musical practices. We believe that more consideration needs to be given to this reality. Educators must think critically about the skills that they would like to encourage their students to develop and must implement learning, teaching, and assessment (LTA) approaches that encourage metacognition (Harvey and Burrows, 1992) to enable students to identify their own areas of development.

The contexts in which popular musicians deploy their aural skills are typically very different than those of classical musicians, and we need to acknowledge this in the pedagogic approaches we implement to teach and assess such skills. This is an unfortunate dichotomy, but it highlights the fact that the pedagogies associated with teaching both of these areas ot music need to be considered through different lenses. Furthermore, the vast range of practices through which students ot popular music engage means that it is difficult to pin down a set of specific tasks that they need to be able to perform, or a range of musical/sonic features that they need to be able to identify or recognize, for example. As most classical music education is traditionally facilitated through score-based practices, the features that are prized and commonly attended to are those that are communicated through scores (which are basic skeletal instructions tor performance, not accurate representations of the sonic reality of music). We argue that this has the unintended side effect of the areas of aural consideration being limited by the visual means of transmission/instruction in the form of the score. A great deal of popular music practice, it could be argued, is not concerned with score-based transmission, and many of the areas of aural interest are spectral (i.e., concerned with issues of tone/timbre) rather than structural in the traditional sense. Additionally, there is more ot a tendency to engage in improvised music, so in this sense aural skills are clearly more linked to creative applications than to identification, recognition, and discrimination, for example.

Popular Music Education - A Different Beast?

Musicians often informally praise colleagues, or recommend them to other musicians, for example, by saying that they have ‘a good pair of ears,’ meaning that they have the ability to hear, understand, synthesize, and act creatively on musical information. As such, the authors (who are primarily popular music educators), believe that aural-skills development needs to sit within the wider framework of general musicianship, not as a stand-alone topic. Degree programs in practical popular music making have existed for a little over 30 years (Cloonan and Hulstedt, 2012; Till, 2016), and as such the pedagogy associated with higher popular music education (HPME) is an emerging field of research where educators are beginning to develop, propose, and share new and innovative ways ot teaching popular music. WAM pedagogic models have evolved over hundreds of years and have therefore had time to develop to suit the music they service. These approaches have been proven to work well in the typically formalized settings of teacher/student or master/apprentice teaching dynamics, where aural skills are taught in relation to developing a greater understanding of music theory and notation driven concepts. HPME is still in its infancy, if we compare its development timeline to that ofWAM.

Universally accepted PME pedagogical models have yet to emerge, and are probably unlikely to do so, due to the promotion of highly individualized reflective learning based on creative practice. The reasons tor a lack of common practice are multifaceted, but as a starting point, PME deals with the formalization of what is more recognizable as an informal practice (Green, 2002; Smith, 2013; Folkestad, 2006). Through the formalization of this informal practice, we need to consider how formalized educational structures can be applied to the teaching of popular music and still provide authentic learning experiences — a topic of great debate across the PME sector (tor further discussion, see, for example, Smith, 2013; Till, 2016).

Learning Experiences - Where Do Students Develop Aural Skills?

Given the perceived problems pertaining to aural skills within HPME, explored earlier, it is of the utmost importance that we realize that the learning experiences of our students go tar beyond what happens within our lecture halls. In fact, as is noted by Andrianopoulou (2019), as early as the 1980s, the very place of aural-skills studies in HE curricula met increasing challenges and questions regarding the rationale for its inclusion, on philosophical and pedagogic grounds. As educators in HE we need to remain cognizant that music students joining our programs already possess and exhibit highly developed and specialized sets of aural skills through their previous (often autodidactic) musical learning experiences. For example, access to online tutorials, music production software, and the plethora of music available via music streaming platforms has resulted in our students developing important aural skills, sometimes without ever realizing that this was a ‘specialist area’ ot study or musical activity (Cremata et al., 2016; Smith, 2013; Garner, 2019; Zhukov, 2015; Tobias, 2015). This situation can often lead to students developing a sophisticated sonic understanding of the music they listen to, perform, and write, which suggests that their highly personalized and haphazard (Moir and Stillie, 2018; Green, 2002) informal pathway has enabled the development of individualized, practice-focused aural skills. It would be naive ot us to assume that the development of their aural skills occurred as a result ot formal training in the manner described earlier, and it would be frankly arrogant to assume that their aural skills will be activated, or even improved, by our formalized interventions.

In the contexts of band rehearsals, our popular musicians also develop aural skills without specifically setting out to learn them, basing their musical contributions and creative input to performances and compositions on what sounds ‘good’ to them, and by listening intently to the performances of the other musicians in ensembles or on recordings. The musical decisions popular musicians make are often predicated on their prior aural experience, surroundings and context, and/or ability on their instrument rather than from the theoretical understanding ot what they are actually doing. For producers and composers/songwriters, the educational concepts of play (Lieberman, 1977) or experiential learning (Boud et al., 1985) can have a significant impact on the development of their aural skills (like, for example, the act of setting up a software effect plug-in or a synthesizer and then experimenting by varying the controls to hear the impact ot said changes). Encouraging musicians to engage in the activity ot ‘play,’ and using their aural skills for creative guidance is imperative for students of popular music, and often this involves actively encouraging students to free themselves ot ‘rules.’ Producer Giorgio Moroder describes this simply by stating: ‘[Ojnce you free your mind about the concept ot harmony and of music being correct you can do whatever you want’ (Daft Punk, 2013). In this context, our ears give us the ability to make appraisals ot the sound in its creative context rather than following prescribed rules pertaining to idiom-specific theoretical rules (e.g., specific approaches to harmony, for example). Learners need to be able to develop their aural experience based on what they hear and imagine within the contexts of the music they are engaged with, rather than having to learn theoretical concepts primarily used to describe the music in context for which they were never designed.

The question remains, however, when we are talking about learning aural skills: what are we actually referring to and how do we facilitate this activity, as educators, within HE? As we have stated, in the context ot popular music this is particularly important as a simple adoption of the prevailing pedagogies and content will lead to an inauthentic and irrelevant experience. This, however, is not a new suggestion, as almost a century ago, Lowery (1936) encouraged us to remember the importance of musical context when developing the aural skills ot musicians. This notion of musical context is (1) central to the discussion and goes tar beyond simply selecting examples from real music that are similar to the musicians areas of interest, as is the case in many secondary school curricula;1 and (2) encourages us to think also about practical contexts, that is, the situations in which these skills would be used and applied.

There is a danger that, by formalizing the educational experience of these students, we end up making decisions on what they should learn based on our own training rather than focusing on how we can enable the personalization of their education. Within the context of assessment-led structures (which we often believe to be imposed by HE institutions), this formalization usually equates to standardization, and thus we arrive at a situation in which we imply that all musicians should learn the same things. The authors argue that aural training needs to be valuable and have obvious practical application in the musical practice(s) of individuals. For example, the specialist aural skills that we may suggest to be valuable for a drummer may be vastly different from those expected of a saxophone player.2 Furthermore, the aural skills exhibited by one drummer (and required for them to be successful within their areas of practice) may be entirely different from those ot another drummer. The point is that any attempt to standardize these skills does not necessarily benefit students, and following a traditional WAM model of testing aural skills based on notation-centric concepts and theory, although arguably valuable for some non-classical musicians, does not provide an authentic learning experience that popular music students would find helpful in supporting their music making. Student learning in popular music settings is rarely predicated on analyzing and performing using scores or notation; more often learning occurs through aural experience through replicating, responding to others, and experimenting with sound production. ’

Educators in this area have a responsibility to develop a greater understanding ot the value ot aural skills to the individuals they work with (discussed in greater depth later) and to remember that our purpose is to facilitate learning, and not to fabricate structures that validate only some aspects of the aural component of musicianship. To ensure that we are meeting the needs of individuals, we need to consider how we build flexibility into our learning designs that allow students to develop the ‘aural musicianship’ (Mok, 2018, 380) skills they might need to support their own music making activities. As educators in PME we are responsible for developing environments that enable students to develop their ears within a framework of personally relevant and idiomatically appropriate musicianship. This means that rather than designing courses with the express purpose of developing a specific ‘set’ of aural skills, based on engrooved practices within a discipline, we have to move toward a more holistic method ot including aural skills as part ot everyday practice in our classrooms.

Teaching Experiences - How Do We Teach Aural Skills to Pop Music Students?

Having discussed the broader educational context and what we consider learning might look like for our students, we will now explore the current/common approaches to teaching aural skills and examine effective ways in which we might teach them. The concept of aural training for popular music students raises interesting questions in relation to the skills that educators value or consider as core. Many of the methods currently used by educators in popular music will be recognizable as having their roots in WAM pedagogies. For some students there may be some value in following this notation-led method, however, so much of what we expect our pop musicians to be able to identify aurally and then describe is not relevant to notation, pitch, or rhythm, and is more related to identifying timbre and tone (Dolan, 2013), which suggests that the aural skill sets required by popular musicians cannot be taught by ‘conventional’ methods alone. As such, the use of traditional WAM pedagogic approaches, even when using digital aural training software such as EarMasler, do not provide a framework for those who need or want to develop aural skills that are not linked to conventional conceptions of pitch, rhythm, or music theory.4 The assessment of aural skills is predicated on measuring recognition or identification of quantifiable elements of certain music theories rather than examining, what is arguably more important, the sound itself. We would also suggest, as has been noted by a number of other writers (Buehrer, 2000; Pratt, 1998; Reitan, 2009), that it is hugely important tor aural skills education to utilize instruments, voices, and other music-making technologies, by way of ensuring that this endeavor draws on and consolidates other musical skills, implicit knowledge, and prior learning — in short, so that it is a natural element of musicianship and not a seemingly irrelevant bolt-on to other areas of music education.

Teachers regularly rely on students singing scales, arpeggios, or intervals to teach their learners ways to internalize, practice, and develop their understanding of the sound of these theoretical patterns. Additionally, teachers will often encourage students to make use of a visual aid such as a piano keyboard, staff, or a technique such as the Guidonian Hand (Fleet, 2017) to help make sense of the scales and intervals they are exploring. However, it is rare that we listen to music ‘interval by interval’ or by separating ‘rhythm from pitch’ when we listen to music (Kolonski, 2006, 55). While singing provides an approach to developing a greater aural understanding of these theory/notation- led concepts, we need to be mindful of Kolonski s (2006, 55) discussion of the potential flaws in this approach in that ‘traditional dictation activities may train students to notate isolated musical components, but they do little to prepare students to listen to and comprehend real musical compositions.’ Additionally, we need to consider how the ‘auralization’ of these components can be contextualized and personalized within the practice of the musicians who study with us.

Dictation, that is, the process of listening to music and notating it on a staff with accurate pitch and rhythmic phrasing, is also used to develop and test aural skills against a set of quantifiable parameters such as key, rhythmic accuracy, melodic accuracy, and so on. However, in PME settings where notation is not always used, learners may be more focused on replicating something they have heard without notating on a staff. For example, it is quite common to see students write out a list of notes as letters (A, B, Qtf, etc.) and then perform them to a rhythm that they are either copying or improvising.

Teachers will often ask their students to deploy their aural skills in instrumental, performance, composition, or other class-based contexts to help identify or recognize musical structures (i.e. verse, chorus, drop) and understand and describe the arrangement and role of instruments in a piece of music. Additionally, teachers might ask their students to analyze tone, timbre, dynamics, and rhythmic interaction within a piece or performance. In WAM teaching settings, it would be expected that the score plays a leading role in guiding students to understand musical structure and to support the development of aural skills. Additionally, the harmonic and rhythmic rules set out by particular musical forms dictate how the music is structured, arranged, and in some respects how it should sound. The concept of teaching aural skills based on a set of rules sets a dangerous precedent for teachers in PME settings, as so much of the music in this domain does not conform to, or needs to be shoehorned to fit, rules set out by WAM. Thus, implying that there are a set of rules through the content we decide to teach will ultimately create inauthentic learning experiences that no longer replicate the informal practices recognizable outside the HE system and may stifle creative practice. Students might also use their aural skills to replicate sounds or copy the performance of others by ear. Finally, we often describe musicians with good aural skills to be able to ‘hear the changes’ which enables them to anticipate harmonic and rhythmic progressions. These musicians are linking their aural skills with their prior musical experience and understanding in real time and are clearly listening to the other musicians that they are working with.

In music production or technology contexts, some of the skills that are taught to instrumentalists are still pertinent; however, students need to develop an enhanced ability to identify how timbre and tone is created through the use of software and/or hardware in the recording, production, and mixing processes. These skills are often taught by examining the impact of sound production technologies and how these affect sound, then listening, analyzing, and discussing tracks to identify the potential causes of these sounds and possibly particular techniques that have been used, such as side-chain compression, filtering, and so on. However, in production contexts there is often more than one way to achieve similar sonic results. This provides an additional challenge in that the teacher must decide whether or not to teach multiple ways of achieving the same sound or whether to let the students experiment or play to find this out for themselves.

Thinking tor a moment about the recent personal experience of the authors, at Edinburgh Napier University we have recently redesigned the structure of the first and second year of our BA Popular Music degree to build stronger links across modules and to provide a more holistic and connected learning experience. This has enabled us to explore different ways of assessing both theory and aural skills without typical exam formats and has enabled students to focus their aural-skills development within a musical framework that is recognizable to them. The main enabler for this new approach is that composition is now compulsory for all students and the music that is written by these students is informed by other modules on the course, such as contextual studies and music technology modules, with the music that is produced becoming repertoire in performance exams. Putting creative practice at the core of the learning experience has enhanced personalization, increased student engagement, and allowed students to engage in realizing the music they write through performance. Additionally, in performance classes, we have introduced a ‘plussing’5 approach in performance critique sessions, where students are critically listening to a performance and then making suggestions of how to develop or improve what they have just listened to. These feedback sessions are highly effective, as they emulate and extend what would happen in informal band settings where collective reflection and decision making becomes the core enabler to refining their musical performances. This new approach has enabled us to nurture students to develop the aural skills that meet their needs as creative musicians and break from the constraints of testing the skills directly. It has also allowed us to embed the requirement for students to develop and demonstrate their aural skills in a range of different ways that are relevant to their musical experience, aspirations, and goals through contribution to critical or creative outcomes.

Assessment Experiences - How Do We Assess Aural Skills?

As educators in HE, we are somewhat constrained by the modular structures imposed at institutional level and the requirement to assess our students’ success against learning outcomes. The use of modules to separate out the ‘chunks’ of learning students engage with to complete their program or course can often cause learning to occur in silos. Whether in the module or program design process, or from the perspective of a student learning on the program, each module is viewed as being somehow separate from others on the program and it is often voiced by students and staff alike that the module content may not feel linked with other modules across the program or course. The authors acknowledge that external agencies such as Quality Assurance Agency6 and qualification frameworks such as Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework7 and Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications8 provide benchmarks to ensure parity' of student learning across the UK HE sector and that these benchmarks inform learning outcomes at the module level. However, it is apparent that module-level learning outcomes often evolve from the way in which they can be tested rather than from the perspective of providing a highly personalized experience tor learners. 7

There are significant limitations imposed on the development of aural skills by testing knowledge to elicit a correct answer, particularly when we consider music production. Although aural tests cover chords and scales that would be recognizable in popular music settings, learners still need to have developed significant written music theory knowledge to be able to engage and succeed in these types of examinations. This notation-led assessment approach, inherited from WAM pedagogy, is used regularly in PME settings as a simple way for PME educators to assess knowledge based on right or wrong answers rather than designing more valuable holistic and contextual assessment of musicianship skills.

The structures of most HE courses generally require students to meet module-level learning outcomes by demonstrating skills and attributes within assessment tasks. This modular model, that expects everyone to meet the same module learning outcomes does not, on the face of it, provide the degree ot differentiation and personalization we might hope to provide for our students. It is important, therefore, that when considering the assessment of aural skills that we can allow for differentiation and provide a way ot enabling musicians to develop domain-specific aural skills (McNeil, 2000) that they will find useful and valuable in their future music making activities and that will allow them to approach the study and acquisition of these skills from a perspective that is relatable to their experience.

Rather than testing their recognition ot theoretical concepts in a separate aural exam, which for many educators provides a convenient way to assess such skills, this shift to using their aural skills to support their poietic practice has had a profound impact on their music making. Additionally, embedding the demonstration ot aural skills within an assessment framework that is predicated on creative practice contributes to a more holistic approach to assessment and development of aural skills that is not predicated on right and wrong answers and is more aligned to the development, within our students, of a greater understanding ot their own creative approaches to music making and the enhancement of general musicianship.


This chapter has presented some of the issues that the authors believe to be fundamental to the learning, teaching, and assessment ot aural skills. Given the background and the main teaching areas of the authors, the focus has been on the development of aural skills in students of popular music, but we suggest that many ot our arguments apply to music students in general and that there is a wider need for pedagogic approaches that place the needs ot the students at the heart of the educational experience. In the preceding sections, we explored the nature of aural-skills education in HE through the lenses of ‘learning,’ ‘teaching,’ and ‘assessment,’ and it would be useful to continue using these areas in order to conclude this chapter.

Essentially, it seems that there are a number ot compounded issues that make this such an interesting area of discussion yet one that is simultaneously problematic and full of potential for our students. The study ot popular music is primarily concerned with aurality, and this is, perhaps, in contrast to many of the ways in which WAM is often studied, given the primary focus on score-based texts. The artifacts ot study in popular music are often recordings and performances, and the means of apprehension are typically bound to these modes of communication. The use of scores in PME is often viewed as an intermediary phase that is, for many students, an irrelevant complication that has little to do with the practice and one that limits the aural experience to only those aspects that are easily transcribed. However, as PME has inherited many of the practices of WAM music education, we find ourselves in the awkward situation in which a primarily aural discipline (i.e., popular music) seems to ‘require’ a distinct component of study that we refer to as ‘aural skills.’ This, it seems, is clear evidence of the dominance of WAM pedagogies influencing PME such that the very essence of the practice is skewed. As such, we argue that the perceived need for this area of musicianship to be ‘taught’ to students, or to be a specific and distinct area of curricular focus, is where the problem lies. Similarly, in the context of HE, perceived need for assessment has led to a situation in which we are prone to assess that which is most convenient in test form rather than that which most adequately supports the needs ot the students. So using the tripartite framework of ‘learning,’ ‘teaching,’ and ‘assessment’ as areas of pedagogic activity in HE, it could be argued that the latter two areas (i.e., teaching and assessment) seem to be at the heart ot normative practices, with little critical consideration for the former (i.e., learning) which the authors believe to be the most important part of the educational project. Standardization, tradition, score-centric pedagogies, and a lack ot critical consideration of the normative practices ot educators have led to a situation, in many areas, in which the cart has been placed before the horse. Simply put, assessment is paramount, teaching to the assessment is easy and formulaic, and thus learning has become secondary, despite being something that should be at the heart of all HE practice.

The authors believe strongly that educational practices in this area need to move away from traditional models which, although easier to assess, unnaturally skew the focus of aural-skills pedagogy toward certain aspects of music because they are easy to write down and communicate in score form. The focus on such elements, namely, pitch, rhythm, and harmony, means that such approaches lack the ability to suit the idiosyncratic needs ot those studying the array ot subjects within the sphere ot popular music. There needs to be greater consideration of how we, as educators in popular music, can facilitate learning experiences that are situated in authentic practice, that allow for personalization, and that link to the (often) informal, but practice-focused nature of learning popular music in nonacademic contexts. There are significant challenges to devising entire programs that encapsulate the feeling and experience of learning informally; however, it is possible to devise connected learning experiences that enable students to enact autodidactic and idiomatic musical learning practices that enable them to personalize their education. Placing creative practice at the core of what our popular music students do enables us to build an educational framework that allows students to explore the music that excites them and to develop aural skills that are directly related to their own interests. This allows for aural skills to become interleaved throughout an individual’s learning experience and not something that is divorced from their practice in any way.

It is clear that as popular music educators we need to ensure that aural skills are embedded in all practice yet are not necessarily seen as a list of skills that need to be included in all PME settings. There is a significant challenge around defining the aural skills that popular music student learners need to acquire didactically and those that can, and should, be developed through active participation in creative activities that promote metacognition and reduce the reliance on ‘teaching’ and the associated problems that it can present.


  • 1. See for example Scottish Qualifications Authority Music Higher and Edexcel/Cambridge International А-Level Music course descriptors.
  • 2. The authors acknowledge there is a move towards development of specialist aural skills in some institutions, particularly in Europe and the US, and this is a positive step; however, it is still more common that aural skills are taught to groups containing many instrumental specialisms. This approach lacks the individualised learning experience instrumental specialists require and encourages standardization and the assessment of ‘skills’ that can be easily measured quantitatively in educational contexts.
  • 3. Arguably, the dominance of the WAM paradigm has impacted on practice such that some programs continue to place a significant value on the analysis of scores and playing from notation. While the latter may be a skill required by pit musicians or by session players, the music many of these students are analyzing from scores was never intended to be made transferable through being written down, and therefore we again question how learning in this way can be authentic.
  • 4. EarMaster is an ‘ear training’ and music theory application: www.earmaster.com/.
  • 5. ‘Plussing’ is a method of giving feedback developed at Pixar (Gogek, 2014). The underlying principle of Plussing is that for any critical feedback given, the person giving feeding back must give suggestions for improvement. This approach encourages open dialogue and fosters a supportive learning environment where everyone’s opinions are considered.
  • 6. The Quality Assurance Agency safeguard standards of UK HE provision across the world, www.qaa.ac.uk
  • 7. The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework is the national qualifications framework for Scotland. https://scqf.org.uk/.
  • 8. The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualification set out the different levels ofhigher education qualifications and the requirements for each of these, www.qaa.ac.uk/quality-code/quahfications-and-credit-frameworks.
  • 9. This observation made by the authors is predicated on their experience as educators in HE and their extensive experience as course validators and External Examiners across the UK.


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Strategies to Develop Comprehensive and Holistic Music Analytical Listening Skills Through the Use

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