Singing in Aural Tests: the Bottom Line

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

The topic of singing in aural tests has long been a contentious one, but has become more so in recent years. Not only have growing numbers of teachers noted how unpopular the singing tests are, but research in the field of cognitive science now casts doubt on the previously assumed validity of such tests.

In this article I will explore the requirements of the five main boards, consider the links between singing and “audiation”, touch on some basic scientific research (with links for those wanting to read more) and suggest change.

The Requirements of the Five Boards

The five equally accredited international examination boards based in the UK all include aural, ear, listening tests. The content is divergent, underlining the lack of consensus around the issue:

MTB “Listening Skills” tests are almost entirely sung, and include singing pitches within chords of up to four notes, vocal scales, and repeating melodies. They offer playing a piano duet as an alternative.

LCM aural tests include a singing element up until Grade 3, but none thereafter. At Grade 1 the candidate should sing a single pitch played on the piano. At Grade 3 they are asked to repeat a short melodic phrase.

Trinity College London are notable for having avoided singing tests in piano exams for years. Their aural tests cover a wide range of listening skills, intelligently structured around a single piece.

RSL Classical grades replace traditional tests with playing by ear, introduced in a gradual and progressive way. Their innovative approach has practical relevance to piano players beyond the exam room, and includes no singing.

ABRSM give their singing tests considerable weight.

Their Practical Grade syllabus includes singing in aural tests throughout, beginning with echo singing in Initial Grade, singing full melodies by Grade 5, and subsequently the upper or lower of two voices.

ABRSM additionally introduce a sight-singing test from Grade 4, initially a few notes written as semibreves and sung slowly. The Grade 8 candidate must sight-sing the lower voice of a two-part contrapuntal phrase while the examiner plays the upper part on the piano.

Singing tests are compulsory for all candidates, regardless of age, gender, anxiety issues, educational or social context; there are a very few medical exceptions, which seem not to include respiratory illness (either acute or chronic) or allergies.

ABRSM’s tests are likely to be those most familiar to readers, so will be the main focus in this article.

Recognising that there’s a problem

It’s hardly surprising that many have a fundamental problem with these tests, often expressed on teacher forums.

Examples seemingly abound of students who, backed by experienced professional teachers, switch to using different exam boards to avoid singing tests. Probing this, they seem not to be seeking an easier path, but one which is actually more appropriate to their learning and assessment needs as piano players.

I have also heard distressing stories of teenagers crying and even vomiting, overwhelmed by situational anxiety. I have witnessed a small number of my own students suffer adverse reactions when asked to sing in aural tests. I suspect examiners rarely see this for themselves, because these musicians generally decide against making the trip to the exam room.

To grapple with this issue, we must carefully consider the merits of singing as a means of assessing ‘audiation’, embrace some startling scientific facts, and reflect on whether the requirement to sing in an instrumental exam properly reflects our aspirations for inclusion.

As we consider these points, I feel we should be particularly careful not to conflate the importance of promoting singing as a broader imperative with an insistence that assessing a pianist’s singing is relevant or appropriate in a piano exam.

A Singing Test?

Firstly, we need to address the point sometimes made that examiners are not assessing the quality of singing or vocal technique during aural tests, merely listening for basic accuracy of pitch and rhythm.

This encouragement might help put some at ease, but it seems to me disingenuous to imply that vocal technique has no bearing on the assessed outcome, or indeed to suggest that pitch and rhythm aren’t elements of vocal technique. Let’s consider an example…

In ABRSM Grade 4 Test B, the candidate must sight-sing a sequence of five pitches, written as semibreves. It is worth noting that the alternatives of humming or whistling are not offered here. The examiner instructs the candidate:

“Please sing the notes at number… on this page. Sing them slowly, and I’ll help by giving you the right note if you sing a wrong one. Here is the key-chord [name and play] and this is your starting note [name and play]… thank you.”

The instruction to sing is stipulated no less than three times. How exactly is vocal technique not an issue in this test when the outcome is so obviously contingent upon singing?

A basic understanding informs us that pitching notes requires control of the voice as an instrument. Developing secure intonation appears in the voice curriculum of A Common Approach in the sections covering vocal technique.

Surely the candidate who sings the notes accurately, in tune, with clarity and confidence should score more highly in this test than the candidate who doesn’t. We would all rightly be concerned were that not the case. But marks lost in the singing test could make the difference between an overall Distinction or Merit, a Pass or a Fail. I have seen it happen.

At this point, a colleague will usually chip in with helpful suggestions about how I could teach my piano students to sing more confidently. But this misses the central point: my students come to me to learn how to sing through their piano playing, not vocally, and certainly not under pressure in an exam room, and to a complete stranger.

So what reasons are given for including singing tests in piano exams?

Sight-Singing and ‘Audiation’

According to ABRSM’s website,

“Singing, both silently in the head and out loud, is one of the best ways to develop the ‘musical ear’.”

I am sure that this is a useful curriculum suggestion. But what about singing in the exam room? The argument is sometimes made that the inclusion of singing tests is an effective way to assess ‘audiation’.

‘Audiation’ is a term coined by music psychologist Edwin Gordon, and is a fancy word for what ABRSM call the “musical ear”. It is the process of mentally hearing and understanding music, thinking in musical sound in much the same way that we think in words.

In the Grade 4 example previously cited, the candidate looks at the notation, develops an aural perception of how it should sound, and reproduces that using their vocal technique.

But we have already begun to see that the introduction of vocal technique changes the nature of this test. Experienced teachers will have observed that singing pitch with accuracy can prove particularly difficult for:

  • older adults with increasingly frail voices
  • teenage boys with changing voices
  • those prone to situational anxiety
  • those with certain allergies, asthma, hay fever, etc
  • those suffering with chronic or acute respiratory conditions
  • some with disabilities or muscular problems

Would anyone seriously venture that these groups are incapable of audiation, simply because they aren’t strong singers? And yet this rather seems to be the implication of examination boards who use singing as the basis of aural assessment.

While singing may be one of the best ways to develop the ‘musical ear’, it proves not be one of the most reliable or inclusive ways to assess it.

Here Comes the Science Bit…

According to a paper published in 2012 by Sean Hutchins of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research in Montréal, an inability to sing notes with the correct pitch is very common, but is rarely caused by “perceptual deficit” (ie. poor audiation).

Using a specially created pitch slider, Hutchins and his colleague Isabelle Peretz discovered that just 5% of participants had a perceptual deficit (meaning an inability to hear pitch and accurately match it using the slider).

However, a great many of the participants who demonstrated accurate audiation using the pitch slider proved unable to do so by singing.

This scientific finding is pretty big news, and suggests that the use of singing to assess audiation is fundamentally flawed.

Bearing in mind that 95% of participants demonstrated aural perception of pitch, (including many with no musical training) but that a significant group (including musicians) could not accurately sing the notes, it becomes ever clearer that singing tests in piano exams primarily highlight progression in vocal technique, not audiation.

Hutchins and Peretz found that 20% of participants had a vocal-motor control impairment that prevented them from singing the correct pitch of notes, while 35% had a sensori-motor (timbre) deficit, meaning that they had difficulty matching vocal pitch to notes played on a piano or other instrument.

On this last point, consider again those Grade 4 Test B instructions; an examiner’s efforts to “help” the candidate by playing the correct note could, in this 35% of cases, prove more a frustration that heightens the candidate’s sense of impending failure and humiliation. And as teachers preparing our students for these exams, we may be compounding the same mistake on a regular weekly basis.

These findings call seriously into question the validity of ABRSM exam results going back decades, in all cases where the outcome was adversely impacted by the candidate’s inability to correctly pitch notes vocally.

In a further piece published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 (available to read here), Hutchins (this time with Sylvain Moreno) considered dozens of similar studies from the last two decades, concluding:

“One of the most common assumptions about singing is that poor perception ability drives poor production ability. If people cannot hear pitches accurately, then it stands to reason that they will be inaccurate at imitating those pitches. Several studies have investigated this hypothesis, and the evidence is mixed. Using a variety of different singing and pitch perception tasks, some studies have found evidence of a correlation between the two abilities. However, many others, using similar designs, have failed to find a significant correlation.”

ABRSM’s existing alternatives

If there are better, more effective approaches to assessing aural it seems to me incumbent on exam boards to adopt them as a priority. Happily for ABRSM they have already developed suitable alternatives…

In their own (underused) Practical Musicianship Grade exams, ABRSM include a test in which the candidate compares a written score with an altered version played by the examiner.

These tests clearly evaluate the candidate’s ability to connect sound and symbol, including other musical elements such as dynamics, articulation, harmony and tempo; they not only offer a more equitable and inclusive approach to the assessment of audiation, but actually a more comprehensive one, too.

Even more “oven-ready”, ABRSM have at their fingertips a fully written, benchmarked set of aural tests for all grades that don’t include singing at all. Created for candidates who are selectively mute, you can read about these tests on the ABRSM site here.

Given that ABRSM already has up-and-running alternatives, and assuming they have done a good job in benchmarking them, why limit their access? Better, surely, to offer them as an alternative option for any candidate who would prefer not to sing in the exam room.

With their Performance Grades ABRSM have gone further still, ditching the aural tests altogether. If the Performance Grades were made available as a live face-to-face exam, they would likely prove the best choice for many candidates, and considerably add to the appeal of ABRSM’s overall offer.

It is thus a pity that they are only available digitally, as this format introduces further assessment variables in the form of the candidate’s access to the better venue, piano, and filming facilities.

The Bottom Line

The requirement to sing in aural tests is problematic on multiple fronts. The research of Hutchins and others essentially gives scientific weight to the concerns that teachers have now been raising about these tests for several years.

Having largely focused on ABRSM, I must note particular disappointment that MTB, a new board whose existence only began in the years since Hutchins’ research was published, have created aural assessments which completely ignore it. The emphasis on singing in their Listening Skills tests is genuinely perplexing.

Whether in response to the science, educational rationale, or to promote wider inclusion in their exam rooms, I hope that all the boards will equally commit to removing singing tests from piano exams completely, refreshing their aural requirements to deliver music assessments that are appropriate for the 21st century.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.