Help I can’t sing! – Aural Tests

As the music exam period is almost upon us, I thought I’d focus on one of the most neglected areas of any piano exam; Aural Tests. It’s easy to go along to your lesson every week and focus on your pieces, scales and sight reading, and completely forget about aural tests.

This is an oversight because aural ability should ideally be developed over time; it takes practise to learn how to listen to ear tests and to repsond swiftly under the pressure of an exam. So do try to suggest this to your teacher and perhaps spend 5 minutes of your lesson every week practising aural.

Here are a few ways that you can help yourself;

1. Most grades involve some kind of singing and the  usual complaint from candidates is that they can’t sing! You don’t need to be able to sing properly, you just need to be able to pitch  notes. The best way to practise this is by playing a single note on the piano and singing it back to yourself at the correct pitch. Try this with a variety of different pitches. Once you have done that, it might take a while at first as you do need to really listen to what you are singing, then string two or three notes together and sing those too. Eventually you will get the hang of it and be able to sing, hum or whistle, a whole tune at pitch.

2. Clapping and recognizing the pulse or number of beats in a bar are popular tests. Try to listen to excerpts on the radio or TV, and by listening carefully you will eventually work out where the strong beat falls and be able to ‘feel’ how many beats each bar contains. Similarly with clapping, start off with a small section of music – possibly one or two bars and practise listening – the more you listen the easier it will be to tap the rhythmic pattern.

3. Chordal progressions and cadential points are other common tests in graded exams. You need to be able to spot what chord is being played in relation to the key. Again, it is possible to do some preparation for this yourself. Choose a key and then play the most common chords in that key, that is, chords I, IV and V (1, 4 & 5). These are the chords with either the tonic in the bass, or the fourth or fifth note of the scale in the bass (your teacher will explain this to you). Listen to the bass so that you can decifer the differences in the sound of each chord, chords are easier to spot when listening to the stepwise movements going on in the lowest part, or the bass, and notice the sounds of each cadence whether it’s perfect (V-I) or plagal (IV-I) etc. It’s quite easy for your ears to spot the differences after a while. It’s all about getting ‘used’ to the sound.

4. The last test asks you to comment on a piece from a particular period. The only way to prepare for this is to listen to music from all different periods so that you are aware of the style differences and also of which possible composer/s could have written the piece. Start with the Baroque period (1685 – 1750) and listen to two or three pieces a week noting stylistic traits like counterpoint and ornaments. Follow this with Classical pieces (1750 – 1850) and work your way forward through all the musical periods. Other possible questions include dynamics (loud and soft sounds), tempo markings, articulation and speeds so make sure you are familiar with all these points then listen out for them.

There are many facets of the ear or aural tests you can work on yourself so it’s not just up to your teacher. If you want to succeed in this portion of your exam then start preparing today.  Good luck!


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. musicatmonkton says:

    Hi Mel
    As you may know, I’ve done a lot of work recently on your first point – hope you don’t mind if I throw in a couple more helpful hints….
    For those who really can’t sing, I have found that it is so much easier for them to copy the sound of someone else singing, rather than the sound of the piano. Hearing and feeling how and where the sound is produced allows them to draw on a much more natural instinct (arguably THE most natural instinct of al!), that of imitating another human voice. Much as we love the piano, the purely mechanical nature of the sound gives no clues as to how to reproduce the pitch.
    As you say, careful listening is also key. Inexperienced singers often sing first, and then try to align the sound that comes out to the pitch which they are trying to imitate; these two sounds may be some distance apart! It might be stating the obvious, but an instruction to think the other way around can work wonders. I ask students to imagine, in their inner ear and also physically, what it is actually going to feel like to sing that pitch. (Not unlike a fly half running through the sequence in real time in his head before kicking a conversion.) In my experience, this can produce instant results.
    Even still, some pupils will ‘scoop’ around for the note! I ask them to imagine sticking a drawing pin in a very precise point on a pin board; it has to be placed very carefully and accurately to hit the exact spot. Even better, if the student is prepared to pretend to actually do this as they sing, it is remarkably focusing.
    If it takes a few seconds to go through this process to find each note, that’s absolutely fine. I have one student who is so proud of the fact that he can reliably sing a G every time now – one note at a time is fine for me! For those who find it genuinely difficult to pitch notes, stringing a few notes together can be difficult – much better to practice individual notes, with that 4-5 second preparation time for each one, than to hurry the process.
    Singing is such a worthwhile skill to develop. Quite simply, it draws out musicianship because it demands that the student listens critically to every sound which they make. I have seen pianists transformed through the development of these skills, without even touching a piano….!

    1. What excellent advice – thank you for sharing. Would love you to write a guest post some time? 🙂

      1. musicatmonkton says:

        Would love to! Still very new to this, but very excited at the possibilities of sharing good practice – just let me know what you need!

  2. Helen says:

    What a great article! I have been preparing for my Grade 8 aural tests for the last few months. I have actually been using an app called AURALBOOK that is really helpful. It gives you live feedback like a music teacher was with you and is really easy to use. It helped me pass my Grade 7 ABRSM. Just wanted to let you in on my secret!

    1. Hi Helen, So glad you liked my post. Pleased too that you have found apps useful for piano study….they are a great idea.

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