Aural Skills is a Funny Thing

I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be an Aural Skills teacher when they grew up.

For you non-music-majors out there reading this: (First of all, why are you reading this?) Aural Skills is a set of courses that music majors are required to take, generally as freshmen and sophomores, which help them learn ear training, which is the capability to notate music that they hear; and sight-singing, which is the capability to sing a written melody that they haven’t heard or sung before. The classes are named differently depending on the college or university: sometimes they’re called “ear training” even though they incorporate sight-singing, sometimes they’re called something like “musicianship.” Regardless of what they are called, they almost always deal with ear training and sight-singing, and they are almost always hated by the students with a firey passion.
Well, you may find it interesting that the professors of the classes feel about the same way. Okay, “hate” may be too strong word, but I would wager that most Aural Skills teachers look forward to teaching Music Theory more than they do Aural Skills. The reason for that is simple: Aural Skills classes are usually taught by Music Theory professors.
Sure, that makes sense, right? After all, Aural Skills is part of Music Theory. Except for one thing: it’s not. Aural Skills is not Music Theory and never was.

Yes, the Aural Skills curriculum correlates well with the Music Theory curriculum, and it is primarily this reason that the Theory faculty usually teach the classes. But they are different disciplines. Music Theory is, as I’ve usually defined it, the art and science of figuring out why music sounds the way it does. It is the exploration of what makes music tick. Aural Skills is something entirely different: it is the development of physiological skills, both aural and oral, that are necessary for a professional musician or music educator.
So if Aural Skills doesn’t really fit in the Music Theory department, where should it be? If you go through the list, you’ll find that there is no good answer to that. Sure there are some departments — Music History, for example — where it obviously doesn’t fit. Others seem right at first until you get to thinking about them. The Music Education Department? While a music education class should cover how to teach aural skills, it doesn’t have the responsibility for teaching aural skills any more than a music ed class should teach you music theory. The Voice Performance Department? That’s probably another close fit, but aural skills is an aspect of general musicianship, and it is not specific to performance.
What about having a separate Aural Skills Department? A few of the larger schools in the country (Berklee, for example) do just that. For most schools, however, the administrative costs of having a department devoted to Aural Skills makes little or no financial sense. Plus, having a separate department also implies that you have at least some faculty whose career is specific toward that discipline, and as I mentioned above, Professors of Aural Skills are pretty hard to come by. (It’s worth mentioning that the more than a dozen faculty members in the Berklee Ear Training Department are, like most faculty at Berklee, performers.)
So what do we do? The Theory Department is probably the best place for Aural Skills, but we — students, faculty and administrators — need to realize that it is indeed a separate discipline, and should be treated as such. I wasn’t too aware of this when I first started teaching, but over the course of the last decade I’ve learned a few interesting things about Aural Skills:
  • It’s not only a different discipline, but a different type of discipline: it’s physiological (involving mind and body working together) rather than purely cognitive;
  • Research in Aural Skills pedagogy (the science of teaching aural skills) is a hugely underdeveloped field; and
  • I have come to find the stuff fascinating.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching theory and generally look forward to my Monday-Wednesday schedule more than my Tuesday-Thursday schedule, but I feel like eleven years of teaching Aural Skills has given me some insight that has really started to coalesce in my mind over the last few years and which I’ve been able to apply in class to the benefit of my students. I’m going to try to blog about these over the next little while (read: “very periodically over the next twelve months or more”) in preparation for a journal article or something.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll get someone so excited about it that they’d want to grow up and be an Aural Skills Teacher? Ooh… hopefully not.


  1. Bill says:

    Hey Toby,
    I answered your comment on my blog but don’t know if you’ll see it or not, so here’s what I said:

    Blogger Bill said…

    Toby, thanks for the memories and the good thoughts. You’re the same age as my oldest son, who lives in Seattle. From what I can gather, you’re a music professor. My son’s a talented sax/piano player in the upper school jazz band at the ABQ Academy.

    Surely I don’t remember you or the church or the day you met me, but it’s mighty nice to hear from someone out of the past. Thanks.

  2. Donald says:

    Why am I reading this? I googled “aural skills” to see what the term might mean. Now that I know, I will answer your other question. Aural skills is part of the field of musical gymnastics. You have my permission to teach it without wearing leotards.

  3. Eila says:

    This came up because I googled “aural skills pedagogy” to find out how many people are working to remedy the situation rather than bemoan it. My aural skills teacher was terrific; we learned more beautiful music in that class, and more about it, than in any other class or ensemble or applied lessons (although those other experiences were enriched by the aural skills background). So, I wanted to, and became, an aural skills teacher. The problem is how to get a job doing it with mus.ed. degrees rather than a theory degree.

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