Making a Mess of Aural Skills

Session Chair: Benjamin Graf, University of North Texas


"We are always attracted to teaching situations, in both ear training and analysis, that favor absolute right and wrong answers." (Michael Rogers, Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, 2004, 101)

There is something nice about the way our traditional aural skills tasks—identification drills, sight-singing, and dictation—have clear right and wrong answers. They make our assessment reasonably straightforward, and they give us something to point to when justifying a grade. Yet this seeming objectivity masks the complexity of the learning process, and it may make it hard for students to intuit ways to apply their skills outside of class. Real music is messy: it involves complex sounds, it includes multiple features besides pitch and rhythm, it is often made in groups, we aren't always told what to listen for, and we don't typically get four hearings with a minute of perfect(-ish) silence in between. In our plenary, we will offer rationale, encouragement, and advice for those willing to invite messiness into our sometimes sterile aural skills classrooms. We will address why messiness is important: it allows for interaction, reflects everyday musical experiences, encourages students to transfer skills outside the classroom, and increases self-efficacy. We will also share ideas for messy activities and suggestions for how to facilitate them. Assessment of messy activities can be especially daunting, so we will offer some advice and best practices both for how to balance required standards with more experiential activities and for how to let go of imagined objectivity and grade more holistically. Attendees will leave ready to make a mess of their aural skills classrooms.