Reinforcing Written Theory with Aural Skills

Note for Readers with Disabilities:

This document contains scores of music that cannot be verbalized by your screen reader. You may use the zooming features of your software program to enlarge the music to your preferred font size. If you require a hard copy, large print, or braille figure supplement, please contact Disability Services at 212-713-8333, or by e-mail at [email protected].

This article concentrates on two broad components relevant to the AP Exam: written skills and aural skills. At both the college and the high school level, it is all too easy to fall into routines that divide these skills, at least in our students’ minds. Sometimes we schedule aural and written activities on different days, and often we use separate textbooks for each. The danger is that students may begin to think that ear training is unrelated to part-writing. The moment that part-writing becomes an exercise in moving abstract dots around the page in accordance with a set of rules it ceases to be a genuinely musical activity.

We all know that the heart of music is sound. Although music theory necessarily involves a certain degree of abstraction, we need to make sure that sound remains central in our teaching and in our students’ thinking. With a little bit of planning, we can add aural exercises to our classes in such a way that they actually save time while enhancing comprehension.

Aural Perception of Principles (Not Memorization of Rules)

When our ears are not fully engaged, part-writing (indeed, composition in general) poses an almost overwhelming challenge. The burden of remembering and correctly applying “rules” would become very heavy if we were to rely exclusively on conscious learning, memory, and meticulous proofreading.

Consider the resolution of the leading tone, for example. A student working strictly by eye must learn that scale degree 7 resolves to scale degree 1, accurately identify the leading tone every time he or she writes it, and remember to resolve it correctly. A student who thinks about the sound of the notes while writing them, on the other hand, will resolve leading tones by reflex (assuming he or she wasn’t raised in a non-Western musical culture). Whether I’m illustrating voice leading in a four-voice context or just introducing scales, I make it a point to stop with the leading tone in the soprano and ask students to sing what comes next. Naturally, they sing the tonic (usually before I ask them to!), and we talk about the importance of hearing this strong musical pull. I tell them they need to resolve the leading tone—not because I say so, and not because the textbook says so, but because their ears tell them so.

Similarly, I prefer to introduce the proper resolution of sevenths by ear. I play an incomplete progression (two examples appear below) and ask my students to sing what they want to hear next in the soprano.

They will reliably resolve the soprano’s seventh down by step (to C in the first example and A-sharp in the second, probably continuing on to B to complete the progression)—again, not because anyone instructed them to do so, but because this resolution conforms to their musical instincts.

Employing our ears is especially critical for recognizing and understanding exceptions to the general trends. Yes, we expect leading tones to resolve, but does this melody sound wrong at the end?

We can all agree that the melody sounds perfectly fine, despite its leap away from the leading tone just before the final cadence. When I ask students why this is okay, someone invariably responds, “The leading tone does resolve, but not until the next measure.” When we address harmony later in the semester, I’ll be able to explain this phenomenon intellectually by showing that the cadential dominant lasts for two beats. Until then, though, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a more informal understanding based on my students’ aural reaction. Identifying a list of circumstances under which the leading tone might not immediately resolve would be difficult (and potentially confusing), and clearly it would also be a waste of time: Why memorize patterns that our ears already recognize effortlessly?

Numerous topics relating to written theory may be better addressed primarily by ear (e.g., meter, when to raise scale degree 7 in minor keys, harmonic rhythm, resolving tendency tones). Indeed, when we contemplate issues of musical style and taste, our immediate reaction to the sound is the central concern. Consider the following melody, for instance. Which final note would you choose?

Although we are ordinarily drawn to the perfect authentic cadence (and there is certainly nothing wrong with ending on B-flat), in this particular melody D creates a rather pleasant effect. We can discuss whether this is because the D fills in a gap created by the second phrase or because B-flat may be slightly overemphasized already, but the important thing is that our ears drive the decision making. It would be very difficult to itemize and then weight all of the factors involved, let alone craft a coherent formula for predicting when an imperfect authentic cadence sounds appropriate; fortunately, there is no need to do so when we actively imagine the sound of the melody while writing it. If we work solely by eye, treating written music as isolated notes that are simply strung together and never considering their overall aural effect, we might never even raise stylistic questions like this, let alone answer them.

Introducing Harmonic Progression

Aural exercises can be used very effectively to demonstrate the concept of harmonic progression. Appropriate musical examples can illustrate each chord’s musical role and place it in context with other chords that students have already mastered. I like to use essentially the same method described above, except that I ask my students to sing both the soprano note and the bass note they want to hear next.

The incomplete progressions shown below serve to introduce IV and VI, respectively.

When I play the first progression, I can count on most students singing an A for the soprano (and probably compulsively resolving this A to B-flat on the next beat) and an F for the bass (again, generally continuing on to B-flat). I play the progression again and ask them to figure out where I stopped; it usually doesn’t take long for someone to realize that a major triad with scale degree 4 in the bass must be a IV chord. Then I ask students what chord they were trying to lead IV to by ear; the combination of scale degree 5 in the bass and scale degree 7 in the soprano clearly suggests V, and of course they realize that the V wants to resolve to I. Not only am I well positioned to explain the broad notion of a predominant chord, but I can even point out how our ears steer us away from the parallel fifths that are such an inherent danger with this progression.

Because VI is a relatively weak chord, students tend to be a little more hesitant about completing the second progression, but typically they agree that the soprano should continue E-E-D and the bass sounds best concluding with G-A-D. Through my leading questions, we establish that VI progresses well to ii6. Of course, I repeat the exercise with at least one more incomplete phrase demonstrating that VI-iv is also a good progression.

Notice the critical importance of establishing a clear musical context! Students will have no sense of what comes next if they cannot perceive the key and meter. Furthermore, their level of confidence (as well as their level of agreement) depends largely upon your presenting a strong contrapuntal framework in the outer voices. Be very careful to avoid ambiguity. Clear formulaic progressions that provoke strong aural responses bring the topic to life and can save class time in the long run, but weak progressions that could meander off in a variety of ways are likely to cause confusion.

Capturing the Essence of the Cadential Six-Four

Meter affects our sense of harmony more than we often realize. The two partial progressions below stop on precisely the same chord, yet if I play each one and ask students to sing an appropriate completion, I receive very different responses.

It’s useful to begin by having students focus solely on the bass line. In the first case, they will immediately sing D-G, whereas in the second they will sing D-D-G (or at least hold a single D for two beats). I point out that clearly they are hearing the need for a dominant and tonic, but I ask why the second progression demanded an additional beat of dominant. (If they aren’t sure, I play the second progression with only a single beat of dominant, leading to a cadence on beat 2, and ask what feels distinctly wrong about this solution.) In order for the final tonic to fall on an appropriately strong beat, the second progression simply needs to delay its arrival through two beats of dominant.

Then I ask students to focus on the melody. Most people will conclude the first melody with A-G; virtually everyone will complete the second melody with B-A-G. The musical context practically begs for a cadential six-four—who could resist? (In fact, the cadential six-four is so ubiquitous in this situation that even people with no formal knowledge of harmony will predictably supply the characteristic melody, making such illustrations quite suitable for introducing this important chord.) A context-sensitive aural approach reinforces the central purpose of the cadential six-four: it’s essentially a time killer on the dominant that has the additional advantage of smoothing out the melody. The features we most want students to remember are quite obvious to the ear: The chord falls on a strong beat, the bass wants to stay on scale degree 5, and the melody wants to resolve down by step.


Linking aural skills with written skills can improve learning in both domains and—more importantly—instill good musical habits that will last a lifetime.

Authored by

Nancy Rogers
Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida