Sight-Singing: Your Key to Success in Melodic Dictation

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Authored by

  • Suzanne M. Schmidt
    Pennsbury High School
    Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania

Practical Suggestions for Skill Development

The AP® Music Theory Exam tests a student’s melodic dictation and sight-singing competencies in both major and minor keys. Here are some practical suggestions for teaching these skills.

Here are some basic principles:

  • First, coordinate melodic dictation work with sight-singing. What we sing is what we write.
  • Second, start simple and move to the complex – rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically – as well as in the length of the dictations.
  • Third, stay with pentatonic materials for a significant amount of time.
  • Fourth, prepare aurally through singing, for future written work.

Sequencing

As a Kodály educator, I base my students’ aural and written skill work on Kodály’s sequence of singing development. My students also “sign” the various solfège syllables; this practice gives them the opportunity to manipulate the syllables they are both singing and hearing. With each pattern taking anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, my beginning students sing and sign the following sequence of pitch patterns (in various creative combinations and melodies) and scale work:

  • Sol-mi
  • La-sol-mi
  • La-sol-mi-re-do
  • Do’-la-sol-mi-re-do
  • Do’-la-sol-mi-re-do-(low) so
  • Major scale (moveable do)—stepwise motion only
  • Major scale – stepwise motion, plus skips of the tonic triad
  • Major scale – stepwise motion, plus skips of the tonic and dominant triads
  • “La”-based minor patterns and scales (natural, harmonic, melodic)

Embellishments

Coordinating sight-singing with melodic dictation is the key to success. My students sight-sing specific syllables in patterns and melodies. The same syllables and patterns are found in the dictations the students are writing. For instance, if the class is singing patterns and simple melodies using only the pitches la-sol-mi, then these are the only pitches that will appear in their melodic dictations. I also coordinate keys, keeping warm-up exercises and dictations in the same key on the same day. This gives the students the opportunity to examine pitch relationships on the staff, both melodically and intervallically, within a specific key.

The principle of starting simple and moving to the complex is important to all three types of dictation study – melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic – and has an immediate bearing on the length of dictation examples. My very beginning dictations are one measure in length, use only quarter notes, and incorporate sol and mi exclusively. We then advance to two-measure dictations, sequentially adding additional pitches (la, re, do) and rhythms (half notes, eighth notes). Four-measure pentatonic melodies, with an occasional fa or ti found exclusively in scalar passages, follow. The next step finds the students writing four-measure dictations in major keys with more complex rhythm patterns (adding dotted rhythms, eighth-quarter-eighth, eighth-two sixteenths, two sixteenths-eighth, etc.) or eight-measure dictations with simpler rhythms. These dictations employ predominantly scalar motion with skips in the tonic and, eventually, in the dominant triads. As my students become more competent in their minor key sight-singing, we begin melodic dictations in minor. In the beginning, nearly all dictations are in 4/4 meter, with a few in 2/4 and 3/4. After students demonstrate proficiency in these, I add melodic dictations in 2/2, 3/2, 4/2, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8.

Focus on pentatonic for a significant portion of time. My beginning students write exclusively pentatonic exercises for several weeks. This allows them to really lock in the tonic triad (both aurally and in their written work) while examining its relationship to surrounding pitches. Once fa and ti are added to the sight-singing mix, and, ultimately, to their written work, sight-singing and melodic dictations become more difficult.

Aural preparation is important in reinforcing current skill levels and preparing for future sight-singing and dictation tasks. A major portion of beginning students’ class time is spent drilling sight-singing patterns and melodies at the students’ current level of advancement. The students use class dictation time to practice listening to and writing the syllables they are studying. In addition, class time is spent preparing and singing patterns in the next step listed above in the sequential study. This continual reinforcement and preparation is an important element in students’ grasp of and progress in the language of our tonal music.