Fergus Black

music teacher and performer

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Listening to Music with Understanding - 1 (Vocabulary)


A Guide to ABRSM Aural Tests

ABRSM Aural Tests assess students' listening skills by requiring discussion of some music which is played to the student on the piano. In my experience, students are sometimes disadvantaged by a lack of vocabulary in discussing music, and although they can be right in suggesting a provenance for music, they need to practice providing reasons for their answers. Students often need practice in pronouncing the terms, most of which are in Italian. (N.B. In Grades 1-3 of Associated Board, English only is used, not Italian. “Is this music smooth or detached?” would be what they would ask, not “Is this music legato or staccato?”)

From Grade 1


Dynamics
'Dynamics' is another word for 'volume'.
Keywords: dynamics, forte, piano
Typical questions: “Is the music forte or piano?” “That music started quietly. Did it finish quietly?”

Gradation of tone
Gradation of tone refers to changes in volume
Keywords: Gradation of tone, crescendo, diminuendo, subito
Typical questions: Does the music get softer and louder? Where?

Sudden changes of volume
Subito is the Italian word for suddenly: e.g. subito piano = the music suddenly went quiet
Keyword: subito

Articulation
Articulation means how the notes are joined together.
Keywords: Articulation, staccato, legato,
Typical Questions: Was the music staccato or legato?

From Grade 2


Tempo Changes
Does the music speed up or slow down?
Key Words: Accelerando (accel.), Ritardando (rit.) and Rallentando (rall.)
Note: In my view, rit means that the music pulls back (to use a driving or biking analogy, it is like applying the brakes); rall, on the other hand, suggests a more gradual slowing down, by taking one's foot off the accelerator or by stopping pedalling.

From Grade 3


Mode
Mode describes whether the music is major or minor. (The ABRSM calls this 'tonality', wrongly in my opinion, but that’s another story)
Keywords: mode, major, minor
Typical Question: Is the music major or minor?

From Grade 4


Character
Use adjectives to describe the mood or emotional content of the piece. Try not to use happy and sad. Other words for happy might be merry, joyous, smiling.
You could use Italian Performance Directions: espressivo, grave, sostenuto, delicato, amoroso, mesto, semplice, tranquillo

Fanny Waterman, in her excellent short book, On Piano Teaching and Performance, has a list which starts:–

charm - tragedy - tranquillity - resignation - happiness and sadnesshumour - brilliance - playfulness - anger -


(buy the book if you want the rest)

"Describe what visual image it conveys to you ("It makes me think of …" e.g. galopping horses, a funeral procession, a circus, etc.)
“It makes me think of ...” “It’s like when a ghost comes into a room.”

A second question may be asked along the lines of “what is it in the music that makes you think that?” In other words you have to relate the answer back to elements of the music. (“It makes me think of a funeral procession because it has a slow pulse and is in the minor mode, and you played it legato.”)

From Grade 5


Texture
Texture describes the way the melody, harmony and rhythm are combined.
There are three basic types:
  • Melody with accompaniment
A tune (in the foreground) is accompanied by more static harmony (in the background). The static harmony may be broken chords.
  • Homophonic (the ABRSM calls this 'block chords')
Like a hymn - all the parts in the music have the same rhythm at the same time.
  • Contrapuntal
The two parts are rhythmically independent of each other. (Imitative counterpoint is a special class of 'contrapuntal', where the two parts imitate each other. Most contrapuntal music is imitative.
Notes:
(1) I haven't included unison and canon here.
(2) This is not the same texture question that most children will do at school in KS3 when they study the Elements of Music. There they use words like
thick and thin.
Keywords: Homophonic, Block chords, Contrapuntal, Imitative counterpoint

Form
Form describes the structure of the music
There are two main types at this level:
Binary : A-B
Ternary : A-B-A
Keywords: Form, Binary, Ternary, Variations, Ground Bass, 12-bar blues, fugue, song, Sonata form, rondo

Rhythmic Forms
Some pieces have identifiable rhythms:
  • March
  • Waltz - The waltz has a distinctive Oom-pah-pah bass line
  • Ragtime - think of The Entertainer, and the syncopation
  • Blues
  • Swing
A number of less obvious rhythmic types are found in Baroque Suites, e.g.
  • Minuet - Not to be confused with the waltz - sounds more courtly and elegant.
  • Gavotte
  • Gigue
  • Allemande
  • Courante
  • Sarabande

Grade 7


Form
Variations
Ground Bass - Repeating bass line, usually baroque period
12-bar blues - A special case of a ground bass
Fugue - Fugue is a special form (some people would call it a texture) in which three or more independent parts each have a tune (or 'subject') in turn. It's a bit like a round (canon) except that the parts do not all have the tune at the same pitch.
Strophic - "repeated cantabile melody, possibly with variations (like a song with verses)"
(Sonata form movements are unlikely given the length of time they require to be played; similarly with rondo)
March, Waltz, Ragtime, Blues, Swing

Mode
Typical Question: is the music modal?
Key Words: Dorian, Ionian, Phyrgian, Lydian, etc.

Structural Devices

How is the music extended after the initial idea is stated?
Keywords: sequence, repetition, circle of fifths

See also Listening to Music with Understanding - 2 (Provenance)

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