Issue 80: ABRSM Grade 4 and 5 Aural

I’ve been doing a fair bit of emergency aural test teaching recently, mainly for various instrumentalists whose teachers, for various reasons, don’t cover that part of the exam in the lessons. As a pianist, it is fairly easy for me to bash through the aural tests in my piano lessons, but if you are not a confident pianist, and definitely if you are NOT a pianist, it is much harder to teach them.

I know that there are many sites on the web where you can practice your aural tests. I direct my students to . I like the way you can try out a small selection of aural tests before deciding if you want to sign up for more. You can hear a complete set of aural tests for each grade on the abrsm website here:

The tests at Grades 1,2 and 3 are actually reasonably straightforward and just follow on from each other, increasing slightly in sophistication for each level. However, there is a step change at Grade 4, and the emphasis on singing is much more demanding. Here’s how I go about them:

Test A – singing back a 4-bar phrase, after hearing it twice:

The phrase will always have a sense of being in two parts. The trick is to memorize the first half and get a rough idea of the second part on the first hearing, and then confirm the first part and memorize the second part on the second hearing. Many students will have no problem with this test, but some will find it really difficult. To develop their skills, I’ll start by only asking for the student to sing back the first half of the phrase. I’ll play just the opening, twice, and see if they can sing it back. When that is secure, I’ll play the first part just once, and see if they can sing it back. Then I’ll play the whole phrase, twice, but only ask for the first part to be sung. We’ll talk about what happens in the second part; does it go up, or down, move by step or leaps, return to the starting note, etc. From this point we progress to trying to sing the whole phrase.

Test B – singing notes from score in free time

At Grade 4, the notes used are do re mi, and lah ti do. I’ll leave the music out of sight to begin with, and play the key chord and tonic (doh) for C, F or G (the keys used for the grade) and we’ll sing up and down from the tonic. I find it really useful to add hand signs – I don’t use proper sol-fa signs, but hold my hand flat, palm down, for doh, angles up at 45 degrees for re, and pointing up for me. Point down at 45 degrees for ti, and to the floor for lah. When this is secure, we’ll try going straight from doh to me, or to lah. Be careful that the student sings lah, and not soh, which is much easier to pitch. You can do this using the syllable “ma”, for the note you are intending to pitch, and singing the “missing notes”  – re, or ti – with your mouth closed “mm”. Eventually you sing the missing notes in your head. Finally, work on pitching do re ti do in different combinations. Now it is time to look at the score; notice that the first and last notes are always doh. Use the syllable “ma”  to sing the notes, and if necessary sing the “missing” notes very softly, or silently, to “mm”. Grade 5 is just an extension of the same test, using a greater number of keys, and the notes from soh-below-doh to soh-above-doh.

Test C – listening and answering questions

The student needs to be aware that this WILL be followed by  “please clap the rhythm of this phrase” and “was this in 2,3, or 4 time” questions after they have answered the first two questions. They should therefore try and work this out during while the piece is being played. This means that the clapping part merely confirms their answer rather than complicating things. If their first question is on tempo, they should tap the pulse throughout – any tempo changes should then become obvious. I have had some students who are completely thrown by having to clap the rhythm, and not the pulse, especially if they have struggled to clap the pulse instead of the rhythm for grades 1,2 and 3!

Finally, encourage the students to stand properly, refrain from chewing their fingers or twiddling their hair, and give their answers as positive and definite statements! See if you can persuade them to replace a faint mumbling of “um, er, er, um was that er in um maybe 3-time?” with “That is in 3-time”. Even “I think that is in 3-time” is better than the first answer!

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One Response to Issue 80: ABRSM Grade 4 and 5 Aural

  1. Janet says:

    I really enjoy this article! My students always have difficulties in sight-singing and I know how hard it can be to prepare for the aural test. I recommend to my students to use the AURALBOOK app.It gives live feedback like I’m with my students!

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