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07 February 2018

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ABRSM Marking Criteria - Aural Tests

How do ABRSM mark Aural Tests?

This post is inspired by a recent comment I received on a video - "Help I Can't Sing", on my YouTube channel 
Can I ask what marks your students who can't sing have got for the aural tests? Especially those who can't sing but are good at the rest of the aural.  Have any actually refused to sing, and does that mean they get 0 even if they were willing to do the rest? It seems a bit odd to me that you get an overall mark for everything.
... which raises some interesting questions that maybe many of you are wondering.

  • How do you get zero marks?
  • Is the mark an average over all the tests?
  • Do you lose marks for every mistake?
  • What if you really cannot sing?

First of all, if you got everything completely wrong in the Aural Tests would you get zero marks? Strangely the answer is "No". Zero marks is only awarded if you don't even try, so even a pitchless grunt is worth more than keeping your mouth shut.

Secondly, if you got everything correct, would you get full marks. Again, strangely, the answer is also "No, not necessarily".  According to their officially published criteria, to get a distinction, in the aural tests, that is 17-18 marks you need to be not only correct but also musically perceptive and confident. What does that mean in practice? The term "musically perceptive" particularly applies to the final tests in each grade, which ask about different characteristics of music, such as dynamics, articulation, tonality, tempo, structure, texture, or style and period depending on which grade you are taking.

Being able to listen to music and then talk about what you hear is musical perception.

In contrast to "confident responses", the lower marks are described in the official marking criteria, with phrases such as "cautious", "uncertain" and "vague". So even if you get a question correct, but your tone of voice is uncertain - for example with that rising intonation at the end of a phrase which sounds more like a question than a statement...  if you are hesitant in answering, giving away signs of uncertainty... you will lose marks. Even if in yourself you really don't know the answer, sound as if you do.  You never know it might be right anyway.

Obviously, the best remedy for feeling and sounding confident is good preparation and our series "E Aural Trainer" will adequately prepare you to feel ready for any grade. 

But what about if you really cannot sing. It is actually very rare that students really cannot sing. This is usually a confidence issue. The best preparation, practicing singing back phrases regularly will help boost that confidence. If you want a whole hour of practicing just this - click HERE 

Also bear in mind that you don't get marked separately on the individual tests - it is an overall impression of your aural ability that is used to arrive at your mark. The wording in the marking criteria is very interesting on this topic. For example the official ABRSM criteria for a merit (15-16 marks) is "strengths significantly outweigh weaknesses". This sounds almost like saying, "most of the tests correct" but there is a subtle difference. The examiner is looking for an overall sense of your aural ability, not if you got test A correct, but test B wrong. The description for a pass below merit (12-14 marks) is "strengths just outweigh weaknesses" and that for a fail of just below pass (9-11 marks) the other way around, "weaknesses outweigh strengths". Now there are in many grades, four tests. What if you got exactly half of them correct, which of these two descriptions would fit, just above pass or just below. Can you see, the marking by individual test mentality doesn't fit this model.

Finally I would like to say, far too often, Aural Test Training is left to the last minute, a lesson or two just before the exam. This is too late to develop aural skills. It's just enough time to scare you into thinking you can't do it. Would you start learning your pieces a couple of weeks before an exam. I don't think so. With this in mind, start developing your aural skills now - not at the last moment before the exam.

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