Grade 8 Music Aural Exam

(See also Examinations: Aural).

By the time the pupil reaches Grade 8, in addition to sight-singing (which was introduced for the first time at grade 4), he will also be required to sing back the lowest part of a three-part piece (not easy for the untrained ear which can’t always distinguish this from the upper parts). Then there are cadences, chords and modulations to identify (again, very tricky for anyone who doesn’t have a natural feel for musical progressions).

The final question is slightly different as this is something which can –at least partially – be ‘learned’. As in the earlier grades, a piece of music is played but this time, rather than the examiner asking specific questions, the candidate is required to talk at length about such things as musical texture, structure, character and style as well as being able to make a reasonable suggestion as to the composer of a piece of music and the period in which it was written.

You can purchase ABRSM Specimen Aural Tests for grade 8 along with CDs – which make it possible for the learner to practise the tests on his own.


Here is the checklist which I give out to Grade 8 candidates:

                                                    Test A
(i) Melodic Repetition – Singing back the lowest part of a three-part phrase played twice. When the examiner says: “Here is your starting note” don’t forget to sing: “lah” – this gives you the pitch and gets your vocal chords working. On the second playing you may like to ‘lah’ along to it as the examiner plays. Or you could try making up words to fit the rhythm.
(ii) Cadences – at the end of a phrase, played twice by the examiner – The chords will be limited to tonic (root position, first or second inversions), supertonic (root position or first inversion), subdominant (root position), dominant (root position, first or second inversions), dominant 7th (root position) or submediant (root position).
The examiner plays the key chord to start with. All you have to do is name the cadence. These are the possibilities:
PERFECT (Chord Va Vb Vc -Ia Ib Ic or dominant 7th-Ia Ib Ic … although in the examples in the book the final chord is always in root position). Remember this ends in major chord. It’s what you’d expect. It sounds final (like a full stop) and the last chord is the key chord (i.e. the one the examiner plays as an arpeggio at beginning). Remember if it’s a dominant 7th it will sound a bit richer or fuller.
PLAGAL (Chord IV to Ia Ib Ic … although examples in the book all go to Ia) This sounds final but gentle, like an ‘amen’ in a hymn.
IMPERFECT (Any chord – but usually chord Ia Ib Ic, IIa IIb or IV, going to chord Va Vb Vc … in the book all going to Va) This sounds like a comma, incomplete. It needs another phrase to finalise it.
INTERRUPTED (Chord Va Vb Vc-VI or dominant 7th-VI). This one shifts up one note in the bass and ends in a minor chord. It sounds like it’s going to be perfect because you’re starting with a chord V but then, surprise, surprise, it’s not!! It’s like an exclamation mark.
(iii) Chords
Identify the last three chords forming the above cadence. This is the SAME piece of music as in ii) so see the choices of chords above. Firstly the three chords are played in order. Then each chord is played separately and you name it straight after it’s named. These seem to be the most common chord progressions for each cadence and it will help you to listen carefully to the bass notes:
Perfect – if same bass note (in preceeding chord) = Ic Va Ia if bass note goes up one = lVa/llb Va Ia
Imperfect – if bass note goes up one = Vb la Va if cadence itself shares bass note = la lc Va if first chord sounds minor-ish = Vla llb Va
Plagal – if bass note goes up one = lb lVa Ia if bass note goes down one = lc lVa la if first chord sounds minor-ish = Vla lVa la
Interrupted – if bass note goes up one = lVa Va Vla if same bass note = lc Va Vla if going up more can be lla Va Vla
                                       Test B
Sight-singing – Sight sing the lower part of a two-part phrase from score while the examiner plays the upper part. You will have time to try it out beforehand. When you do the actual thing, make sure you sing loudly so the sound of the piano isn’t too overwhelming, as this may confuse you. However, you do need to follow the piano part a bit to make sure you’re fitting in with the rhythm. Remember ‘cuckoo’ for going down a third. Remember ‘my Bonnie’ (from the song My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean) for up a sixth. Push yourself on the higher notes!!
                                       Test C

Modulations – Identify the modulation at the end of two different passages – the first beginning in a major key and the second in a minor key. (It will either go to the subdominant, the dominant or the relative minor/major key) Each will only be played once.
SUBDOMINANT – Sounds slightly lowered and maybe a bit sad.
DOMINANT – Sounds happy, slightly sharpened, seems to have a richer sound. (Minor passages may modulate to dominant major or dominant minor but you only need to say dominant).
RELATIVE MINOR/RELATIVE MAJOR – Should be fairly obvious.
(sometimes it’s hard to distinguish SUBDOMINANT and MINOR. Minor should sound more obviously minor!).
                                                 Test D
Identifying Features – The examiner plays a piece of music and then asks you to talk about it describing certain features such as: Texture, Structure and Form, Character/Style, Period/Composer, TONALITY and HARMONY, (major or minor – major is happy, minor sad) DYNAMICS (piano, forte, mezzo-piano, pianissimo, fortissimo etc.) ARTICULATION (staccato, legato) TEMPO and METRE, tempo: allegro (fast) or largo (slow), metre: number of beats in a bar, GRADATION OF TONE (crescendo, diminuendo). Here are some of those features in more detail:
TEXTURE It may be based on arpeggios or broken chords, it may have hymn-like chords, it may be contrapuntal (many parts) with melodies in both hands. Ask yourself: Where is the tune? Is there imitation? Are hands playing in unison? Phrases used in the aural book answers as follows: ‘Single bass note on downbeat, followed by two chords’ ‘Chordal passages alternate with phrases in octaves’, ‘Mostly two-part texture, occasional chords’ ‘Louder phrases started in octaves, quieter phrases started with chords’, ‘Melody with chordal accompaniment’ ‘Arpeggios at beginning, followed by melody with chordal accompaniment’
STRUCTURE e.g. Were phrases equal length? Were any repeated? If so was the cadence different? Phrases used in the aural book answers as follows: ‘Two main sections, each with two phrases’ (possibly binary form), ‘Opening section/introduction’ ‘Short introduction, followed by two phrases’, ‘Two equal length sections, each 8 bars’ ‘Three sections, first and last share some of the same material i.e. ABA ternary’ form’
CHARACTER/STYLE use phrases such as: March-like, song-like (maybe a lullaby), dance-like, imaginative, playful, dramatic etc, waltz-like (3/4 timing), march-like (2/4 timing) animated, loud, harmonic clashes, abrupt changes between ideas, cantabile/legato melody, flowing scalic runs, playful, breathing-spaces between phrases, warm chordal texture, use of chromatic notes, ornamentation, limited range suggests it was written for harpsichord, use of sustaining pedal, dissonance (clashing of sounds), relaxed tempo/rubato, swung rhythms, easy-going character, angry etc. You could also say the major or minor key gives the character.
Baroque (1650-1750) chords and ornaments e.g. trills, imitation written for harpsichord, limited dynamic range e.g. Bach, Handel
Classical (1750-1820) broken chords in the left (‘alberti bass’) happy, simple harmony e.g. Mozart, Haydn
Romantic (1810-1910) chromatic, sad, rubato (i.e. tempo variation), use of sustaining pedal. Waltz-like rhythm, impressionistic e.g. Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Brahms
Modern (20th century) weird or jazzy, syncopation, abrupt changes clashing harmonies e.g. Bartok You may want to say other things about the music e.g. “It is a descriptive or character piece.”


Test Examples

With the melodic repetition question – Test A (i) – candidates are given the option of singing from the bass or treble clef. Having made this decision during lessons and practices, it may also be worth considering a candidate’s pitch range – particularly in the case of teenage boys who are at the ‘in between’ stage.

With my own grade 8 pupil, I found the test examples in the aural book were either too high or too low for his voice. I phoned the ABRSM and was advised that my pupil should be aware of his own pitch range and spell it out to the examiner at the start of the exam; efforts would then be made to pitch the melodic repetition test accordingly. The test is not designed to gauge singing ability or range – it’s just there to show that a candidate is able to follow and repeat a series of notes.

Test A (ii) on identifying cadences is not too difficult: as long as the pupil practises listening to plenty of cadences, he should start to get a feel for their different ‘characters’.

To my mind, Test A (iii) – naming the chords of a cadence – is the greatest challenge – particularly for candidates who have no experience of singing in a choir or have not studied music in any depth at school or college. How anyone can confidently name the chord which precedes a cadence just by listening to it. I have no idea! Presumably there are plenty of musicians able to do this but – even with plenty of practice and with all the advice and ‘clues’ I give my pupils (as in the sheet above) – the best I can do is still just guess!

Test B – sight-singing – is a progression from easier tests in earlier grades, while Test C – modulations – requires similar listening skills to A(ii) and can definitely improve with practice.

Perhaps the greatest difference (compared with lower grade exams) is with the last one – Test D – where the candidate can really ‘show off’ his musical knowledge. Of course, the shy, quiet pupil may seem to be at a disadvantage here but he doesn’t really need to be. All pupils should be encouraged to listen to a wide range of classical music from different periods and to think about the aspects outlined above. Then, in order to talk with confidence, all they need do is quickly run through a mental checklist: “Have I mentioned the key? What about the texture … and the tempo? etc.” Examiners are not interested in someone who can waffle on about what a wonderful piece of music it was and how much it touched the listener’s heart – they want a detailed analysis, and a pupil who is well-prepared, no matter how timid he may be, should be able to provide this.

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