Clare Seymour

October 17, 2019

The Sound Toolkit: developing aural awareness in Early Learners – Part 2: categorising the aural concepts


What’s this all about?

This blog continues the theme of developing aural awareness. Here we are going to share with you our aural ‘groupings’. Then we are going to offer you an activity that you can use with any age group at all – from the very Early Years through to senior citizens. We have used this across the age ranges to great effect! Just beware – it can go on for as long as you want it to!

What is aural awareness?

Careful listening; to be able to concentrate, discriminate and accurately describe the sounds we hear.

Why is it so important to Early Learning?

Because the more refined our listening becomes, the more we hear and understand the world around us.

To teach it effectively…?

Use material that is holistic, engaging, varied, contextual and meaningful for your learners.

So where do we start?

Firstly by visualising the musical concepts in a way that is meaningful to all – both to us ‘old hands’ (the teachers) and to the less experienced – those who may never have come across ‘aural concepts’ before. Secondly, we start the process by grouping and prioritising the aural concepts. We have chosen to group them into categories that have relevance for the Early Learner, and to then teach them progressively. By doing so, and by revisiting the ‘steps’ several times, we can ensure the aural skills are built up over time.

Firstly, a ‘meaningful’ analogy?

Yes. For this, we decided to explain aural concepts through the use of an imaginary piece of fabric. (Although sometimes we use a real piece of fabric which serves as a visual prompt for this stage of explanation!).

Think of aural awareness as a piece of musical fabric. Each aural element in that musical fabric is a different coloured thread. Although initially you might consider the fabric to be a ‘whole’, when you look closely, you can see it is made up of many different coloured strands. These can vary in many ways: in colour, size, density, patterning, feel, structure and length. At first, you are pleased to just identify the different colours. Then, once you have grasped an understanding of the layout, or composition, of the material, you begin to analyse it more closely and discover much more about the parts that make the whole. Teaching aural concepts to the early years is just like this!

Of course, to start with, you need some accessible music. Then you need to shine a spotlight on each specific musical ‘thread’ (aka; aural concept). This needs to be done carefully and in an ordered way.

It is important to remember that understanding comes before representation. Therefore, you need to know that your learners understand the concepts before expecting them to label them correctly. You need to watch them as they listen, respond and physically act out the concepts to ensure that they are developing accuracy and precision as they listen to, and participate in, the musical examples.

Once the separate concepts have been clearly understood, we can exemplify the ways in which the are woven together, and how they are ‘layered’ upon one another.

And secondly, how have you grouped these aural concepts?

We have decided on three different groups, and have also decided to give them names that have relevance to the Early Years. By doing so, it helps us to ‘pin’ the songs and activities that we have created onto the meaningful piece of imaginary musical fabric. For the Early Years, our focus is primarily on “the essentials”.

We spend a lot of our teaching time on developing an expressive vocal range (see our previous blog for more information on this), and introducing, reinforcing and consolidating pulse, rhythm and pitch. However, this is not to say that we ignore the two remaining groups at all; they are always present in every piece of musical fabric that we explore. How much attention you pay to the weaving and layering of the components will be dictated by your own setting and circumstance.

And so what about this activity you promised? What is it? Where is it from? What does it mean? And how does it relate to the aural categories you’ve been telling us about?

This is a ‘welcome’ activity that can incorporate all of the aural skills listed above. It is great fun to do with all ages!

In her role as a music examiner and workshop leader, Clare often has the opportunity to travel the world. She spends quite a lot of time in India, and on her last visit, she was mainly based in Tamil Nadu. In addition to sharing her skills with those she visits, she is also keen to learn about the culture and language from the people she meets. She developed this greeting activity from some of the words that she learnt during her stay. It serves as a musical memento for her, and as a gesture of appreciation to all her Tamil friends that made her so welcome!

Click here to watch the greeting activity

A phonetic translation: ‘Wanacum, Wanacum, ulleyvar!’ ‘Nanri, nanri!’

An English translation: ‘Welcome, Welcome, come in’. ‘Thank you, thank you!’

How to teach it?

Start by teaching it to your class slowly as they face you. Make sure the actions are clear (you can see them on the video clip below). Make sure you count the “1,2,3,4” obviously at the end. When the group-members are fairly proficient, you can ask them to turn to their neighbour and greet them. Then ask them to turn to someone else and start the greeting again. They only have the final bar (4 beats rest) in which to find another partner. Then encourage them to spread out and greet others in the same way. They only have four beats rest though, and they are not allowed to greet the same person twice! If they haven’t found a partner by the time the greeting starts again, they should stand still and do it on their own (you can try to gather these individuals through eye contact as you continue the actions).

You can hear in this extract, that our voices are being used expressively and with intonation (pitch). The diction is over-emphasised to begin with. Throughout, simple actions reinforce the pulse (a different action to mirror each beat) and the rhythms are reproduced vocally and consolidated through bodily movement.

Once the activity becomes familiar, then we can become more playful; speeding up and slowing down the tempo, varying the dynamics, changing the articulation, and we could even introduce an aural sign on the final crotchet rest (such as a drum beat or woodblock) that marks the start of the repeat.

If time allows, we could then vary the timbre (eg “speak in an elephant voice”etc), texture (eg: “only those wearing the colour yellow say the words”) and/or structure (turning it into a round for older learners). We could also use our thinking voice. Hence, although you might like to use this activity to primarily teach pulse, you can do so with the knowledge that there is a broad range of aural awareness being developed simultaneously. We hope you have fun with this! Let us know how you get on.