Aural skills 'playbook'

I’m currently assembling some materials for the instructional team for Aural Skills III, as we begin a new unit focusing on the transcription and improvisation of standard classical theme types. I’m assembling a “playbook” — a quasi-progressive set of activities — that they can choose from as they prepare for their section meetings and change plans mid-class, if necessary. These are things that I’ve found helpful working with students who are learning how to transcribe four-part textures, sight-read classical melodies, and improvise in the classical style.

These activities will be supported by readings/videos from Open Music Theory, in particular the resources under “Classical theme types” and “Galant schemata.” The page on Improvising a sentence with galant schemata is a staple of this unit, as well as this video on four-part transcription.

I hope these are helpful! And I’d love to hear other ideas that I can add to this resource. What do you find most helpful when teaching transcription, classical improvisation, sight-reading?


The following tasks are skill-development specific and are probably best done in order throughout the unit (large group early, then small group, then progressive, then individual/assessment toward the end of the unit).

Large-group transcription skill development: Play the passage over the speakers (or at the piano) multiple times. Between each hearing, discuss and evaluate what students think they heard each time. While not neglecting right/wrong notes/rhythms/chords/schemas, focus on skills and techniques: How did you hear that? Why do you think it’s Option A and not Option B? What things are you paying attention to most on the hearings in which you are most successful? Etc. End each practice task with a couple takeaway points for future transcribing. Begin subsequent transcription tasks with a reminder of past takeaway points.

Small-group transcription skill development: Play the passage over the speakers (or at the piano) multiple times. Assemble students in groups of 3ish at the white board or at computers. Between hearings, students collaborate on their transcription. Emphasize that each student should be providing input and attempting to convince their colleagues of their transcription’s accuracy. Walk from group to group between hearings. Provide specific comments to groups, but also observe trends and when necessary provide whole-class tips and feedback before the next hearing. Once groups are successful, or close, or stuck, distribute (or project) a score. Follow up with discussion: what was easy, what was hard, what worked, what didn’t work, etc. End each practice task with a couple takeaway points for future transcribing.

Progressive transcription skill-development: Provide students with a recording to transcribe on their own at home. They should take a much time as necessary in order to get it perfect (or go until they are stuck). In class, students join with a single partner or a group of three to compare notes. Where their transcriptions differ, they try to convince each other of their transcription’s accuracy, then work together on a joint transcription. They should not erase their original, but keep it to compare with the group solution. At the end of class, discuss as a whole group what questions still remain about the transcription. Distribute score and discuss difficulties further. Talk techniques: what worked, what didn’t, etc.

Analysis (mainly for four-part textures): Provide scores annotated with Roman numerals/modulations. Have students study the annotated scores, looking for common or uncommon patterns. Listen to the passage multiple times, with students tracking (and possibly singing) each part in turn (Violin I, Violin II, …). Ask what kinds of things they listen for that helps them track individual voices. Which lines, instruments, or musical patterns are easier or harder to hear? What strategies seem to lead to more success? If possible, take notes for the class as they work in a Google Doc and share with them after class. (Or write on the board, take a picture, and email it to them. The idea is for them to focus on the analysis, rather than writing stuff down.)

Improvisation with galant schemata

Each schema, as defined by Gjerdingen (and presented on Open Music Theory), has a series of “stages.” Each stage contains a most-likely bass note, a most-likely melodic note, and a most-likely harmony (expressed in thoroughbass, but we can convert to Roman numerals). This stage breakdown can facilitate our practice.

Single-schema melodic skeletons: In class, provide a single schema (and a key). Play the bass and/or standard chord for each stage, while the students sing or play the standard melodic skeleton. Early attempts can be with notes (open to the OMT cheatsheet I’ll make) or even with a projected cheat sheet. Later attempts should be from memory. We can easily cycle through these quickly at the beginnings of class meetings, calling out a schema, playing it together, calling out another, playing it together, rinse and repeat, in a single key. As students become more familiar with these, after playing a schema we can ask “what might come next?”; if the answer makes musical sense, go with that one. (Thus, we’ll be cycling proposte => riposte => cadence, which will help them familiarize themselves (unconsciously?) with the patterns that they’ll see in their theme assessments.)

Single-schema recognition: Provide a key. Play the bass and block chords of a schema. Have the students sing/play back the melody that matches the schema played.

Single-schema arpeggiations: Same as above, but with three-note arpeggiations of the schema’s chord. Some class discussion beforehand is good, to decide the best arpeggios to play in order to make good musical sense. That discussion will be somewhat trivial for single schemas, but will be very important when we start stringing them together.

Schema chains (group): Propose a proposte => riposte => cadence progression (and a key/meter). Have the entire class play the one-note skeletons for each schema in progression. Then discuss any massaging that needs to take place to make them work; repeat the performance with that massaging. Then do the same with the arpeggiated versions of each.

Schema chains (individuals): After the group schema chain, select a student to perform a melody for that progression that includes some non-chord tones. Other students should listen and decide 1) did the melody match the schemas?, 2) are the non-chord tones well formed? (See Embellishing tones.) The student who identifies the error should then attempt a correction. Continue until the melody works.

Call and response: Pick a key/meter/form type. Student one improvises the first phrase (or basic idea). Student two listens and improvises the second phrase (or basic idea). Other students listen and judge 1) did each phrase match the form?, 2) did the second phrase follow musically from the first? The student who identifies the error should then attempt a correction. Continue until the melody works.

Partner work: Break class into groups of 2 or 3 and have them give one or more of the above challenges to each other. Walk from group to group and offer feedback/tips. (This may not be practical in some of our rooms, especially when using instruments.)


When sight-reading/singing in class, focus more on analytical thinking about the music while performing it, not just on hammering through sight-reading. Sight-reading is more an analytical skill than anything: look at the page, what structures do you see, what do they sound like, and where do you need to direct the most attention before/as you perform? Teaching them how to sight-read well is a secondary goal (in this class) to helping them be more aware of the structures they are performing and strategize their (sight) performance accordingly. Use the excerpts as opportunities to try out analysis and performance strategies, comment on their helpfulness, and tweak based on the experience.