Review of Justin Merritt and David Castro, Comprehensive Aural Skills: A Flexible Approach to Rhythm, Melody, and Harmony (Routledge, 2016) and Diane J. Urista, The Moving Body in the Aural Skills Classroom: A Eurhythmics Based Approach (Oxford, 2016)

Samantha M. Inman

KEYWORDS: aural skills, Dalcroze eurhythmics, pedagogy

PDF text | PDF examples
Received June 2018
Volume 23, Number 3, September 2018
Copyright © 2018 Society for Music Theory

[1] The abundance of resources available to aural-skills instructors continues to increase. While the two books reviewed here both organize content into separate modules on specific aspects of rhythm and pitch, they starkly contrast in terms of intended use and approach. In Comprehensive Aural Skills: A Flexible Approach to Rhythm, Melody, and Harmony, Justin Merritt and David Castro of St. Olaf College combine sight-singing and dictation material into a single volume, which could easily serve as the sole resource in a traditional aural-skills sequence. In contrast, The Moving Body in the Aural Skills Classroom: A Eurhythmics Based Approach by Diane J. Urista of the Cleveland Institute of Music is less a textbook for students than a guidebook for instructors on how to incorporate Dalcroze pedagogy into collegiate aural-skills classrooms. Below, I consider each book separately before concluding with some comparisons.

Comprehensive Aural Skills

[2] Comprehensive Aural Skills lives up to its name; together, the book and the companion website contain all the materials needed for an aural-skills curriculum. Unlike The Musician’s Guide to Aural Skills by Phillips, Murphy, Marvin, and Clendinning, CAS is not affiliated with a specific written theory textbook. In that way, its closest cousin on the market is probably Gary Karpinski’s Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing and the Anthology for Sight Singing that he coauthored with Richard Kram. However, Merritt and Castro include a few post-tonal topics, so the pedagogical endpoint of their melodies is roughly equivalent to that in Cleland and Dobrea-Grindahl’s Developing Musicianship Through Aural Skills or Rogers and Ottman’s Music for Sight Singing.(1)

[3] The effectiveness of Merritt and Castro’s book partially originates in its excellent formatting and organization. Spiral binding allows the printed book to lie flat both on a desk and at a piano, and the 384-page volume is not unduly heavy, making it realistic for students to bring it to class daily. Its three main parts deal with rhythm, melody, and harmony, and each of them divides further into individual modules. Each module opens with up to a page of text discussing the target topic and practice strategies. Next come examples for sight reading and study, followed by blank staves for dictation exercises. Answers to all dictations in the printed chapters are provided in the back of the book, enabling independent dictation practice. The outstanding companion website contains recordings of all dictations included in the book. All recordings for a particular module are on the same web page, minimizing the layers of hierarchy needed to access a particular recording. Students can also download assignment pages and access recordings for homework and quizzes. The recordings feature a variety of acoustic instruments from the string, brass, woodwind, keyboard, and percussion families. Most of the sound clips are of excellent quality; only a few contain minor flaws in intonation or rhythm. Select melodic dictations feature two or three different recordings with different instruments and tempi. A short glossary at the end of the text provides brief definitions of the musical terms used throughout.

[4] The instructor login provides access to materials not available to students. These include a webpage aptly named “How to Use This Text,” in which Merritt and Castro advocate use of rhythmic solmization (providing a brief overview of takadimi as well as systems by Kodály, Gordon, and McHose and Tibbs) and compare movable-do solfège, fixed-do solfège, and scale-degree numbers. Although they prefer the movable-do system, the book could be easily used with any system. Indeed, the printed directions in each module refer to pitches via scale degrees in order to avoid favoring any solfège system. The online instructor resources also include keys for homework assignments and quizzes as well as material for five sight-singing exams. The included Curriculum Guide coordinates the rhythm, melody, and harmony modules and their associated assignments, quizzes, and exams, organizing the material into two four-semester plans, one with post-tonal materials and one without. Although it is possible to use only the provided materials in an aural-skills sequence, some instructors will likely want to supplement them with additional sight-singing and dictation tests.

Example 1

Example 1 thumbnail

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[5] In Part 1, which deals with rhythm, each of the ten modules begins with short paradigms that serve as the basic building blocks of the unit. Example 1 shows the paradigms for Module 5, which introduces compound meter. Paradigms are followed by an abundance of single-line rhythms and several duets for performance. In rhythmic dictation activities, the recording first establishes the meter with two measures of wood block, and then gives the target rhythm on snare drum. Two of the rhythmic modules might seem too fast-paced to some instructors: Module 1 already includes sixteenth notes and dotted rhythms, and Module 2 uses ties to imply occasional 3:4 polyrhythms. The latter is particularly puzzling, as the book omits concentrated study of polyrhythms more advanced than 2:3. However, syncopation receives far more attention here than in some books, and Part 1 concludes with asymmetrical meter. Missing elements include advanced polyrhythms and metric modulation, two topics important to the performance of modern repertoire.

[6] Each of the fourteen melody modules in Part 2 similarly builds from simple to complex: first schematic leaps (such as leaps within the tonic triad in Module 3), then single-line melodies and a few canons or duets, and finally blank staves for dictation. Many of the melodies were composed by the authors, and those from the literature are often identified by composer but not title, making it difficult for instructors to design any contextual listening activities from this material. In contrast to the rhythmic dictations, the melodic dictation recordings do not establish the meter in advance. However, the given staves provide clef, key signature, time signature, and usually the starting pitch. Chromaticism takes center stage in modules 6–11; for example, 9 and 11 are dedicated to modulation to closely related and distantly related keys, respectively. The last three modules turn to post-tonal material, covering diatonic modes, synthetic scales, and a brief introduction to sets and twelve-tone rows. While one of the authors’ suggested curricula allocates the entire fourth semester to post-tonal topics, the included material will likely be sufficient for just half of that without supplementation.

[7] Part 3, on harmony, covers the standard topics of the common practice in fifteen modules, beginning with tonic and dominant and ending with reinterpretations of vii°7. Unlike the parts on rhythm and melody, which provide approximately equal numbers of examples for singing and dictation, the harmony part overwhelmingly emphasizes dictation. Singing examples in each module are limited to short paradigms followed by two or three chorales from the literature, many by J. S. Bach. The instructions emphasize both the function of bass scale degrees and common harmonizations of melodic scale degrees. The dictation material within each module begins with paradigms three to four chords in length, expands to two-measure phrases, and culminates with longer phrases of about four measures. Some of the later progressions feature ornamentation—mostly passing tones, but also suspensions, anticipations, and neighbors. The answer keys show all four voices, leaving the instructor the option of requiring just outer voices or the entire texture. Clefs, starting key, and time signature are always provided for the students, and starting pitches are often given as well. V7 and vii°7 are always paired, not only in the diatonic module 4 but also in modules 8–10 on applied chords. Module 4 includes the submediant triad in some of the progressions even though it is not formally introduced and discussed until module 6. While passing and