A topic that often starts discussion among music teachers is whether singing should be a required component in music exams, particularly in aural or listening tests. Many teachers have noticed that their students often feel most anxious about this part of the exam. Interestingly, research in cognitive science, which studies how we think, learn, and organise information in our minds, suggests that using such tests might not be the most effective way to assess what some exam boards like ABRSM refer to as the “musical ear” or “audiation” – the ability to mentally hear and understand music.

What is Audiation?

The term “audiation,” coined by music psychologist Edwin Gordon in 1975, is essentially another way of describing what ABRSM refers to as the “musical ear.” It involves the process of mentally hearing and comprehending music, much like how we think in words.

ABRSM suggests that singing, both silently in one’s head and out loud, is one of the best ways to develop the “musical ear.” While this is undoubtedly beneficial, it raises the question of whether it is the only way to assess a student’s aural skills.

In contrast, exam boards like RSL in their Rockschool and RSL Classical exams do not require singing. Instead, they ask candidates to identify whether a note is higher or lower in the early grades or to use their instrument to play back a melody they heard, offering an alternative assessment method.

With RSL, candidates use their instrument to demonstrate their listening and playback skills in the Ear Tests with no need to sing in their exam (unless it’s a Vocals exam!)

Is Singing an Effective Measure of Audiation?

A study conducted by Sean Hutchins and Isabelle Peretz in 2012 for the International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research in Montréal, they designed a specially created pitch slider that subjects in the experiment used to match pitched tones that were played to them. Hutchins and Peretz  found that only 5% of participants could not accurately hear and match pitch. However, a larger percentage of participants, even those who accurately hear and match pitched tones during the tests using the slider, struggled to reproduce the pitches through singing.

These findings challenge the idea that singing proficiency directly predicts or demonstrates audiation skills. They highlight the need for alternative assessment methods that more accurately measure “musical hearing” without ONLY relying on vocal performance. These insights are crucial for improving music education and assessment practices to better support students’ musical development.

Returning to the topic, many experienced teachers observe that accurately singing pitch can be particularly challenging for various groups of people, including those affected by allergies, asthma, hay fever, individuals with chronic or acute respiratory issues, older adults whose voices may be getting more unstable, adolescent boys experiencing voice changes, individuals prone to situational anxiety, some individuals with disabilities or muscle-related issues, and people with neurological conditions that affect their vocal control.

Allergies and other conditions like respiratory issues, changes occurring with age, and situational anxiety can affect how well we are able to vocalise, and can even affect vocal range & pitch control.

Can anyone really say that these groups lack audiation skills just because they struggle with singing? Yet, this seems to be what examination boards that rely on singing for aural assessment are suggesting. Moreover, in many cases, marks awarded for this part of the exam can make the difference between a Pass, Merit, or Distinction.

RSL’s Rockschool and RSL Classical grades replace traditional tests with playing by ear, introduced gradually and progressively. This innovative approach has practical relevance to instrument players beyond the exam room and does not involve singing.


While singing can undoubtedly enhance musical ear development, it may not always be the most dependable or inclusive method for evaluating it. Boards like RSL that offer a more practical, flexible approach to aural testing provide a viable choice that better accommodates students who prefer not to sing or are unable to sing. RSL includes aural components tailored to the specific instruments and musical styles covered in the Rockschool and RSL Classical exams, allowing students to demonstrate their musical understanding without the need for vocal performance, much to the relief of learners and teachers alike!