In order to prepare conservatoire students for ‘the profession,’ undergraduate courses aim to equip students with skills that performers and composers use in professional practice. Aural training has formed part of conservatoire courses since their inception in the eighteenth century and having a ‘good ear’ is widely regarded as an essential skill for a professional musician. However, for many conservatoire students at the start of the twenty-first century, ‘doing aural’ involves completing increasingly complex aural dictation or sight-singing exercises of specially devised materials. Why? Could this be because dictation and sight-singing tests are easy to set, easy to administer, and easy to grade? Research suggests that aural classes have increasingly focused on ‘teaching to the test,’ and thus the assessment vehicle has stifled the development of alternative pedagogies at conservatoires for more than a century.

This paper presents a case study of a course designed for UK undergraduate students at the Royal College of Music entitled Aural in Professional Contexts. The course, initially designed to stretch and challenge students with perfect pitch (APPs) focuses on the development of relative pitch and transcription skills rather than dictation. All teaching and assessment materials are drawn from ‘real’ musical examples, including folk world music, popular music, and jazz. The primary vehicles for assessment are performance and transcription. This paper traces the development of the course from inception to delivery. It presents a detailed analysis of the rationale, aims, and objectives of the course over the past 12 years in the light of student feedback. It is proposed that in order to unlock our students’ aural potential and to equip them with relevant skills, a new aural pedagogy – which complements more traditional approaches and is accessible to all students – is required.