Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

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Grooves, Drones, and Loops: Enhancing Aural Skills Exercises with Rock Music Contexts

Trevor de Clercq, Middle Tennessee State University

One of the perennial issues faced by aural skills instructors is the balance between real music and artificial exercises. As Michael Rogers notes, real music offers many advantages, e.g., exposure to the repertoire, greater possibilities for expressing musicality, and examples of those musical structures with which we want our students to become familiar. But some of these same aspects also act as disadvantages. The variety of musical structures in real music makes pacing and scaffolding tricky, since the perfect example with just the right level of difficulty is often hard to find. As a result, abstract exercises– because they isolate specific musical problems –are a common feature of aural skills instruction. Yet such drills, in part due to their repetitive and contrived nature, can often feel tedious or dry; valuable workouts, they nevertheless lack the excitement of real music. Moreover, the acontextual nature of such exercises may hinder the development of skills that translate into real musical settings.

In my own teaching, I have developed a few different strategies to remedy this situation. This essay serves to describe these strategies as well as my experience using them in the classroom. In a nutshell, my approach has been to have students perform pitch and rhythm exercises along with custom-edited sound recordings of real music, primarily drawn from the pop/rock repertoire (hereafter, simply “rock”). I categorize these recordings in three basic ways: as grooves, drones, or loops, each of which has its own particular pedagogical role(s). By using real music – particularly rock – as a backdrop, I find that students are more excited and more engaged, their performances more imbued with energy and musicality. Furthermore, I find that giving context to what are typically out-of-context exercises helps students better develop the skills these sort of exercises were designed to nurture in the first place.


Consider the typical single-line rhythm exercise, such as found in Anne Hall’s Studying Rhythm. The elemental context for these exercises is a steady beat, which we hope our students have internally developed (or will soon). Metronomes have traditionally been used to make this steady beat more salient, but metronomes cannot fully convey the multi-level sense of meter, which involves various groupings and divisions of the beat. Students with prior ensemble experience customarily already have a deep understanding of meter; in contrast, students with little to no prior ensemble experience – e.g., classical guitarists, keyboardists, or vocalists – may struggle to thoroughly understand how rhythm and meter interact. Conducting (with off-beat snapping) can help, but coordination issues may hamper progress.

As a solution, I have my students perform single-line rhythm exercises along with what I call “grooves.” A groove is a short instrumental excerpt in some particular meter, edited to repeat for an extended period of time. The Beastie Boys song “Root Down,” for example, can be edited to create a nice groove around 100 BPM. The context of the groove inherently gives aural significance to the hierarchical sense of meter. There are additional benefits as well. For one, playing a rock groove can perk up students, especially helpful in an 8:00 AM section. The use of pre-recorded material also forces students to be good listeners, else they will slip out of time with the pre-recorded content. I find grooves particularly advantageous to convey complex meters, such as 5/8 or 7/8, for which students often have no prior musical reference. Grooves can even be used to liven up clef reading exercises. Most importantly, a groove makes those out-of-time, start-and-stop rhythmic performances impossible, because everything becomes reconciled to the prevailing meter.

Readers are welcome to use any of the grooves I have already created. With some audio editing chops, it should be easy for instructors to create their own. When creating a groove, I will usually make a few versions at different tempos via pitch shift, since it is useful to have students perform exercises at various speeds. An instructor can also achieve different tempos by simply performing an exercise at half time or double time with respect to the recording.

The use of grooves in an aural skills class is not a panacea, of course. As repetitive metrical structures, grooves cannot support changing meters or metric modulation. And to a certain extent, a groove – like a metronome – is a pedagogical crutch. I still place high value on hearing students perform rhythms without any external aids, so as to ensure that the rhythm is genuinely understood in relationship to an internalized conception of meter. But as a practice tool – both inside and outside of class – grooves give students a chance to perform rhythms in a fun and engaging context that mimics an ensemble experience.


Just as the beat provides the basic rhythmic context, tonic provides the basic pitch context. We expect students to have (or soon develop) an internalization of the tonal framework, hearing notes in relationship to a reference pitch. (I assume here that instructors use some sort of functional solmization system, such as scale degrees or movable do; see Smith 1991.) But there has yet to be a traditional corollary to the metronome within the domain of pitch. Accordingly, instructors must assume that students imagine and hear the relationship of the scale degrees or solfège syllables back to tonic. For instance, if I ask a student to sing the notes F-G-A as 1-2-3, I assume (if the numbers have meaning) that when the student sings the third note, the student hears it in relation to the first. This may or may not be the case, especially for beginners, since simply matching pitch and speaking the correct number will complete the task without any sort of substantive functional hearing.

To encourage functional hearing, I use drones with many pitch-based activities. Like a metronome, the drone provides a constant aural reminder of the context in which the note should be understood. Admittedly, drones are not real musical contexts (even though some were created from real music, such as Metallica’s “Orion” or Mahler’s Symphony #1). But drones are important tonal contexts nonetheless. A variety of pitch-based drills can take advantage of a background drone, such as sequential patterns (e.g., 1-2-3, 2-3-4, 3-4-5, etc.), scale-degree patterns (written on the board, read in a textbook, or conveyed through hand signs), or pitch patterns (arrhythmic strings of notes written on the staff). Even complete melodies can be sung over a drone (assuming no modulation).

Students report that drones are very helpful in their development of relative pitch. (This information was gleaned through feedback sheets I distribute periodically throughout the semester.) In addition, students report that the drones help improve vocal tuning. Especially as the material becomes more chromatic, accurate tuning is a critical component of successful sight singing. As with the grooves, I encourage my students to use the drones outside of class in their private practice. At some point, however, they need to take off the training wheels and sing confidently with the tonic context internalized, so I still do a healthy amount of a cappella singing within a given class period in order to encourage internal audiation of tonic as well.


Although drones add a valuable contextual element to pitch-based activities, they still lack the excitement of real music. To bridge this gap, I also employ what I refer to as “loops,” which I categorize as either “drone loops” or “chord loops.” Drone loops are short instrumental excerpts that stay entirely within the tonic chord. For example, the song “No Sunlight” by Death Cab for Cutie can be edited to create a nice drone loop in A major. Drone loops are also grooves, naturally, in that they have a steady beat and meter. The difference is that the harmonic content of a groove is irrelevant, whereas a drone loop must be confined to a single chord. The same sorts of abstract pitch activities described above (e.g., sequential patterns, scale-degree patterns, pitch patterns) can be performed with a drone loop. But the addition of the rhythmic element requires students to perform the pitch activities at a more consistent pace, arguably bridging the gap (at least somewhat) between the abstract exercise and real music.

Because drone loops involve real music, their utility is slightly different than pure drones. For one, drone loops do not lend themselves to switching easily between major and minor since the source material is strongly rooted in a major and minor key. That being said, more advanced students can practice singing minor scale degrees against a major tonality (and vice versa) so as to foster adeptness with mixture. One other benefit of drone loops is that – since they come from real music – they often support real melodies, which can make for fun warm-up dictation exercises. With my drone loop of the Arcade Fire song “Keep the Car Running,” for example, I could sing the opening vocal melody (1-7-6-5 / 2-2-3) on neutral syllables and then have the students sing back on scale degrees. These sorts of instructional Easter eggs help reinforce in students that important connection between concepts in class and the musical world around them.

In recent semesters, I have expanded my use of loops to include harmonic progressions. These “chord loops,” which I categorize as major or minor, typically involve a four-bar chord progression (excerpted from a rock song), edited such that it repeats for about three minutes. Aside from simple harmonic dictation exercises, chord loops can be used to enhance harmonically-oriented singing work (such as those described in Covington 1997). Because the chord loop provides a complete and repeating harmonic background, it allows students to sing solo lines that explore how the aural quality of a particular scale degree (or syllable) can change appreciably depending on its harmonic context, while freeing the instructor and other students to either partake in the exercise or simply listen. These vocal lines can be composed on-the-fly by the instructor, pointing to different scale degrees with each new chord; or, individual students may construct/improvise their own paths through the harmonies.


One or two things are worth keeping in mind when using the material described above. Having some convenient way to manage volume is critical, since the balance between the recorded material, the performers, and comments from the instructor often determines the success of the activity. I have also found it beneficial to download any files for the day before each class, so as not to let delays in streaming access dampen the class momentum. Posting the materials to the web is useful, though, since students can access them anytime for their own personal study.

Overall, I find these materials to be a valuable tool in connecting with my students. At minimum, the use of real music will typically engender a conversation. One student might comment on the “awesomeness” of a particular artist; another might inquire as to the exact source of the material; or, someone might suggest a related artist that I should check out. I believe these sorts of interactions ultimately strengthen the trust between the instructor and student – a trust that is critical in teaching a course in which students typically have high anxiety. This anxiety is perhaps at its highest in the first year of an aural skills curriculum since the experience itself is so new. This first year – when acontextual exercises proliferate – is precisely when grooves, drones, and loops are most applicable, since the nascent skills of the beginner are not yet adequate to deal entirely with real music. So while the materials described herein may be less applicable to higher-level musicianship coursework, the instructor can eventually (one hopes) crossfade across semesters between artificial exercises and the real music for which they were designed.

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Trevor de Clercq and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.