Improve a Weak Aural Memory with these Music Games

Every student can improve their aural memory over time. But occasionally a student will come to us with a particularly weak aural memory, which can present a real challenge to us as teachers.

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⬆️ Listen to the podcast above or keep on reading, whichever fits your style. ↙️

If you’ve had a student like this, you know the struggle. The aural memory music games in this article are simple, but they might be just the solution you need right now.

What is a Weak Aural Memory?

First, let’s get clear on what we’re talking about here because it’s super easy to confuse this with other things. 

Students with a weak aural memory will have trouble:

  • Playing back what they just heard
  • Retaining rote pieces from one lesson to the next
  • Thinking through a tune they have heard many times

This is not to be confused with an underdeveloped sense of pitch. Students with a weak aural memory can sing in tune. What they can’t do is remember a pattern of pitches.

remember pattern of pitches

If you’ve had a student like this you’ll know how frustrating it can be, for them and for you. Progress can seem to slide backwards more than forwards when students don’t have this important skill for music making. 

Strategies for Improving Aural Memory

Although it can feel like pushing water up a hill, we can absolutely help a student improve their weak aural memory.

Before we start, though, a word about ‘challenge’.

With all of the exercises below, you need to find the edge of your student’s current abilities and take baby steps from there. If you start with a pattern of 5 pitches and they cannot repeat it, keep scaling it back until they can. 

You need to find the right level of challenge for your student so that their confidence and self-belief stays high.

With that in mind, here are 4 games you can use with your aural-memory-challenged students. This is simple stuff but, if you repeat it week-after-week, you’ll see improvement…and hopefully have some fun along the way, too!

For ear training lessons and activities to improve other aspects of listening, visit the Ear Training section of my Music Theory hub page.

Aural Memory Game 1: Sing it Back

Start with the simplest of all: the sing-back 

  • Sing a very short pattern for your student while doing Curwen* hand signs.
  • Repeat it 3 times.
  • Ask your student to sing or hum it back to you. 

As they get used to this exercise, they can do the hand signs during your second and third repetition and then try also to do the signs when they are singing it back to you.

*You need some sort of physical action to go with the pitches. If Curwen hand signs don’t suit you, just substitute your own favourite signing system or physical gestures. 

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Aural Memory Game 2: Sign it Back

After at least a month of simple hand sign sing-backs, your student might be ready to start thinking through the pattern instead of just singing it. 

  • Sing a short pattern while doing the Curwen hand signs
  • Repeat 3 times. 
  • Ask your student to silently sign the pattern back to you.

Gradually increase the length of these patterns over time. Always taking these aural memory music games just a little bit further will help improve your student’s weak aural memory without dashing their confidence.

Aural Memory Game 3: Tap it Back

For many students, pitch is not actually the hardest pattern to remember. They may find rhythm patterns to be much trickier to retain. 

That’s why basic rhythm drills like this are so important.

  • Clap a short pattern.
  • Repeat 3 times.
  • Ask your student to tap it back to you. 

We ask the student to tap rather than clap the pattern back for 2 reasons:

Firstly, because clapping is harder to do accurately and we want to make sure a coordination issue doesn’t mask aural memory improvement. 

Secondly, because a change in timbre (however subtle) is useful for making the aural memory of the pattern more flexible. This will help us later, when we transfer this work to instruments.

For more rhythm game ideas and creative rhythm activities, check out my book Rhythm in 5.

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Aural Memory Game 4: Write it Down

Once your student has been working on their aural memory for a while with the first 3 games, they should be ready for some basic transcription exercises. The writing here can be done on the staff or in any form of pre-notation.

  • Sing a pattern while signing, just as before.
  • Have your student make up their own pattern and sing it to you while signing.
  • The goal is for you each to write down each other’s patterns. Repeat the singing and signing until you both think you have it written down correctly, and then sing and sign together from the notated versions to check.

By having our student make up their own pattern to sing to us, we’re requiring them to keep 2 patterns in their head throughout the game. This can be a stretch, so start with very short patterns using the same note value throughout and then expand from there.

Have you had a student with a weak aural memory?

How did you help them improve this important skill – have you tried other aural memory music games? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 🙂

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