Studying For Listening Exams

It’s midterm season for me, so I’ve been giving exam reviews and meeting with students who want some additional help preparing for upcoming tests.  Music students, including non-musicians taking general studies courses, almost all become familiar with what is sometimes called a “drop the needle” type of listening test.  The instructor will play a random excerpt from a piece that was covered and the student will need to recall things like the title of the piece, composer, musical elements, and historical significance based on hearing the excerpt alone.  From the teacher’s standpoint, it’s a very effective way to test if the students are grasping the materials.

From the student’s viewpoint, however, this can be very challenging to study for, particularly for students without a music background (e.g., non-musicians taking a Music Appreciation course for a general studies elective).  Since I’ve recently given a review session to two of my appreciation classes on how to better prepare for this portion of the upcoming midterm exams (and since a couple of my students have admitted to actually reading my blog occasionally, after brownie points, no doubt!), I thought I’d offer some of my advice for preparing for the “drop the needle” test here.

First, don’t try to cram this all in one big session.  I know that us teachers try to convince our students that cramming is ineffective all the time, but with this type of study there’s simply no way to speed through listening to a couple of CDs worth of music in a short amount of time.  You need to spread out your studying over the course of days, or even weeks, in order to really be prepared for a listening exam (or any exam, for that matter).

Start off with a smaller number of pieces, maybe four pieces to begin.  Write out the title and composer of one piece on a study guide you’re putting together for yourself and listen carefully to the piece all the way through.  Since this is (hopefully, if you’ve been to class) not the first time you’ve heard the piece you might already have an idea of what to expect, but try to listen to it with new ears.  As you listen, jot down some descriptions of the piece under the title and composer that will help you recall what you’re hearing (describe in your own words the melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, form, mood, etc.).  It doesn’t need to be too complete, just enough to help you remember what the piece sounds like without needing to play it again.

At this point, it might be helpful to consider a mnemonic trick that can be really helpful here.  Write your own lyrics to the melody.  For example, when listening to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, the first theme could have the words, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Mozart.  Da, da, da – da, da, da- da, da da.”  This is what I used back when I was an undergrad and it’s stuck with me ever since.  I’m not sure who came up with those lyrics, but it wasn’t me so I can’t take credit (or blame) for it.   Obviously, it doesn’t have to be profound, or even good.  In fact, the sillier or more ridiculous the better, as it will stick in your mind better.

Now that you’ve got some of your own thoughts (and silly lyrics) written down for that piece, take a look at what your textbook has to say about it.  Jot down some of the historical points of interest about that piece or composer that might be asked on the exam.  Often, as in the case of the two texts I’m using for my Music Appreciation and Jazz Appreciation classes this semester, there are listening guides that take you through the music and point out what’s happening.  Compare what you wrote and add anything you see in the text that is helpful to your study guide.

Now repeat this for two or three more pieces.  Depending on how long each piece is, this process shouldn’t take all that long to get four pieces done.  Once you’ve got about four pieces in your study guide, stop and go on to something else for about 5 minutes.  This might be a good time to go back and reread a few pages from the textbook, do a little homework, maybe even do something for a completely different class.  It’s been shown that breaking up your study into small chunks of different topics is more effective than staying on the same topic for longer periods of time.  Take a short break, if you need one, just come back to this after a few minutes.

After this break, put those four pieces into a single MP3 playlist and shuffle, or get your study partner or a friend to do this for you.  Test yourself on being able to identify the piece, composer, musical elements, and historical information based on hearing the piece alone.  Check your accuracy against your study guide.  If you’re having trouble with the first four pieces, go through your study guide again, take another short break from it, and repeat until you’re confident you’ve got those four pieces covered.

Once you’re ready, add another piece (or maybe two, at most) to your study guide, using the same process.  Take another short break, and repeat your self test.  As you add pieces and take breaks, you might try expanding on how long of a break you take so that the first short break might be 5 minutes, the next will be 7 minutes, the third will be 10 minutes, etc.  By gradually lengthening the amount of time you take away from the task of memorizing something you will trick your brain into moving that information from your short term memory into your long term memory faster.

Don’t try to get through all the pieces in one day, 5 or 6 pieces is probably plenty.  Your next study session (hopefully the next day, but maybe even a few hours later) you should briefly review your study guide, then add another piece or two and continue your self test.  After getting another 5 pieces or so on your study guide, stop for the time being and come back later.  Repeat the next time.

Before I finish, I want to address a few key points that should help students studying for any subject, not just musical listening tests.  First, I recommend above that after a portion of time spent listening you should do something else for a short time before returning to your listening practice.  What I am not suggesting is that you try to multitask.  Trying to study for a listening exam by putting the music on while you read the textbook is not going to be an effective study technique.  It’s simply not possible to divide your attention between two or more things and devote the attention you need to on each particular topic.  In fact, it’s been recently shown that people who think they are good at multitasking actually do worse at multitasking than people who think they’re poor at it.  Concentrate on one thing at a time and you’ll probably find that you need to spend less time total getting everything done than if you try to do two or more at once.

Secondly, break up your study with other topics, even from another class.  Again, research has recently shown that this is a more effective way of studying than cramming in one topic for a longer period of time.  It may be related to the short term/long term memory trick I mentioned above.  Trying to get information into your long term memory requires that a little time go between repetitions.  By going back and forth between topics you’ll be using the time away from a topic efficiently.  It might be tempting to use that time to surf the web (this blog, no doubt), play video games, or whatever else you find fun, but those activities have a tendency to go longer than we want to.  Set a timer, if you need to.

Finally, try studying in different environments, if you can.  This might be harder to do for a listening exam, when you need whatever playback equipment you’re using.  Most school libraries have AV centers where you can put on headphones and listen to music, so you can alternate between the library and your dorm room.  If you’ve got a portable MP3 player you can go almost anywhere.  Again, this recommendation is based on some recent research that showed that alternating the study environment helped students improve on test taking more than studying in the same room.

Everyone is a little different, so you may find it helpful to tweak the above suggestions to suit your own abilities.  For example, some may find it easier to work on fewer pieces in one session, others may be able to do more.  Some of you may have additional techniques for “drop the needle” tests.  If you’ve got one I didn’t mention here, please leave your comment below or contact me and I’ll add it here.

5 thoughts on “Studying For Listening Exams

  1. This comment is at best tangential, and I don’t imagine students these days listen to the radio very much (at all?), but when driving I’ve always loved flipping over to a classical music station, catching something in progress and trying to identify it as closely as possible. The history of Western music is so linear, particularly with what the accepted harmonies are in any given period, getting the century or half century can be easy. Whether it’s by someone famous or someone influenced by someone famous can be tougher. The point, though, is that it can be a fun way to hone your listening skills, and doing stuff for fun can refresh doing something similar for a class.

  2. Good points. I think that with jazz musicians this may be easier than with classical, since jazz tends to encourage individual expression more than classical. Still, once you get a good understanding of musical styles you should be able to hear some random music on the radio and be able to make an educated guess as to the style period (i.e., classical or romantic, swing or bebop). This is one of my goals for my music appreciation students, that they be able to recognize the different style periods by sound alone. Music majors should start to be able to recognize particular composers in the same style period after a certain point, or at least make educated guesses.

  3. I wish I had you as my Music Appreciation teacher, and I wish I had read this at the beginning of the semester. I’m one of those “crammers” that you said shouldn’t cram for this type of test. But I have a musical background so hopefully it won’t be too difficult. But I totally forgot about having to name the song and the composer…eek! But this has been a helpful guide THANK YOU!

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