Category Archives: Testing

It’s official – I’m a big Jessie

I break off from the traditional summer silence to flag up some interesting tests related to Simon Baron Cohen‘s* recent book, The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain.

There are four tests:

The first three take the form of choosing how much you agree with a given statement: definitely agree; slightly agree; slightly disagree & definitely disagree. The 4th test involves looking at a pair of eyes, through the letter-box, as it were and then choosing which of four given emotions is being expressed.

In all four tests my score fell into the category where “most women score.” This did not surprise me and I imagine that most people employed in the people industries would score similarly. Why not try them? The overall results (with colour coded gender divide) for over 150,000 participants so far can be seen here (slow link – patience required).

I first came across this topic in an article in New Scientist which suggested that reading fiction might develop social skills.

* cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen aka Ali G and Borat

How do you solve a problem like Isolde?

Got a spare 15 minutes? Would you like to take part in a national, online survey about how people listen to music? The mission of Feeling Sound Musiclab is to test how we perceive music – and also to gauge the nation’s favourite chord – the result of which will be used to commission a new piece of music.

Why not read about the project, about the staff involved or take the test?

Playing from memory

In the Music Matters special on Music & Health one of the guests, Dr John Zeisel, claimed that music attacks The Four A words associated with Alzheimers – agitation, aggression, anxiety & apathy. Aware that the study of dysfunction often enhances awareness of function, I soon began to wonder whether music (specifically the study of music) has the potential similarly to benefit those not affected by that particular disease. All of us experience elements of the above conditions at some time or other – perhaps never more so than during our teenage years. I’m inclined to believe that any activity which heightens awareness of surroundings at the expense of that of the self is bound to help.

I learned one new term in this broadcast – retrogenesisthe degenerating mind’s equivalent of a common response to staffing cutbacks i.e. last in – first out – or rather – first in – last out. It seems that music has been hard-wired for so long in our evolution that it outlasts many other abilities. This disposition to longevity seems also to be due to its reliance on procedural as opposed to declarative memory.

Sergio della Sala’s video contributions to LTS stress that memories are recreated dynamically as opposed to being accessed from an unchanging archive. This certainly resonates with how I feel when playing music by memory (which constitutes the majority of occasions) and also with what pupils describe of their experiences of memorising music. If pressed, one could name the pitches, durations, harmonies, concepts etc. – but it seems so much easier just to play it!


One of the more interesting features to emerge from the New Scientist (NS) special The Roots of Music was an article on amusia. Like many people, I had imagined this simply to mean the inability to carry a tune or to perceive changes in pitch and rhythm. However, researching further in a listen again edition of BBC Radio 4’s Frontiers I began to appreciate how annoying the omnipresence of music in our society might be for sufferers. What, to the majority, must seem like easily filterable background music in pubs, shops etc. must constitute little more than an irritating clatter – perhaps something like trying to think or have a conversation in a noisy hotel kitchen.

It is thought that around 4% of the population are amusic. This could amount to more than 50 people in a large school – perhaps some on the staff – perhaps some in the Music Department 🙂

At the bottom of the NS article was an invitation to take part in an online test. Why not log on and try for yourself? It consists of listening to two playings of short tunes and deciding if they were the same or different. I was interested in taking part see whether it might be possible to simulate what it must be like for the P5 pupils who undergo an aural test at the start of each session.*

However, I quickly found my lengthy experience of processing music made it impossible for me to hear the tests in the same way that a beginner or an amusic person might. I realised that just a few notes into the first playing of each test I was unconsciously encoding the sounds – specifically the tonality (key) and metre (pulse and rhythmic groupings). This gave me something more concrete with which to compare the second playing. However, there were a couple of examples which were sufficiently up-tempo, irregular and lengthy to feel quite challenging.

I’ve often been struck by this educational paradox – the more proficient you become in your chosen field, the more difficult it becomes truly to appreciate what those who struggle with it really feel.

* In August of 2006 I wrote 5 posts on the testing process for instrumental instruction: 1   2   3   4   5

Keeping it real

Today’s In Service featured a session on preparing for Associated Board exams – including a mock exam. A very courageous clarinet pupil called Emma – very well taught by Alison Loneski – stepped into the lion’s den and was put through her paces by our visiting speaker Margaret Murray McLeod. This live element enlivened the subsequent discussions, providing us with real rather than abstract considerations. A seasoned examiner both here and overseas, Ms Murray McLeod furnished many tips on preparation and presentation which resonated with the assembled staff.

Unexpected CPD moment

In an attempt to refresh mind and body between school and a twilight Parents’ Evening, I recently spent an hour in the pool and health suite of North Berwick Sports Centre. In the steam room I found myself, inexplicably whistling*. Apart from the fantastic acoustic and the apparent contribution of the steam to the quality of sound, I wondered, “why is this so easy?” I’ve never been inclined to whistle and have probably whistled fewer than 40 seconds worth of music in as many years. Intrigued, I decided to push the envelope and put myself through a mock Grade 8 Whistling exam. I tested myself on ascending and descending scales (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, whole tone & chromatic both forms of diminished & augmented) and then the remaining modes (dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, & locrian). Then came the turn of arpeggios (major, minor, dominant 7th, minor 7th, major 7th, minor with major 7th, diminished 7th, major 6th, minor 6th). There were some tricky moments – notably the descending form of the augmented scale – but the vast majority seemed simply to be lying in wait, pret a siffler.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you cry, “you know the sound of these through your musical explorations over the years and have the benefit of a practised ear.” This is true but what is also true is that I’d have struggled to sing them. What intrigues me is that the entire musculature of whistling seemed in place, benefiting from neither interest nor training and must therefore be hard wired. Was there a time when it was commonly used for communication than today? Many will already have come across Silbo-Gomero, the whistling language used mainly by shepherds communicating with one another across the valleys of La Gomera Silbo. Does anyone out there know if this practice was once more widespread?

…interesting article on studies of brain patterns decoding whistling here suggesting that those who perceive music as a language process it using different brain regions.

Test your aural recognition of scales and modes here.

* I was the only person using the steam room at this point.


Of all the SQA Listening Concepts, the one* which arises most frequently in the world of instrumental teaching is sequence. This is one which pupils understand and can spot but find difficult to put into words. In the end, we often agree that a the following conditions have to be met:

  • that there is a pattern which can be spotted (seen and/or heard)
  • that, having spotted the pattern, we can predict what should come next (by playing and/or describing)
  • that we should be able to tell whether what actually came next was what we were expecting (by listening and/or reading)
  • that – on a good day – we should be able to pinpoint the deviant note, name it and say what we were expecting to be in its place (by pointing to the page and/or playing)

Here is an example of the longest sequence I know. Most sequences extend to 3 units and break away on the 4th. Some even break away on the 3rd. This familiar sequence has 5 complete units and even begins its 6th breakaway unit on the expected note: sequence 

The discussion of sequences and patterns in other subjects comes up e.g. maths, dance, art etc. Pupils are asked to listen to a numerical sequence and to add the next number:

  • 2, 4, 6, 8, ?
  • 1, 3, 5, 7, ?
  • 1, 4, 7, 10, ?
  • 1, 5, 9, 13, ?

An S1 pupil today offered extremely quick answers to the more challenging of these and when I commented on this he said that he enjoyed, and was quite good at, this sort of thing. For interest’s sake, he agreed to be timed reciting a times table of his choice – he chose the nine times table and we agreed that he should simply announce the products, omit the “nine ones are” prefixes and stop at 10 x 9. His time was 4” – impressive!

If you’re not convinced, try timing yourself simply reading the answers aloud:

9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81, 90.

If you achieve a good time, why not try calculating and reciting the answers to another table?

* I’m excluding here the most straightforward ones e.g. ascending/descending or silence

Gender, listening and hearing

Thanks to Ewan McIntosh for a link to a Times Online article I’d otherwise have missed concerning Leonard Sax‘s book Boys Adrift: The Five Factors* Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young MenThis is a massive field and one upon which I do not feel qualified authoritatively to comment. However, one claim in the article (not indicated as being a direct quote from the book) stopped me in my tracks and that was that boys do not hear as well as girls. My initial reaction was one of disbelief as my my experience of the playing by ear vs. playing from written music divide suggests that boys massively outnumber girls in preferring the former. There are side-effects: their reading suffers, but their memory improves. For a while the feeling of incongruity was ameliorated by the realisation that there is a world of difference between simply having a musical ear and being disposed to listening to instructions in class. However, the more I thought about this, the more omnipresent listening skills appeared to be:

  • part of the selection process for instrumental instruction involves a multiple choice listening test
  • much further down the line, Listening forms 1/3 of SQA Music courses and exams
  • all external exam bodies include some kind of aural testing
  • ensemble skills rely on a mixture of reading and taking cues through listening to the other parts
  • although written parts convey expressive ideas, many decisions are arrived in rehearsal without further writing – the participants simply listen and remember

Instrumental instruction requires such a level of listening that, were that statement in the article to be true, girls would simply outnumber boys when it comes to lasting the course. I looked at the statistics for the five schools in my orbit and compiled the following:

Primary School 1 Boys 8.7%  Girls 91.3%

Primary School 2 Boys 50% Girls 50%

Secondary School 1 Boys 62.5% Girls 37.5%

Secondary School 2 Boys 47.5% Girls 52.5%

Secondary School 3 Boys 50% Girls 50%

N.B. No pupil was sawn into fractions in the compiling of these statistics. If anyone can advise me on how to insert a table into WordPress, I’d be very gratful.

I’d be very interested to see a breakdown of statistics for other instruments taught by either gender. It should be borne in mind that other factors come into play e.g. which instruments have been taught in feeder primaries and how many musicians of either gender are already in the system when they arrive in secondary school, where the full compliment is on offer.

* Dr. Sax lists the The Five Factors Driving the Decline of Boys as:

Video Games. Studies show that some of the most popular video games are disengaging boys from real-world pursuits.

Teaching Methods. Profound changes in the way children are educated have had the unintended consequence of turning many boys off school.

Prescription Drugs. Overuse of medication for ADHD may be causing irreversible damage to the motivational centers in boys’ brains.

Endocrine Disruptors. Environmental estrogens from plastic bottles and food sources may be lowering boys’ testosterone levels, making their bones more brittle and throwing their endocrine systems out of whack.

Devaluation of Masculinity. Shifts in popular culture have transformed the role models of manhood. Forty years ago we had Father Knows Best; today we have The Simpsons.

The sands of time

Over the festive period I played my first game of Cranium. I’m convinced that the time limit, provided by a cute little egg timer, watched hungrily by competitive opponents while inarticulate hands strive to depict the Millennium Dome in plasticine, adds that element of fun which friendly pressure can bring to bear. Over the remaining days of the holiday the idea, common in all sports, of exactly how long things take began to get a hold of me. How long it takes one to run or swim 100m is a very significant fact to a competitor or coach. Yet how long it takes one to perform a given calculation e.g. recite a multiplication table or conjugate a verb, seems to be entirely missing from many forms of learning.

I let the idea mature for a few days while heaving myself up and down my local swimming baths – thankfully no scrutinising coach, eyes glued to stopwatch, paced the poolside as I did so. I came up with a few games whose purpose is to speed up manipulation of aspects of theory of music which I then tried out over a few drinks with some colleagues towards the end of the holidays. Why not try this one out – mental calculation only – no writing!

Intervals (the distant between two notes) Go round the circle until you end up where you started – sharps and flats don’t matter – just letters. Here are a couple of examples:

  • direction is ascending
  • interval is 4ths
  • starting point is D (start the stopwatch as you announce the letter)

Answer: D, G, C, F, B, E, A, D

another one

  • direction is descending
  • interval is 6ths
  • starting point is F

Answer: F, A, C, E, G, B, D, F

I’d be very interested to hear, if anyone has the time and inclination to try these out, which parameters did you use and how long did it take? Where the descending ones significantly more challenging than the ascending?

Just in case anyone is wondering what use this type of thing is – rapid calculation of intervals is essential for speedy harmonic thinking. Bear in mind that alterations may also need to be made to some notes to differentiate between e.g. major, minor, augmented, diminished – so manipulation of the letters needs to be effortless. The comforting point, for me, is that the apparently endless range of options is, like most things, finite:

  • 7 letters in the musical world
  • 6 intervals inside the octave – unison and 8ve don’t count as this would simply amount to the following answer: A, A, A, A, A, A, A, A.
  • 2 possible directions (plus there are cheats to get round this)

At first glance it seems like there must be 7 x 6 x 2 = 84 possibilities. But, when you bear in mind that these journeys are circular, then calculating any given interval is akin travelling on The Circle Line line (no matter where you get on you can predict what station is next) the road ahead seems a little less uncertain.