What is a Musical Aptitude Test?

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Jack Vaughan
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A musical aptitude test or specialist music entrance exam is designed to look for inherent musicality in a student. This essentially means measuring their aural capacity and ability to discern detail in pitch, texture, and rhythm.

However, whilst there is somewhat of a ‘standard MAT test’, schools often vary what they put in – making preparation hard. Failing one of these musical aptitude tests can result in the student not getting into the school they want and drastically altering their school career.

The good news is that it is possible to prepare for a musical aptitude test if you know what to practice and how to practice it.

Over my 10 years as a private music teacher I’ve helped many students pass entrance exams like this one and have condensed many of the exercises, interview questions and parental advice into an extremely comprehensive set of courses – many of them free. You can find these here.

Please contact me directly if you have any other questions about it. I’d be happy to help in any way I can.

What’s inside a Musical Aptitude Test?

So if musical aptitude tests are designed to look for inherent musicality or ‘aural capacity’ in a student, what does that mean?

Aural capacity is the ability to discern detail in things like pitch, texture, and rhythm. So what sort of questions could come up? Well, there could be a number of different formats. One, you could be in a music school or in a hall somewhere listening to a CD and answering multiple-choice questions; or you could be in a meeting with the examiner or the head of music and they might ask you questions like, “Clap this rhythm” or “Sing the top note of this chord” or “Tell me; is the second note higher or lower?”

But there could be many other questions, and this is the slight problem with musical aptitude tests. Whilst there is somewhat of standard musical aptitude test, which we’ll see in a minute, the problem is that schools keep them pretty darn secret. This is because they’re looking for inherent musical aptitude and they don’t therefore want to give people too much preparation time. So there are quite a lot of variations, which makes it quite hard to prepare for.

What if you fail a Musical Aptitude Test?

If you fail a musical aptitude test it doesn’t mean you’re “unmusical.” However, failing does often massively affect a school career. It can mean that you don’t get into the school that you’re after or that perhaps you don’t get the scholarship that you’re going for.

The good news is, however, that even though they’re looking for “inherent” musical aptitude, it can be learned and honed so long as you know what to practice and how to practice it. By doing practice tests and understanding the types of questions that could come up, you’re going to get a lot more confident going into the exam.

Do you need to play an instrument to pass an Musical Aptitude Test?

So one of the questions people often ask is, “Do you have to have studied music before doing an MAT test?” The honest answer to this is, well, it helps. However, this is only because those students who’ve been playing and involved in music so far have been practicing thinking about music for some time.

Essentially, the musical aptitude test is a cognitive music test that is designed to look at how the student thinks about the music that they hear. So the concepts are universal, a bit like colour really. So, so long as we’re encouraging students to think about how music works, they are being well prepared to pass a musical aptitude test. You don’t need to play an instrument to pass most standard MAT entrance exams. But as we’ll see, there’s another type of MAT or entrance exam where you almost certainly will.

What is a ‘standard musical aptitude test’?

So before we get to that, however, let’s look at what a standard musical aptitude test actually is.

1. Pitch: The Vertical Relationship Between Notes

You’re almost certainly going to be asked about pitch. This is about hearing the vertical relationships between notes. So the classic one is an examiner might play something like this – (playing piano) – and ask you, “Is the second note higher or lower?” Here’s another one. (Playing piano.) In the first case it was higher, and in the second case it was lower.

2. Melody: Retaining a Melody and Noticing the Difference

They’ll also potentially ask you about melody, hearing the difference between melodies. So how is the second melody different to the first? Here is the first one. (Playing piano.) And the second one. (Playing piano.) And you’d say that the second-to-last note was lower.

3. Texture: Hearing Inside of Chords

Texture is an interesting one. People often get this mixed up with orchestral or instrumental texture. In regards to just the standard musical aptitude test, it’s hearing inside of the harmony of, most commonly, a keyboard and discerning whether there are three, four, two, or one notes playing. So here’s an example. (Playing piano.) What the student has to do is listen carefully to that chord and break up the notes in their mind to be able to hear that there are indeed – (playing piano) – three notes playing. (Playing piano.)

4. Rhythm: Temporal Relationships in Music

You’ll also be asked about rhythm, determining the rhythmical difference between two phrases or repeating a rhythm back and explaining how it differed.

What else can come up in a Musical Aptitude Test?

Well, the answer is… lots. So let’s look at this in a little bit more detail.

Musical Aptitude Pitch Questions

So with regards to the pitch section of the exam, you could be doing:

  • Pitch matching: where the examiner might play a note and ask you to sing it.
  • Pitch recognition: recognizing the degree of the scale. This is where we start to get into the territory of having to have studied a little bit of music so far.
  • Relative pitch: “what’s the interval between these two notes?” and you have to answer for example “a perfect fifth”.
  • Pitch matching within a texture: the student might be asked to sing the middle note of a chord or texture that the examiner plays

Musical Aptitude Melody Questions

  • Melodic contour: the student would be asked to describe the shape of that melody. An answer might sound like “it went up, stayed at the top for a while, turned, and then came back down quickly”.
  • Melodic difference: recognizing the difference between two melodies and describing it like we saw earlier.
  • Repeating a melody: this is like the pitch matching but within a full melody.
  • Reproducing a melody: reproducing a melody on the piano or your instrument by ear.
  • Transcribing a melody: This absolutely, definitely, where a student has to have studied music before because they’ll be writing it down on manuscript.

Musical Aptitude Texture Questions

  • Harmonic texture: How many notes are playing, as we saw earlier.
  • Types of harmony: “Is this music in a major or a minor key” or “Is this a major or minor chord?
  • Instrumental texture: How many instruments are playing, and can you name them?

Musical Aptitude Rhythm Questions

  • Repeating a rhythm: clapping part of a piece of music, or a rhythm played by the examiner.
  • Rhythmic difference: recognizing the difference between two rhythms.
  • Length of notes: knowing the difference between a minim, a crotchet, and what that sounds like
  • Transcribing a rhythm: i.e. on paper.

Musical Aptitude Test V.S Specialist Music School Audition

So this is where the lines start to blur between a standard MAT test and a specialist music entrance exam, interview or audition. In the former, a standard musical aptitude  test, you might just be part of the first wave of exams to get into a school. In the latter, it might be the second wave, or to get a music scholarship or into a specialist music school. And you’ll certainly need to have been playing an instrument for a while to get through these.

Even if your child is not going for a specialist music school, it’s worth reading on to get a sense of the interview questions that can come up regardless. It will help you be prepared.

Specialist Music School Auditions, Tests and Interviews

For the specialist music exam, you’re almost certainly going to have an interview. Interview questions will cover even more detail about the way music works; things like:

  • Tempo “Did the piece slow down or speed up”; or “How fast did you think it was?”
  • Mood and Emotion: They might ask you funny questions like, “How does this music feel” or “What was the composer thinking?”
  • Instruments and singers: “What instrument is playing” and “Name me a brass instrument.”
  • Sight reading and sight singing
  • Keys and harmony: knowing about the different sharps and flats of scales. “How many flats does Ab Major have” or “What chord is this” when they’re showing you at the piano.
  • Musical form: knowing about the structure of pieces and potentially even forms like Rondo, Sonata etc. (but this is unlikely).

The Student’s Relationship with Music and the Department

The other thing that the examiners are going to want to know is about your relationship with music. Adults will know that when they do interviews, you often get asked quite difficult questions. But essentially, what examiners and people who are interviewing you for jobs want to know is that you like what you do. They want to know that you like music. So they might ask you, “Why do you like music” or “Tell me how you practice” – that’s a slightly more practical question – or “What would you contribute to the musical life of the department? What musical activities are you involved in? What pieces do you enjoy playing and why? And who’s your favourite musician?”

All of these questions and more are really worth thinking about and practicing your answers, because otherwise you can come unstuck; even though you may know the answer, you may not have articulated it yet.

How Can you Prepare for a Musical Aptitude Test or Specialist Music Audition?

Initially having read through this article or watched the video, you’ll have more of an idea. You should take a standard Musical Aptitude Test and see how the student does (I have a free one here).

But beyond that, how can you prepare? Well, I’m a private music teacher and I’ve taken many students through these MAT and specialist music entrance exams over the years. And I’ve collated a lot of the different tests, practices and resources that I’ve used into a number of free courses.

You can find these here.

Good luck and please be in touch if you have any questions or if I can help in any way.

– Jack