Aqa As Music Example Essays

What a joke: Pupils can get an A at GCSE music without knowing a crotchet from a quaver

By Laura Clark for the Daily Mail
Updated: 10:13 GMT, 8 August 2008


Pupils can get an A in GCSE music without being able to read or write a single note of music, it has been claimed.

The skills make up such a small proportion of the papers that a candidate can ignore those questions and still gain a top grade.

Across all three main exam boards, candidates can get away with knowing little or nothing about so-called 'staff notation' - the traditional way of writing notes on a stave.

Students do not have to understand music notation to get an A at GCSE music

The revelation sparked a row over the rigorousness of GCSE music.

Critics, including the Blur and Gorillaz lead singer Damon Albarn, warned that many new recruits to the music industry will lack the basic knowledge needed to make a success of their careers.

'The idea of it being completely absent from the most important exams of your childhood is disgraceful.

'I used to write for small orchestras when I was 15. I sold my soul to the devil and became a pop star and forgot about it but in the past few years I have got back into orchestration and I'm so slow now.

'I think anyone interested in music should be forced to learn that discipline as without it you will never be able to articulate,' he said.

While one sixth-form teacher admitted he was forced to turn away half of prospective A-level students because they can't read music.

Blur and Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn has said it is 'disgraceful' that students can get top grades when they cannot read or write music

An analysis of GCSE courses for BBC Music Magazine reveals that a knowledge of bars, crotchets, quavers and treble chefs is not necessary to do well.

It found that regardless of the board used, the courses are typically split into three sections - composition, performance and listening.

Across all boards, performances can be improvised or put together using non-standard notation.

Compositions submitted to the OCR board only need to be in recorded form. The two other boards, Edexcel and the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), require a score - a written record of the music.

But Edexcel doesn't mark it while AQA accepts a 'written account detailing the structure and content of the music' or simply a diagram as a score.

Meanwhile, the listening paper is made up of questions on recorded extracts and essays on set works, the analysis states.

A report published last year by the exams watchdog the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority concluded there was 'a very real issue over progression from GCSE to AS [first-year A-level] in the content of some syllabuses.

'This in many cases was a product of low expectations at GCSE rather than of inappopriately high expectations at AS.'

Standards in the listening paper had declined between 1985 and 2005 with questions demanding notation skills becoming shorter.

Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, said: 'It's a bit like taking an English exam without having to write. Listening on its own is only a small part of the story.

'Notation is the foundation of music and without it a student will never be able to play an instrument well or ever really understand music itself.'

OCR said a 'large proportion of the course allows students to present work using staff notation'.

It added: 'It is realistic to assume that students going on to an AS music course are likely to undertake additional preparation themselves in the form of extra-curricular participation in musical activities and practical tuition studied alongside their GCSE.'

AQA said its listening paper requires a basic understanding of staff notation but its couse aims to be 'inclusive' and appeal to non-classically trained musicians.

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A strong A-Level music essay should mainly contain the identification and analysis of some of the key musical features within the given piece, and should also provide some information about the musical period in which it was written and how the period links to those features.

A helpful way to begin finding points for a music essay is to remember the mnemonic "MRS HITT". This stands for all the important musical features that you will want to address within your essay; M- melody, R - rhythm, S - structure, H- harmony, I- instrumentation, T- texture, T- tonality. Identify features of the given piece of music using these headings to guide you; for example, in Debussy's Sarabande, this might include commenting on the fact that the texture of the piece is largely homophonic, or the harmony is non-functional. To make this a coherent and flowing piece of work, you will want to expand on these basic points and give some examples of them in the work using bar numbers.

After outlining each point, providing a comment linking to the historical and musical context will help to strengthen your answer. This will require learning about the different musical periods and being able to identify the features of each. To use Debussy's Sarabande as an example, you might choose to comment on the fact that the harmony is non-functional, and then go on to say that this is characteristic of the 20th Century/Impressionist style in which Debussy was writing, as they aimed to use chords for colour and expression, rather than having a specific harmonic function, as in the Classical period.

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