Background information about studying Music
Music A-Level is generally a requirement for all Music courses at university and a well-respected subject alongside your other options even if you're not considering a music degree. It seems to go well with most other subjects; languages, sciences and humanities are all taken alongside music and it is a good complement to other subjects. It encompasses performance, listening and analysis, composition and elements of harmony, and so broadens your music knowledge and understanding and opens up new areas of the subject which are not covered at GCSE.
If you are interested in music as a general subject and want to develop your skills in all the aspects of the course, then this would be a great subject for you to take, BUT don't just take it if you like performing but don't want to compose or analyse, because all the elements are assessed and if you are only interested in performance and not in analysing music/harmony/composition then you will struggle with the rest of the course!
How will it differ from GCSE?
Personally I am finding Music A-Level a lot more difficult than GCSE. While at GCSE you could get by simply by learning aspects of the set periods of music and regurgitating these features in the exam, A-Level requires a deeper understanding and asks more open-ended questions that mean you have to know your stuff!!
The performance mark-scheme is much harsher than at GCSE, it's certainly not impossible and there is still a difficulty adjustment (grade 5 stays at the raw mark, grade 6 has one difficulty adjustment and grade 7+ has another) but you lose marks much more quickly for small mistakes.
Likewise with the composition, the mark-scheme is much stricter and more detailed, and the composition briefs are more restrictive in terms of instrumentation and style (although as there is a choice of 4 you should be able to find one which suits you).
The harmony aspect of the course is not too difficult, especially if you have taken ABRSM Grade 5 Theory, much of the material is the same (cadences, modulations etc.) This for me has been the easiest aspect of the course, and if you have a good ear a lot of it should be reasonably instinctive.
Workload/Required Individual Study
As the difficulty of the course is harder, the workload is obviously greater than at GCSE, but it's not unmanageable. The work for the performance is practise, which if you're considering A-Level music you should be doing a fair amount of anyway! The composition is done in controlled assessment time in school but needs planning and ideas done outside of the lessons - all you should really be doing in the controlled lessons is writing up and tweaking, not coming up with ideas, or you won't have enough time. The harmony...well, we are usually set 2 or 3 progressions of 4 bars or so to harmonise for homework. We are generally set research as homework for the analysis lessons, which might be about a period of music, an instrument, a composer or other contextual knowledge relating to one of the works you are studying.
How is it assessed?
Note this information is correct for Edexcel AS/A2
6 units to the course:
- Unit 1: Performing Music (AS)
- Unit 2: Composing (AS)
- Unit 3: Developing Musical Understanding (AS)
- Unit 4: Extended Performance (A2)
- Unit 5: Composition and Technical Study (A2)
- Unit 6: Further Musical Understanding (A2)
Unit 1: Performing Music 30% of AS marks, 15% of A-Level
Internally assessed This unit gives students the opportunities to perform as soloists and/or as part of an ensemble. Teachers and students can choose music in any style. Any instrument(s) and/or voice(s) are acceptable as part of a five-six minute assessed performance. Notated and/or improvised performances may be submitted.
Unit 2: Composing 30% of AS marks, 15% of A-Level
Externally assessed This unit encourages students to develop their composition skills leading to the creation of a three-minute piece in response to a chosen brief. Students also write a CD sleeve note to describe aspects of their final composition and explain how other pieces of music have influenced it. In September of each year Edexcel will publish on its website four composition briefs from which students will select one as the basis for a three minute composition. In Section B students will answer three questions to provide information that could be used for a CD sleeve note to accompany their composition. Both sections of the examination must be completed under controlled conditions. 14 hours of controlled assessment are given for the composition, and one hour for the sleeve note.
Unit 3: Developing Musical Understanding 40% of AS marks, 20% of A-Level
This unit focuses on listening to familiar music and understanding how it works. Set works from the anthology provide the focus for the first two sections, through listening and studying scores. In the third section, students use a score to identify harmonic and tonal features and then apply this knowledge in the completion of a short and simple passage for SATB.
Assessment is through a 2-hour examination paper set and marked by Edexcel. There are three sections:
- Section A: Listening
- Section B: Investigating musical styles
- Section C: Understanding Chords and lines.
Students are given five minutes’ reading time at the start of the examination. Students will not have access to copy of the anthology during the examination nor to any musical software for Section C. In Section C, students may use a keyboard with headphones. A skeleton score is provided for Section A.
Unit 4: Extended Performance 30% of A2 marks, 15% of A-Level
Internally assessed This unit gives students opportunities to extend their performance skills as soloists and/or as part of an ensemble. Teachers and students can choose music in any style. Any instrument(s) and/or voice(s) are acceptable as part of a 12-15 minute assessed performance of a balanced programme of music. Notated and/or improvised performances may be submitted.
Unit 5: Composition and Technical Study 30% of A2 marks, 15% of A-Level
Externally assessed This unit has two sections: composition and technical study. The composition section further develops students’ composition skills, leading to the creation of a final three minute piece in response to a chosen brief. The technical study section builds on the knowledge and awareness of harmony gained in Unit 3 section C through the medium of pastiche studies. Students must complete two tasks in this unit choosing from either one composition and one technical study, two compositions, or two technical studies. In September of each year Edexcel will publish on its website four composition briefs from which students will select one as the basis for a three-minute composition. Section B will contain the opening bars of four pieces of music. Students will complete these openings in a specified style. Both sections of the examination must be completed under controlled conditions.
Unit 6: Further Musical Understanding 40% of A2 marks, 20% of A-Level
This unit focuses on listening to music, familiar and unfamiliar, and understanding how it works. Set works from the anthology provide the focus for much of the unit. Between works students should also listen to a wide range of unfamiliar music which relates to the two compulsory areas of study. They should learn how to compare and contrast pairs of excerpts, contextualise music and identify harmonic and tonal features.
Assessment is through a 2 hour examination paper set and marked by Edexcel. There are three sections:
- Section A: Aural analysis
- Section B: Music in context
- Section C: Continuity and change in instrumental music.
Section A requires students to listen to extract of music, and skeleton score is provided for Section A. Students are given five minutes’ reading time at the start of the examination. Each student must have access to an unmarked copy of the anthology during the examination.
Field trips and excursions
Well, with music, you could be doing loads or very little, depending on how willing your school/college staff are to take you places!! You might go to a concert or a workshop, or to a Conservatoire open day to see how music is developed at the next level. Going to hear the works you are studying performed is always an excting experience, as is performing them yourself, and you could often be putting on concerts/recitals. Another thing which some schools organise is taking your music out into the community; performing at an old people's home, in sheltered housing or in a local primary school. It's a great performing experience for you and lovely for the people listening to have some music, particularly the old people really appreciate it. Music can take you to all sorts of weird and wonderful places!!
Where can I go with a Music A-Level
Lots of places! It's an entry requirement for most music degrees and a good complementary/contrasting subject to other A-Levels even if you're not considering music at university. After a music degree....who knows?! You could end up as a teacher, performer, composer, conductor, music librarian...the possiblities are endless!
What I like about studying this subject: There are so many different aspects to the course. We have a different teacher for every part of it, so you don't have 4 lessons a week that are exactly the same, with the same teacher or two teachers. There's a nice sense of continuity between the lessons, as you know with Mr. X you will be doing composition, but with Mrs. J you will be doing harmony. There are so many different types of music on the course and the specs are broad enough that you can concentrate your performance and composition on an area you enjoy, so it makes it fun for everyone, you don't have to be really classically trained for it.
What I dislike about studying this subject: The harmony lessons are repetitive, a lot of the ground is covered in grade 5 theory which I've done so those lessons are repeated practise of something I can already do. But you could look on that as a welcome break too!! There's nothing I really dislike about the subject, apart from that the performance markscheme (for Edexcel) tends to penalise you more than once for certain mistakes, so if you play the piece too fast you lose marks for expression, overall performance, fluency and tempo, meaning you could lose 3 or 4 marks instead of just one. You are to a certain extent playing to the markscheme, which can be a pain.
What I like about studying this subject: The step up from musical analysis at GCSE is fairly vast, but if that's where your interest lies then you shouldn't be disappointed. The subject material covers an interesting range, and your knowledge of music history from 1400 onwards should be really fairly solid by the end of it all. And it isn't entirely classical stuff either. We did pieces by The Kinks and Van Morrison, as well as film pieces from John Williams. If you were entering the course wanting to know how to write a pop song rather than symphony, then the analysis is just as detailed. The composition briefs also offer this choice. Whilst some of them can suck pretty hard, there seems to be always at least one fairly good open-ended brief. And they're fairly realistic in their expectations for the students' abilities and experience in composition, which is to say that its likely not all too much.
What I dislike about studying this subject: I'm not really a performer, I'll just throw this out there. I started playing piano late and despite racing through grades, I was still not up to standard for the AS performance, nor will I be for the A2. Now sure, that's just me, but I find it incredulous how well-rounded you must be in order to do well. You could have the most brilliant musical mind, write beautiful pieces or be a prodigy at improvising on the piano and it still would get you just a C if there was one area you couldn't do. Now sure, I get the top grade should be reserved for remarkable candidates, but that's just the A*. Should an A/B really be so hard to get for such a person? I wish there were a way to select or at least weight the areas that you could do more. The grading scheme just seems pretty brutal for a guy like me, and really put me off even taking the subject at A level at all, let alone in higher education even though I truly love composition and music analysis. Also, 12-15 minutes at grade 6 standard at least is insane. Either you played your way up to grade 8 from when you were 5-12 or you're screwed. Even looking at the lengths of the grade 6 pieces from ABRSM this year, that would literally take a minimum of 5 pieces. I think most would agree that 6 months is very quick and 10 months is still fast to learn 3 pieces in the next grade. But 5?! Clearly there's probably a better route, but there's extremely little support on what this might be - the specification simply says grade 6 standard. It's especially weird that repeats seem to be frowned upon for instrumentalists, yet vocalists simply sing their full songs which very often straight repeat the chorus and that's fine.
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