Considering Music GCSE or A level? Read our FAQ here!

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furryface12
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Music isn't a subject for everyone, but those that like it love it! Taking it for GCSE or A level can seem a bit daunting though, so this guide is here to help you find out more about it. It can be a great subject to show you're into a bit more of a range of things and also as a break in your week to do something maybe a bit different- I found it invaluable from this point of view, and really wish I had done it at A level too!


GCSE

What will I be studying?

The exact proportions vary, but your course will have elements of listening and analysis, composition and performance. For example, on Edexcel you'll study eight pieces in depth and a few more more generally to prepare you for the exam. Then just over half of your overall grade is split between two compositions and a short solo and ensemble performance. The other exam boards vary in the detail but have a similar basis- the music all comes from different genres so don't worry that it's going to be all classical!

How will I be assessed?

You'll take an exam at the end which will test you on the pieces you've studied and also some you've not heard before. This will contain elements of theory and see how well you understand the structure, instrumentation etc in different types generally and of those pieces specifically. Your composition and performance elements will be recorded, marked by your teacher and sent to the exam board to be moderated- more on that below.

What's the workload like, and how hard is it?

It depends a lot on your strengths and what you already know but it should be fairly similar to your other subjects. Music isn't the easy option you might think it is but it's not impossible either! If you play an instrument or sing already, can read music and identify some styles and instruments you should be fine. The advantage of the performance and composition elements is that it's not all left to be done in exam season either, although you will complete them fairly late on in the course for obvious reasons.

Performance? Composition? Ahhh!

These are the best part of it! Not everyone likes both by any stretch but GCSE is designed to ease you into them, they won't expect you to be a master straight away. Your teacher will get you playing to and with the class from the word go, and you might even get performance opportunities outside of this if you want them. Remember you have two years to improve so don't lose hope if you're not as good as you'd like at the beginning!

For composition, you'll learn how to form and structure basic tunes and then go from there. Some people find it a lot easier than others but for at least one of them you should have a brief from the exam board so at least that gives you a start point. You'll more than likely begin the course with some music theory which if you've not done it before will help your composition a lot too.

Is it a waste of an option?

No! Everyone I know loved music lessons- they were very different to other subjects and a nice break from the rest of the week, even if they didn't enjoy every part of it. Some of you may well be having instrumental lessons anyway which will cover a lot of the performance aspect, so that's one part not to worry about. See the A level section below for what skills you'll learn from music and it might be useful for, but it's definitely not a waste of an option and I'd recommend it to anyone already considering it really.



A level

What will I be studying?

As at GCSE what you study will be split into music appraisal (listening, theory and analysis), composition and performance. You'll study set works in detail and also learn about periods in general, how music has developed and what to expect from different composers. There is also a lot more emphasis on theory and harmony than at GCSE, and making comparisons between things you're hearing and have studied.

How will I be assessed?

You'll have one exam at the end of your course, containing technical exercises, listening tests and essays analysing and comparing aspects of what you've studied. You'll also submit performance and composition scores and recordings as you did at GCSE, which your teacher will mark before they're moderated by the exam board.

Is it very different to GCSE?

There is quite a big jump between GCSE and A level music. You'll study in a lot more depth and the knowledge, understanding and standard expected is quite different. That said, your teacher will be used to bridging the gap between them and if you enjoy music it's well worth doing. You'll get a lot of transferable skills out of it and whilst the workload is high, it shouldn't be significantly different to your other subjects and hopefully you'll have some fun doing it too!

I'm not sure I'm good enough..?

This is a tough question to answer. In terms of grades you would ideally be around grade 5 standard before you start the course in music practical and theory- if you haven't done the latter before this is something you'll need to work really hard on. Music GCSE isn't essential but will obviously help! The best thing to do if you're not sure is to talk to your teachers and see if potential colleges have any subject entry requirements.

What might it be useful for afterwards?

A surprising number of things! While there's not as much as some subjects in terms of direct careers (although with military and civilian musicians and teachers this is still an option), music has a lot of transferable and 'soft' skills which employers and professions in general look for. These include listening to and working with others, problem solving, logical and creative thinking, communication and analytical skills.


If you have anything you'd like to add to this or would like to be covered, let me know! There will be loads of these guides appearing in different forums to help with your choices, so have a look around. If there isn't one for your subject or think you'd like to make one yourself, just ask
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A09887
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I am very musical and I play three instruments (piano, flute, saxophone), but I have never properly composed before - only messed around a bit. Should I take music for GCSE's or not as I know the composition is a big part of it. Is it worth taking it or doing a different subject (eg. computer science) as I do music outside of school anyway and I don't want to have a musical career? My minimum expected grade is a 9 but I don't know how hard it is to get a 9 in music. Is there a specific criteria? Also what did you think of it? Sorry for lots of questions I just don't want to regret my decision as I have to pick my subjects now.
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JosephCiderBwoy
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(Original post by A09887)
I am very musical and I play three instruments (piano, flute, saxophone), but I have never properly composed before - only messed around a bit. Should I take music for GCSE's or not as I know the composition is a big part of it. Is it worth taking it or doing a different subject (eg. computer science) as I do music outside of school anyway and I don't want to have a musical career? My minimum expected grade is a 9 but I don't know how hard it is to get a 9 in music. Is there a specific criteria? Also what did you think of it? Sorry for lots of questions I just don't want to regret my decision as I have to pick my subjects now.
I took both GCSE and A Level music, but my year group was the last to do the old GCSE, so what I know about that is irrelevant, but for the new GCSE, it's quite weighted on theory, as well as composition and performance, of course. However, when I did GCSE music, we didn't study set works, but I know now that GCSE students study set works, so you ought to commit to learning music theory up to grade 5 standard, the technical terms, and have good musical logic. I found GCSE is marked less harshly than A Level. For A Level, grade 5 theory is the baseline knowledge. You study more set works, ranging from Baroque and Classical music to musical theatre. This is marked very harshly. To answer the exam questions, you need to make it as PEE-formatted as possible. If you don't state the bar number, no mark for that point. If you get the musical technique wrong, no mark for that point. If you don't explain the effect well enough, no mark for that point. It is incredibly difficult, but definitely possible, to get an A*/A at A Level music. I got an A overall, just on the boundary, though. It is a subject which really does reflect how hard you work. You need to work so hard to perfect your exam technique, your essay technique and your musical knowledge. All of these are quintessential in getting the top grades. Had the exam gone terribly (in which I got an A*), it would've jeopardised my place at university. The exam is the biggest chunk of marks, so even if you don't do well in composition and performance (I got a C for both), you can still get a comfortable B or maybe an A if your exam goes well.
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A09887
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(Original post by JosephCiderBwoy)
I took both GCSE and A Level music, but my year group was the last to do the old GCSE, so what I know about that is irrelevant, but for the new GCSE, it's quite weighted on theory, as well as composition and performance, of course. However, when I did GCSE music, we didn't study set works, but I know now that GCSE students study set works, so you ought to commit to learning music theory up to grade 5 standard, the technical terms, and have good musical logic. I found GCSE is marked less harshly than A Level. For A Level, grade 5 theory is the baseline knowledge. You study more set works, ranging from Baroque and Classical music to musical theatre. This is marked very harshly. To answer the exam questions, you need to make it as PEE-formatted as possible. If you don't state the bar number, no mark for that point. If you get the musical technique wrong, no mark for that point. If you don't explain the effect well enough, no mark for that point. It is incredibly difficult, but definitely possible, to get an A*/A at A Level music. I got an A overall, just on the boundary, though. It is a subject which really does reflect how hard you work. You need to work so hard to perfect your exam technique, your essay technique and your musical knowledge. All of these are quintessential in getting the top grades. Had the exam gone terribly (in which I got an A*), it would've jeopardised my place at university. The exam is the biggest chunk of marks, so even if you don't do well in composition and performance (I got a C for both), you can still get a comfortable B or maybe an A if your exam goes well.
Ok thank you - I am doing my grade 5 theory exam on the 4th of march so I think I'll be comfortable with the theory aspect of it.
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furryface12
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(Original post by A09887)
I am very musical and I play three instruments (piano, flute, saxophone), but I have never properly composed before - only messed around a bit. Should I take music for GCSE's or not as I know the composition is a big part of it. Is it worth taking it or doing a different subject (eg. computer science) as I do music outside of school anyway and I don't want to have a musical career? My minimum expected grade is a 9 but I don't know how hard it is to get a 9 in music. Is there a specific criteria? Also what did you think of it? Sorry for lots of questions I just don't want to regret my decision as I have to pick my subjects now.
I think it's worth a go. Most people won't have composed before, but you may well find you really enjoy it. If you don't then you don't have to take it any further you could always have a go before you start and see how you like it!

I did the old GCSE so don't know a great deal about the specific criteria for a 9 sorry. Hopefully someone else will come along that does! You'll be fine with the performance and theory aspects though, and the set works you'll hopefully find interesting. So even if you scored a bit less on composition (which you probably won't do!) then you could make up for it.

Could you talk to the music teachers at school about it? They'll know a lot more than us! Good choice of instruments btw too
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Imlostaf
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(Original post by A09887)
I am very musical and I play three instruments (piano, flute, saxophone), but I have never properly composed before - only messed around a bit. Should I take music for GCSE's or not as I know the composition is a big part of it. Is it worth taking it or doing a different subject (eg. computer science) as I do music outside of school anyway and I don't want to have a musical career? My minimum expected grade is a 9 but I don't know how hard it is to get a 9 in music. Is there a specific criteria? Also what did you think of it? Sorry for lots of questions I just don't want to regret my decision as I have to pick my subjects now.
I was exactly the same! I too play flute and piano and Id never composed before GCSE, but honestly its not as daunting as you think! For my first ever composition myself and a lot of other composition newbies did minimalist pieces, which is basically making up a random melody and repeating it and developing it throughout a piece. This got me pretty good marks and gave me a good starting point for composing as I went on to do my set brief pieces. If you already play three instruments I imagine you have decent theoretical knowledge, this will help you on the theory side, especially with reading music (you'd be surprised how many people go into it not being able to!) as it can be tricky. 9 is quite hard to get on this paper as it is so strict on the way you word answers, but I would advise you to learn loads of keywords and their definition and practice identifying them in unheard pieces, as this is essentially the exam. I was always predicted 9 but ended up getting 8 (even though I got full marks on performance) and remarks are confusing for music. I would recommend the gcse as for me it was a lot of fun, and I went onto do the a level! Good luck with your choices xx
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