Hi there! Do you take Music GCSE? Then this post is for YOU! Please imagine me pointing at you like in one of those posters. Okay, no, for real — I’m currently in Year 12, having taken my GCSEs last year, and one of the most frustrating things was being the first group to take the course in almost all my subjects. There were very few resources or guides available, and even the teachers didn’t really know what to expect from marking.
Unfortunately I don’t know exactly how they marked my exam, but I was really happy with my music result as I got a 9 (A* equivalent). I thought it would be useful for me to share some of the resources, methods and ti[s that worked for me. This post is going to be focusing on the written exam — I took Edexcel GCSE, which is the one where you have 8 set pieces and the exam is worth 40% of the total mark. But if you’re taking another exam board then the techniques will be similar. Do feel free to check out the other posts in my #evestudies series too.
It’s really important that you figure out what works best for you, though — I know you’re probably sick of people saying it but all of us work in different ways and what works for me might not work for you.
The three main areas that I would focus on for the written exam are learning the features of the set pieces, developing musical theory/analysis skills and practicing exam technique. I’ll be going through them one by one.
#1: features of set the set pieces
Firstly, learning the features of the set pieces. Although this does tie into developing your analysis skills, since you have to be able to write about the features, a lot of it really is just getting familiar with the pieces and memorising features. The amount of memorising versus being able to analyse music on the spot will vary on the piece; for example, there’s a lot more to remember about the classical pieces in terms of the names of forms, particular techniques and genres, whereas for a work like Release (a fusion) it’s more about being able to talk about the changing dynamics and texture from the extract that they give you.
For every set work I created a grid of features with the headings Structure, Tonality & Harmony, Instrumentation, Texture, Melody, Tempo, Rhythm and metre, and Other. I filled them in with all my notes from lessons, then the features from the textbook, answers to practice questions we did in class and from any other sources I could find. This was my main source of note-taking.
The ‘Other’ section usually covered things particular to that section of study; eg in the Bach and Beethoven context about the development of the harpsichord to the piano and how that affected Romanticism, or the significance in the plot of Defying Gravity. I’ve put all my typed notes up on a Google Drive if you want to take a look or use them for your own revision.
It’s really important that you know the difference between these elements because in the exam the question will usually ask you to talk about one or a few of them. Even if you say something valid, if it’s about a musical element they didn’t ask for then you won’t get a mark. There’s a good BBC Bitesize Guide on it here. Really get used to the kinds of features and words that you see coming under each musical element.
For this section I would VERY strongly recommend using the Edexcel GCSE Music Student Book. We got given it as our textbook for the course and it was so useful — it goes in depth into the features of each set work and also has a bit about composition and performance at the start. I also found annotating the anthology with the blank scores in is extremely useful. That’s is where I wrote all of my notes from class. At the start of my revision session, I would follow the score as I listened to the piece. You can also listen to all the pieces with the scores at the same time on Youtube.
Additionally, Edexcel actually have a support guide for each set work which covers the musical features in detail. I only discovered this like a day before the exam and I got really stressed out about the amount I didn’t recognise — so remember that these are probably more in detail than you’ll be asked for!
#2: musical theory and analysis
Secondly, developing musical theory and analysis skills. This definitely does overlap with the previous section. However, it will also help you with the unheard piece you have to answer questions on. As I said, it’s extremely important you become familiar with the different musical elements you might be asked to talk about and what kind of things you can say for each one. In class we made a mindmap of what you can talk about with each heading and it was great
For example, for rhythm you could think about: does this have lots of fast rhythms? dotted notes? triplets? is there a repeated rhythm? is it syncopated?
If you’re talking about texture, there are some great words you can use: monophonic (only one line of music, there’s only moments of these in the pieces), polyphonic (lots of different equally important lines of music) or homophonic (everything else). You might also say it has a fugal texture (the Bach), or a thin or thick texture.
You might have to go into further detail and talk about the effect this has, for example the triplet rhythms at the start of Star Wars give it a military and heroic feel, or a thinner texture might feel more intimate. It doesn’t have to be a whole English essay though.
Honestly, I found the unprepared listening section pretty difficult, especially if it asks you to give a chord or something. But you can sometimes use your powers of deduction to figure it out. The best way to develop your musical theory technique is to practice…which brings me nicely on to my final point.
#3: exam practice
Finally, practicing your exam technique is key. You can know a million musical features and still be stumped about how to answer a question in the exam. I know there aren’t that many past papers online which sucks. At school we used selections from this and this set of papers which seemed to work OK. Use the official Edexcel sample paper well.
This doesn’t just need to be actually doing exam questions; it might be thinking what questions they could ask you whilst revising and the analysis you might do. For the fusion they do enjoy asking about what genres the works ‘fuse’ so that’s always a good one. I personally like playing the pieces to someone else, and stopping it as we go through so I can explain what effect a particular feature has.
Also, this might sound simple but remember to read the question! I’ve been told that a thousand times but I misread the 12-marker at the end and had to frantically change my answer which I do not recommend. To practise for the 12-marker, you can go through the wider listening in the textbook, you can pick a piece in the same genre as one of the set works to get more practise.
PHEW! This really was a long post! I hope these tips help you and good luck with your exam and all your coursework. Remember to take breaks from work and take care of yourself as well. 🙂