The future of GCSE music

There is much debate currently about what the new GCSE syllabus for music should include. Something is wrong with the current setup – everyone seems to agree on that – but exactly what we should do about it seems to be a question with no clear answers.

Some commentators have made parallels between art and music. John Finney has memorably commented that in art there is no ‘looking exam’, so why in music should we have a listening exam? While there is much to criticise about the listening exam in its current format, I wouldn’t want to go too far down the road where parallels are made between art and music. Art is something that exists in the first three dimensions: music exists solely in the fourth, and anything musical left behind in the first three (a score, a CD…) is merely evidence, like fingerprints or mug stains on a table.

There is no equivalent in art of our distinction between performing and composing: drawing/painting/sculpting all seem to be equivalent to our composing, with exactly the same possibilities for pastiche and learning from examples. What would be the artistic equivalent of performing – forgery? There is no art exam which involves copying a great master (‘Make a copy of the Mona Lisa. You have six hours. Go!’).

Perhaps we should look to another subject which inhabits the fourth dimension – drama. Drama GCSE involves actually doing drama (what is the drama equivalent of ‘musicing’? ‘Dramaing’?), and there is also an interesting option to specialise in support aspects of drama (lighting etc). Yes, there are some bits of written evidence that students have to compile, but these are all in support of the drama itself (much like the commentaries that GCSE music candidates write about their compositions).

The problem with the listening exam in music is that it focuses too much on knowledge that is removed from the essence of what music actually is. I would suggest that the aural analysis aspect of the paper has some use, and thinking about that brings right into play the whole notion of the place of language in music education: if we value the application of words to musical concepts in order to think about them, then this should be part of what is tested.

Here are my suggestions for what the new GCSE syllabus should include:

  • Performing and composing left as they are, including writeups of the listening which has influenced the compositions
  • A creative exam very much like the OCR Creative Task: a fixed time to create a composition from a choice of stimuli
  • A practical listening task where candidates work out how to recreate (i.e. perform) a previously unheard piece of music aurally
  • Some element of aural analysis, describing using correct terminology what is happening in extracts of music, and identifying their provenance (historical period/part of the world)

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