More Thoughts on the A Level Music Curriculum

I have spent much time over the last several years trying to think more deeply about some of the issues associated with the ways in which students are prepared for higher education music courses. The National Diploma awards which were introduced around 20 years ago were a welcome addition – in particularly for those interested in studying popular music. They do however have their own set of issues – which will not be discussed here. I would instead like to consider the more traditional A Level award.

Having being involved in a number of consultations over the last few years – where I have seen first hand how a variety of exam boards attempt to work within the Department of Education guidelines for music, I think that one of the main issues – is the means of analysis that students are asked to employ, is often simply not appropriate for the style of music being analysed. For example, when attempting to analyse a ‘popular music’ track by Queen or the Beatles – is it reasonable to expect the students to employ the same techniques that would be used to analyse a piece of European classical music? This means of analysis may be easy to grade, as the answers are often either right or wrong, with the emphasis placed on the formal analysis, history, or social context of the music. This leads to questions related to identifying chords/intervals/modes/instruments etc, in addition aural awareness prompts such as ‘fill in the missing notes’ in a score. However, in addition to encouraging students to engage with this sort of formal analysis (which includes identification of the ‘elements of music’ and use of standard music theory) and production of music (for example genre formation, composer intentions, the impact of place and space) – should we be asking students to engage more profoundly with music reception? On a really basic level, this could be achieved by not only identifying the elements of music, but also considering how they can be channels for imparting meaning. This can range from considering how certain sounds reflect specific players, styles or historical periods, to more abstract harmonic progressions or tempos revealing very personal moods/emotions/atmospheres – in addition to encouraging an understanding of how this type of analysis is legitimate and valid.

I have also highlighted a couple of other questions below – which are there to prompt debate more than answer any questions – I am interested thoughts – in particular if anyone thinks there is a need for the Department of Education to change the guidelines for A Level music?

  1. Should we be encouraging students to not only ‘realise a score’, but also transcribe directly from recordings? This is a common practice in popular music and it arguably requires just as much skill as accurately interpreting a score. For example a guitarist duplicating the exact sound, melodies (often solos) and harmonic backing off a record is a skill that requires a great deal of practice – which is arguably not currently being recognised by the Department of Education.
  2. In ensemble work – should we be encouraging students to not only focus on ‘playing their part accurately’, but also listen and respond to what their fellow band members are playing? This does not appear to be currently part of the A Level assessment scheme.

I would be very interested in thoughts and experiences anyone has encountered – including colleagues from outside of the UK. Does your compulsory (pre university) education system facilitate the study of popular music? If so – HOW?

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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