Want to learn how to secure the top grades in Edexcel Music A Level? Oscar shares his tips and advice ahead of revision season in this comprehensive guide.
A Level Music is hard. It's not just tough in the sense that there's a lot of technical content to cover; it requires Music students to be exceptionally flexible and versatile, meaning those crazy enough to undertake the subject must demonstrate outstanding compositional and music appraisal skills as well as being able to perform at a high level on their respective instrument.
If it wasn't difficult enough already, Edexcel present a challenging specification to prospective students, demanding a thorough knowledge of no fewer than 18 set works (which can consist of multiple pieces or movements of music) as well as two compositions (one a technical piece - typically a Bach chorale - and the other a 'free' composition) and an 8-12 minute recital. It would be an understatement to say that it's daunting.
However, before you can start playing the 'Mission Impossible' theme, this is not an unfeasible task! The key to success at A Level Music is organisation. It's a little dull, I know, but there's no silver bullet to getting a great grade in a difficult subject. When I say organisation, I mean planning ahead for each of the three key aspects of the subject - the exam (i.e. musical appraisal of the set works), the compositions and the recital. As Year 13 rolls round, you'll have teachers presenting mountains of coursework deadlines and exam preparation left, right and centre, so keeping an eye on these three separate areas is key to avoiding a Spring-time meltdown! So, without further ado, let's start with the performance aspect of Edexcel A Level Music.
Many students often select A Level Music thanks to their superlative performance abilities, which isn't necessarily a good thing. While performance counts for a sizeable 30% of the final grade, a strong performance grade is not the only factor that will decide whether you will realise your potential in this subject. However, nailing your performance can help mitigate a lower than expected result in either the exam or the compositions, so it's vital that you don't take your recital for granted.
First things first: it's worth noting that you'll need to ensure that your recital is at least over 8 minutes in length, so selecting repertoire which is suitably long is vital. In fact, beyond the technical side of playing (and putting in the practice!), your choice of music can have a strong impact on your overall mark. The most important decision you will make is around the difficulty of the music you choose, so referring to Edexcel's difficulty grid (spelling out how challenging an individual piece is on a scale of 1-9) is a great place to start. In particular, it is worth identifying where your pieces fit within Edexcel's 'difficulty level' system where pieces at level 1-6 are identified as 'less difficult' (capping your total marks to 48/60 for this component), pieces at level 7 as 'standard' (allowing you to score the full 60 marks) and then pieces at level 8 or above as more 'difficult' (multiplying your total mark so you score full marks if your 'raw' mark is 48):
You can see how selecting harder repertoire can play to your advantage, but it is also important to recognise where you might benefit from choosing easier pieces where you have the opportunity to play them with greater accuracy. In fact, the Edexcel mark scheme asks that "the demands of the music are within the current ability of the performer" in order to score higher marks, and this cannot be stressed enough. Do check their difficulty guide carefully as many pieces have ratings which may be higher or lower than expected!
Beyond putting in the time in the practice room, it is also worth making sure you can find a location suitable for capturing a high quality live recording and an accompanist who you are comfortable performing with. Nailing these seemingly trivial factors will make sure that all your hard work isn't squandered. As a bonus, if you feel that your recording isn't up to scratch, there's nothing stopping you from re-recording and going again, so do try to have a few takes to get everything right.
I'll keep this section short and sweet as creating a piece of music is a labour of love which is likely to be highly personal to the composer. However, you still have to work within the framework of an A Level, so knowing what is required is critical to success. Firstly you must make sure that your music is scored, preferably on Sibelius. If you're using 'Logic' or 'Garageband' to produce high quality sound output, it'll be for nothing if you have a terrible score! This really cannot be overstated - I've seen some fantastic compositions get disappointingly low marks as a direct result of weak scores. It is also worth mentioning that you need to get your pieces (free composition and the technical composition) over the minimum required amount of time - 6 minutes overall for both pieces.
A general tip is to target styles of music and ensemble combinations which you have experience in and understand the nuances of. For example, I looked at writing jazz compositions based on my understanding of jazz harmony. Of course, there's nothing wrong with branching out of your comfort zone: just make sure you thoroughly research the type of music you write for so you can get familiar with the stylistic conventions of the genre. Listen widely! This is particularly important for the technical composition – a choice of a Bach chorale, Baroque counterpoint, arrangement or remix – where getting the nuances right is critical.
My best piece of advice with composition is to practise! Keep testing out ideas, keep trying new ways to write and keep chasing the ‘sound in your head’. With that in mind, here’s a few techniques which might get your creative juices flowing:
Try to compose using your instrument, instead of sitting at a piano (if piano isn’t your first instrument!). This might help more natural phrases and melodies come to you which will be more idiomatic for your instrument.
Experiment with composing from both harmony and melody first. I find that many musicians tend to write a melody first and then harmonise, or vice versa, so trying the opposite approach might surprise you!
Use a composition brief. Edexcel have plenty but don’t be afraid to make up your own! Maybe try writing a short soundtrack or overture for your favourite book or perhaps writing a piece for a special event which you have coming up.
Try an arrangement of a popular or traditional song in the style of the music you’re focusing on. I was constantly doing jazz re-harmonisations throughout my final year, including a few Christmas tunes!
Worth a sizeable 40% of the overall course, acing the music appraisal exam is vital to getting a great grade in A Level Music. There are two sections to the paper, each presenting a unique challenge. The first section tests your listening skills, with excerpts from the set works (often accompanied with skeleton scores) and questions revolving around the different areas of study. The final part of this section involves a transcription, worth 8% of the overall paper. The second section requires two longer answers – one responding to an unseen piece and the other focusing on one of the set works. Before I go on to cover any specifics, it is worth checking out a sample paper to familiarise yourself with the geography of the exam.
While the first section of the exam is about your aural skills, don’t kid yourself that you can skip revision! Indeed, many of the questions will expect prior preparation, particularly ones which ask for specific instruments and playing techniques which are impossible or very difficult to identify without prior knowledge. Now is a good time to flag up the teaching notes produced by Edexcel for each set work which provide comprehensive analysis and a breakdown of each piece, as well as honing in on the relevant areas of study for each. Having an excellent familiarity with every piece will mean that you won’t be caught out by a obscure passage which is the focus of the listening excerpt, so ask your teacher to share the audio files of your set works (or check out this Spotify playlist) so you can listen to the pieces on your commute to school!
A good familiarity with the music, however, will not be enough to secure the top grades. Finding a way to absorb the technical details of each work is critical, so start to structure your revision around remembering the specifics, as well as understanding the theory. While it might have been overkill, I created an extensive flash card system with well over 200 cards detailing the areas of study for each individual movement / song of every set work to help me revise! Flash card systems like this not only help you condense the volume of information you need to learn to the critical details, but they also help strengthen your ability to recall this information under pressure. A quick note on the dictation: the key to nailing transcriptions is practice, so nothing will substitute some interval training and hard graft. For this particular exam, the dictation is only worth 8% and half of those marks are bundled up in rhythmic dictation! Try not to dwell too long on worrying about pitch if this isn’t your strong suit - your time will be better utilised in the essays!
For Section B of the paper, you will need practise your long answer technique to be able to get the most out of your musical skills. The first question is an unheard excerpt which stretches your theoretical and historical knowledge to the max. A great way to prepare for this challenging question is to play a ‘guess the period’ style game as a warm-up in your classes; ask your teacher to play a random piece (or perhaps a piece directly related to a set work) and try to work out what era the piece was written in. Before long, you will start picking up on the stylistic features of particular musical epochs (for example, picking out a continuo will instantly place you in the Baroque period) and this will deepen your understanding of the areas of study in relation to a historical context.
For both questions, you will need an extensive pool of wider set works to draw upon to help you relate the pieces in question to a historical and perhaps even social context. Understanding the composers’ biographies and lives will help you empathise with their music on a far more nuanced level and it will really impress the examiners when you can discuss the set works in a non-musical context. Most importantly of all, be sure to read the question carefully and only focus on the areas of study demanded by the exam. After all your revision, it can be difficult not to want to add in extra information and facts, but irrelevant content does not translate to additional marks!
That was a lot to cover, but I hope there’s some advice here which will help you get over the line. When I started university and spoke to my tutor about what I found hardest during sixth-form, I unequivocally answered "A Level Music"! There’s plenty of time left to start revision, so take stock of where you are now and where you want to be come June, and then get cracking.
If you have any tips of your own, be sure to get in touch via social media and share your insights - I'd love to hear what you think!
Blog Post Crafted by Oscar
Oscar studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Warwick.
When he's not studying or tutoring GCSE Maths and Science, Oscar plays saxophone and co-ordinates the Small Band division of the University of Warwick Big Band.
In 2017 he set up his own jazz function band, Mirage Quartet, and has been a keen collaborator and ambassador for Bromley Youth Music Trust