Let’s get rid of Composing from public exams

Faith and hope and love we see,

Joining hand in hand agree,

But the greatest of the three,

And the best, is love.


Lots of things are arranged in threes.  Why, do you think, is it so comforting to have three things in a group.  Why do things always come in threes?  Education, education, education. Of the people, by the people, for the people.  Blood, sweat and tears. There are three bears, three stooges, three pigs.  Quite apart from the Trinity.  Do you think that when people come up with two things, they sit around until they’ve thought of a third?  Music has its own Holy Trinity: Performing, Composing, Listening.  May they never be divided.

Most people respond to music solely through listening.  Most practising musicians (professional and amateur) are performers.  Very few people compose.  Many musicians don’t see composing as an integral part of their music making.  And yet it is afforded special importance in music education.  Why is this?  My hypothesis is that it is music’s own ‘weasel word’ again, creativity.  There is a perception that composing is the only ‘creative’ aspect of music, that if all you are doing is playing notes from a page you are not being creative.  I have always derided this point of view.  I feel at my most creative when performing and even when conducting.  As I write this I am listening to a new (to me) recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  I already have two CDs of this so why listen to a third.  They are playing exactly the same notes so why bother?  They are profoundly different (Gergiev, Maazel & Rattle) in tone, tempo, accent, feel of the dance – in so many ways that could be a (rather boring) blog of its own.  This is the creativity of the performers, to teach you something about a piece you thought you already knew.

I enjoy teaching composing and many of my pupils, especially at KS3, enjoy having a go at making their own music.  I think it is an important part of a music education.  I do not, however, think it should be part of a public examination for the following reasons:

  1. Some of my best musicians and many others who are capable performers simply do not find composing easy, natural or enjoyable.  We do our best but several are put off further musical study because they would rather do almost anything else other than more composing.  I appreciate that ‘easy, natural and enjoyable’ should not be the main criteria for a process but having struggled to get across understanding of even the most basic textures for so many years.  I am unconvinced that an inability to compose satisfying music is a sign of lacking musicianship.  Most will not go on to further study of music but will enjoy music through a lifetime of listening and performing.
  2. This is not how the great composers of the past learned to compose.  I find composing in a GCSE or A level style very easy these days because I have a lifetime of understanding how the elements of harmony and melody fit together.  Rather than teach students this detail first, we get them to compose and gather this knowledge intuitively, which of course they cannot.
  3. Pupils must compose to criteria: so many marks for melody, so many for harmony and so on.  In an ideal world maximum marks would describe every really good piece of music.  Of course it does not and I can think of many examples of wonderful music which would score less than full marks (Chopin Raindrop Prelude?).
  4. Most importantly, if an activity cannot be assessed reliably, it has no role to play in an exam.  English has some experience of this, with Speaking and Listening.  Composing is just not objective, no matter how well worded the assessment criteria.  Think of all the contemporary criticism of works now considered among the very best works of art humanity has to offer.  Every year at results time, music teachers’ forums are clogged with complaints about poorly assessed compositions.  I will offer only two stories to illustrate: the first is of a pupil who, in the same year that his music was performed on Radio 3 (BBC Young Composer), received a low B grade for his AS composition.  The second is a composing course with the principal examiner of the same A level, who was unable to account for the marks awarded for the example he himself brought.

The last point is the reason that composing played no part in public examinations before GCSE.  It wasn’t that they didn’t think it was a valuable activity (they did) but rather that they did not consider that it could be objectively and reliably assessed.

What can go in its place? Compositional techniques, where pupils complete exercises in various styles of music, are more reliable and arguably more educational (we’re teaching them something rather than expecting something to come out of them).  It is also how the great composers of the past learned the craft. I cannot explain this better than a regular poster on the TES Music Forum, ‘florian gassmann’ (a pseudonym):

“I was much in agreement with Rob Steadman (late of this forum and himself a composer) that the best way to assess compositional ability is through the use of closely specified techniques that can be assessed reliably, e.g.

  • Extend this phrase with a modulating sequence to the supertonic
  • Add three percussion parts in Calypso style to this tune from Trinidad
  • Rewrite these four piano chords for a brass quartet of two Bb trumpets, Horn in F and Trombone
  • Add a violin counter-melody to this tune sung by Madonna, taking account of the printed chord symbols, … and so on.

The great mistake with free composition is the fact that the boundaries are so wide that pupils don’t really know what they are supposed to do. For most pupils, it is better that they can be led towards an understanding of the many elements that go into a composition, rather than being faced with producing a fully-formed piece, which is something that very few can do well.

Are A-level students in English expected to write a Novella?”

And that’s in a language with which they are fully conversant.  Imagine A-level pupils in Modern Foreign Languages trying to write novellas.  Some might manage it but I don’t know what it would prove.  Perhaps I’m just not creative enough.


Is music an academic subject?

On twitter last week a school leader (@StuartLock) posted the following:

“In another anecdote today, when promoting an academic curriculum I got informed that Music is an academic subject. Can of worms…”

“I’m a big fan of music, and want to expand it, but it’s not like History or languages.”

I’m often wound up by this sort of thing (although I’ve met Stuart and know him to be a good and wise man), so this blog asks the question: is music an academic subject?

My definition of an academic subject is a scholarly pursuit, rather than one that is technical or vocational.  In broader terms, it is one which is knowledge rich rather than a practical skill.  And many subjects fit into the latter – Art lessons and exams involve pupils making works of art, rather than writing essays comparing other artists; Drama lessons involve pupils acting and PE lessons have pupils running about and chucking things.  I think this is where the idea of Music as a practical subject comes from – most people only think about Performing and Composing when they think of Music.

But the study of Music has been around for many hundreds of years.  Treatises on music theory (in its original sense, rather than Italian terms) can be found from as far back as the 4th century.  I remember well studying Anonymous 4 (c.1270s) at university.  There is a long tradition of music theorists analysing and writing on music.  It is interesting that they all write about music of previous generations, rather than current practice.  I am prepared to be corrected on this but I cannot think of a similar tradition for other practical pursuits.

So let us go back a generation or so, when there were Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools.  At Grammar Schools, or Independent Schools, in Lower School (now KS3) lessons were filled by listening to music and studying structures, textures etc.  For example, when I was 13 I could write out the structure of a fugue.  The problem with this was that it could be crushingly boring and behaviour (why could music teachers not control classes?) was often poor.  In Middle School, (very few) pupils studied O Level, which was based on music history, analysis with a little bit of performing thrown in for good measure.  I think I’m right in saying that you could hand in your ABRSM Grade 5 certificate and you wouldn’t even have to play.  A question from AEB 1959 Music O Level is, “Why is Henry Purcell regarded as one of the most important of English composers?” A level was much the same.  Practical music was catered for with extra-curricular music: choirs, bands and orchestras, and instrumental music lessons.

At Secondary Modern schools, Lower School lessons were practical: performing (often singing) and composing.  Lessons were often a riot (again) but could be terrific fun.  They led to CSE Music in Middle School, which was a largely practical exam.  There were few opportunities for extra-curricular music but some pupils studied instruments, some to a high level.

Tertiary options were, for the grammar school students, an academic music degree studying music history, analysis etc, and for all there was the opportunity to go to music college to play an instrument and do some music history.  It was possible to go to university and get a degree in music without ever picking up an instrument.  With my degree, although performance was a part of the first year course and I performed every day (as a Choral Scholar), I took no assessed performance as part of my degree.

In the modern era, it fell to the music teacher to do it all.  From exciting, practical KS3 lessons to in depth A level analysis to a full extra-curricular programme.  I suppose it was inevitable that something would drop. And I suppose it was also inevitable, given the prevailing wind, that it was academic content that was reduced – in the change to GCSE, then less again with each successive specification; in A level with the changes at Curriculum 2000, then to a greater extent with the new specifications in 2008.  Up until then my students would usually complain that the gap between GCSE and A level of all their subjects was most pronounced in music.  Not anymore.

So now we have a situation where KS3 lessons are largely composing with some performing and a little bit of listening.  GCSE is similar (this prompted my change to IGCSE, which is much more suitable for my pupils) and you can avoid unfamiliar music altogether until A2 with the most popular board.  Music degrees must be a real shock.  Possibly it’s not just music.  It is most gratifying that on the list of acceptable A level combinations Trinity College Cambridge includes music in its list of generally suitable arts A levels, ahead of “limited suitability” Art, Drama and even Politics.

It is interesting that in the second tweet Stuart said that music is “not like…languages”.  In fact, I think music is very like languages.  It has its own written language, notation, its grammar (cadences, common progressions), its study of former great works written in its language.  I often use the analogy in lessons.  And history? I spent the majority of my time at university reading books and writing essays about music history.  My third year was largely spent poring over (facsimiles of) 16th Century music.

So music used to be very academic and may be less so now but is more than other creative/performing arts.  If you want an academic curriculum, how about the core knowledge curriculum?  Have a look at p.188-9, the 7th grade music curriculum.  Seems pretty academic to me.  Why not give a British version a go?  If you could do it in a way that wouldn’t prove such a snooze for children it could be quite something.  If anyone would like to have a go I’d be interested.


Here are the links:


Click to access CKFSequence_Rev.pdf