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.


29 thoughts on “Let’s get rid of Composing from public exams

  1. very sensible post. you know that guarantees that your ideas will never be put into practice! i think the english comparison is perfect – ‘marking’ creativity is so difficult that it just cant be done on an industrial scale in the way that exams require. and you know things are crazy when youre giving chopin an F in gcse music…

      • i remember once asking my brother for some gcse maths help and he was struggling despite doing a degree in maths at the time, because it was “not real maths”. think it involved drawing some graph no-one ever draws except for gcse maths….

      • That does sound rather stupid. Packing compositions full of ‘techniques’ is a tick list approach. It’s not very musical but gets results. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Oh.

  2. I too have issues with the composing aspects of the formal school music qualifications, but mostly due to their assessments which can be wildly different.this year at GCSE we had some students achieving an A* for one composing unit and a D for the other, how can that work?

    I agree with you to an extent about the way composition is upheld as some sort of pinnacle of a holy trinity. I think it is partly due to the Western Classical Tradition though. We have inherited a hierarchy in which the composer sits at the top, and his/her work must be interpreted by the performer, and the lowly audience listener is left to remark upon how wonderful the musicians are, and how magnificent the composer is, with little value given to their own role, or perceptions of the music.

    This view is quite pervasive. I love composing, and am a sucker for a brilliant singer-songwriter, but it does irk me so when incredible performers are derided because they ‘don’t write their own stuff.’

    NIcholas Cook has written about this hierarchy often, I particularly like the example he gives of an informal ensemble in an African village performing percussive music, who would not understand the difference between performing, listening and composing, as to them they are one and the same.

    Here’s where I agree with you firmly Tim:

    – Composing comes from performing. The more music we play, the more sounds we internalise and can start experimenting with what we already know works.
    – Performing, conducting, listening are all creative acts.
    – A level music composition is very very difficult, especially compared to what other subjects ask of their students. I kind of like this though, if they could just get the marking right, I take the point above that Chopin’s prelude 20 in C minor would probably score low on an A level mark scheme for example because of the lack of any change in texture.
    – Expecting students to somehow magically produce something (25 hours without feedback?!?) is insane.

    I personally wouldn’t get rid of composing from the exam, I think it should have equal billing, and some exam boards give it too much weight.

    My approach to teaching students composition is mostly based around classroom workshops, and I have also been influenced by Paynter’s holistic approach in terms of attempting to bring together composing, performing, listening. I think classroom workshops based on the Guildhall connect model go a long way towards doing this. Maybe I’m being selfish but these are my favourite lessons, and I would hate to lose them because the exam didn’t require kids to compose.

    I would love to see a portfolio model of assessment, but their are obvious issues of scale and practicality with that. Within a portfolio though there should/would be an opportunity to show compositional exercises which feed into a larger scale piece.

    • It really is a quandary – would we be able to keep teaching (a bit of) composing if it comes out of the specification? Why not? I still do lots of singing with exam groups because I think it’s an important part of a music education. Not part of an exam though. There is always the fear that few would compose if it were not part of the exam but I don’t think that is what should drive exam content.

      I heard one idea, from a past A level syllabus I think, where you could submit a composition which wouldn’t be marked unless you were near a grade boundary. It would then be taken into consideration. That sounds like a better idea to me.

      A portfolio of compositions? Crikey – it kills me enough getting them through one or two in the course!

      • Just to qualify, by portfolio I mean for everything. So a student would be able to submit their “stuff” which may or may not include compositions.

        The obvious reason not to do this is because how unweildy this would be in terms of planning as a teacher and developing rigourous assessment criteria as an exam board.

        It would take someone of far higher intellect than I to work it out, but it strikes me that this would be a much fairer form of assessment which relected both the level and shape of student’s musicianship.

      • Oh I see. Well yes it would be best, if fair and reliable assessment could be guaranteed. Unfortunately, it can’t. I don’t think its a question of higher intellect (yours or mine!). We still manage to do a lot of things in schools that aren’t a part of exam specifications, simply because we think they are good things, like concerts and sports fixtures. I’d just like to hope that we continued to teach a broad range, before preparing students for a fair and objective exam.

  3. Agreed. Compositional techniques are useful later on for analysis and so on, but the subjectivity aspect just makes it a joke for any kind of examination – and it gets even worse at university! For (compulsory) composition, around 90% of my year got a 2.2 or below, whilst the very best (who are now on postgraduate courses studying composition) struggled to get a low 2.1. The problem was that there were two papers: ‘Tonal composition’ (fugue + 15 minutes of STUFF) and ‘Free composition’. The guidelines for tonal comp were too rigid (second inversion chords were completely out, as were, for example, flattened sixths in a major key) and too vague for free comp. With the notable exception of fugue (now optional but not in my day!) none of us had the first idea of what would be acceptable and what would not. I had two supervisors for composition, both eminent composers within the faculty, and they both said completely different things. A good friend of mine who is an extremely talented composer managed 2 marks more than me – he should have got at least 12 more!

    • It is sad but at least reassuring that it is not just at school that problems of objectivity surface. I think that at university there should be lots of options – I loved writing fugal expositions for example, but hated writing ‘original’ compositions. My tutor was the last of the true modernists and he hated my tonal pastiches. I ended up writing squeaky gate music in the worst way imaginable, just to annoy him. I just sneaked through first year composing but kept techniques going through to finals.

  4. I am sympathetic to the idea that many pieces in the classical canon (such as the Chopin Prelude in D-Flat major) would not score highly according to the marking criteria used by examiners. Also if a piece can be deemed suitably worthy of inclusion by BBC Young Composers, it should not really be getting a low B Grade at AS-Level. However, I remain sceptical about whether the exclusion of composition from GCSE and A-level would be a good thing.

    I don’t believe that the reason why composition has been included in music qualifications is simply because of ‘creativity’. I think it was probably a deliberate attempt to distinguish music exams from ABRSM practical and theory exams. The Western tradition from Bach to Bartok, Monteverdi to Messiaen, relies on the notion of a composer trying to create a new standard and expanding the scope of what is possible in music. Also there is a fundamental way in which music composition differs from writing stories or painting pictures. Namely it needs performers to bring the notes on the score to life. The composer needs to be aware of the technical capabilities of his or her performers and it is a human impulse to want to stretch them. In fact, I feel that the importance of the composer (alongside that of the performer) is Western music’s unique selling point (to use a wildly inappropriate term). Why I think composition is included in GCSE and A-level is not so much that we will see a multitude of Mozartian masterpieces but simply to make students aware that composing still exists and to give them some insight into the compositional process. For the composer, if for no one else, there should be nothing more pleasing than seeing their vision realised in performance.

    I disagree fundamentally with Martin Said when he says that we respect composers too much. On the contrary I feel we pay them too little respect. There was a time when the BBC in addition to broadcasting the Young Musician competition would also broadcast, on television, Young Composers’ workshops giving the public some insight into the process of composition and how composers would revise their ideas before performance. Now we get instances such as the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in which not a single note of the specially commissioned Water Music was heard during BBC1’s coverage. So much for public service broadcasting.

    The passage from stimulus to formation of musical ideas to performance relies on the existence of composers. Criticism of musical works is an imperfect way of determining which pieces will last – but it is the best method we have got and seems to rely on some notion of works being objectively better than others. The difficulty is how to translate this into the examination context.

    I realise my comments may seem ill-informed but I do become very wary when people seem to say that because something is a minority activity it should not be done. I appreciate you would still be pursuing composition as a worthwhile activity even if it wasn’t formally assessed. However I don’t think that composition will be removed from music exams and as difficult as it is to incorporate we have to think about how to do composition better. The Singapore O-level has a Higher Music qualification. This offers the option for students to take either a performing or music writing major while a written examination constitutes 50 per cent of the marks. The same I believe is true for the Singapore’s “ordinary” O-level music qualification. While the prospect of a Music and Higher Music GCSE seems very remote, it may be that some similar system is needed.

    On an unrelated note, I don’t think a blog comparing different versions of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances would be boring.

    • Musical composition is a great thing. I perhaps should have put that on the top. I love it, respect composers without putting them on a pedestal and enjoy working with young people in helping them shape their compositions. I just don’t think it should be part of an exam, that’s all.

      You mention the ABRSM. They only offer performance and theory, not composing for that very reason. And they do not offer exams in the study of music (musicology/music history) because that is what GCSEs and A levels are supposed to do!

      I’m not sure whether we respect composers too much or too little. I have worked with several and premiered a number of their compositions (we used to refer to them as World Derniere Performances). Perhaps we do not respect new music as much as we should; when I hear some I really like I’ll let you know. Maybe that’s not fair either- music usually takes me a few hearings before I like it.

      I think that compositional techniques would give an insight into the process and would help pupils gain an understanding of the processes of harmony, voice leading and development, critical to those who want to create their own works.

      Thanks anyway for taking an interest; your comments in no way seem ill-informed.

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to deal with the comments and apologies for the length of my first comment. It is often at the second or even the third hearing when listening to a new piece that I can begin to grasp what a composer has done with themes or harmony. There have been instances when I have disliked a piece initially but on a second occasion I have started to admire it. Also for ‘respect’ I should have really meant ‘taking composers seriously’. It is up to public service broadcasters to ensure that new work is broadcast to the fullest extent – and we don’t have disasters like the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant.

        I think this blog and the comments are making my thinking about these issues a little clearer.

  5. Thanks for this post. Composition in the curriculum is one of those riddles that I still haven’t heard a satisfying solution to.

    One of the problems is that outside of school/academia, musical value is determined by individual or popular taste and commercial success. Anyone who wants to be a professional composer has to make music that makes money, or be heavily subsidised. Birtwistle once said he wasn’t running a restaurant, but if people weren’t prepared to pay for the Birtwistle brand then I doubt he’d have the time to churn out the stuff he does. However, unless student compositions are assessed by hits on YouTube I can’t see how this principle could be applied to school assessment.

    Maybe the answer lies in the composition brief. How well does the music fit the brief? All music is located in a human context that determines its significance. A cheesy pop anthem is perfect for a work Christmas do but out of place in a concert hall.

    Other problems this raises include: what if the teacher has no expertise in the tradition the pupil wishes to composes in? How do assign individual grades when the music is created through a collaborative process?

    I would say a rethink of the assessment procedures is a better way forward than the jettisoning of composition altogether, especially when the creation of new musical material is such an important part of the music industry.

    • Assessing pupil compositions by number of YouTube hits. Love it! The problem is I don’t think that’s any worse than the system we have now.

      There are problems with the ‘how does the piece fit the brief’ beyond those you describe. The main problem is still that of subjectivity. Your highlighting of the teacher expertise issue is important but think of the examiner – if they have no experience (or worse, if it is a style they dislike) they will be unable to assess the work.

      Go ahead, rethink the assessment procedures. Come up with a system reliable enough that ten people can assess the same piece within one or two marks out of 40 (say) and I will cheer you to the great heights of the musical education establisment.

      Finally, I return to my English analogy. Creation of new literature is such an important part of that industry too but we do not get A level English students to write novellas. New authors still are able to write creatively. I think the analogy holds reasonably well.

  6. Thanks for stimulating so much thought.

    What became ‘The Holy Trinity’ has of course lost its original potency. In John Paynter’s work there was the recognition of the creativity of performing, listening, improvising, analysing as well as composing. Creativity, since that time has become a kind of industry and one of those ‘good’ words, rather like ‘integration’ and ‘holistic’. In Keith Swanwick’s work the trinity was given important caveats. But all this is now lost it would seem.

    Many music teachers have found the teaching of composition problematic depsite a number of outstanding resources coming and going. (For example, Sound and Structure-Paynter 1992.) The way art teachers teach how to make a piece, buliding ideas, researching exisitng work and so on has not been taken up. Careful attention to the teaching of process has largely been missing. Is it only music teacher-composers who have had sufficient insights into this?

    I admire very much art education where this is at its best. Observing my own children benefit from the study art rather than music I see the making of art and the appreciation of its contextual, historical and critical dimesnions impressively educational, resulting in self-understanding alongside wider-world understanding.

    Might we consider in place of the trinity ‘making music and the critical and contextual understanding of it’? Making, a simple idea, is able to embrace an enormous range of cultural practices all of which need thinking about, critiqueing and better understanding. Making relievs us of the restrictive modernist conception of composing and open up an enormous range of possibilities. Time for music to realign with the other arts. Carrying on with GCSE as performing, composing, listening wont do.

    • That’s a very interesting perspective. I am, perhaps, viewing these things from the perspective of a teacher rather than an intellectual. Every year I am left trying to explain to a pupil why their marks have come out as they did. With composing more than any other section I am often at a loss, even when seeing the examiner’s feedback.

      What I really want is an exam where I can say to a pupil, “If you write this, that’s wrong” as far as possible. This is clear with conventions in Bach chorales for example. How this is described by others is of less immediate interest. I will, however, mull over your words during the Christmas break. I may change my mind.

  7. I favour comp at GCSE but optional at A level, which it was for a while. I think comp brings many musical skills which can be fairly easily taught and achieved at KS 4 level. Simple manipulation of melody, harmony, texture and duration hung round a conventional structure can produce music which is predictable, attractive, conventional and satisfying. It doesn’t need to be original or surprising to be good at that level. At A level it does get more complex and one is looking for something a bit more special.
    I would not like to see composition taken out of exams because when I did my O level and A level it wasn’t even an option. Teachers regarded composition as something almost mystical and were derisory of pupils even attempting it. There was a single annual composition prize and a few kids, myself included, had a crack year after year, writing music that was a bit wild and unstructured because no one had taught us how to do it! I largely taught myself to compose by drumming out tunes on the piano -something which I have been doing since I was about 6! I had lessons mostly in harmony as an adult to fill in the gaps in what was really a very thin and poor music education based on the A level syllabus at the time. Society does need composers and I think any half decent music teacher should be able to do it. As a Headteacher (now) I expect my music teachers to be able to compose and arrange for bands and choirs if required.
    If we got rid of comp in exam I think we would be returning to the days when the great bourgeois aesthetic, as described by Aaron Copeland, would take hold again and we would start to regard composers as gods once more instead of ordinary talented people.

    • We have had compulsory composing in GCSE since 1986 (first teaching) and the National Curriculum shortly after. How many great composers have we created in that time? Ades? I suspect it wasn’t his GCSE where he learned composing.

      I expect I would disappoint as a music teacher as I have composed almost nothing since I finished the compulsory Composing course at university. I have, of course, arranged material. Most musicians do not respond by composing.

      I am also not sure that we regard composers any differently but you have the edge on me in experience.

      Once again, I am not saying pupils should not compose, I am simply suggesting that compositional techniques should replace composing as an activity for public examination. Why has the ABRSM, so long the guardian of standards in musical performance, never offered grades in composing?

  8. ‘The great bourgeois aesthetic’ is fit and well I would say as is the commitment to aesthetic listening as a superior form (proper listening as opposed to improper listening). The recognition of composing as a valuable way of knowing and understanding music does help to ease this ideology. Rousseau thought that in order to understand music it was necessary to compose. But Rousseau’s conception of education was broad and liberating and anti vocational. Education was a preparation for living a life. While A Level music is rightly concerned in part to specialise and train the musician (whose image of a musician?), it surely should retain something of a wider view of education and music education. Composition is needed to play its part. If we value our students’ creative audiational capabilities as evidenced in musical performance why not their creative audiational capabilities as evidenced in composing?

    • I still maintain that we need to separate what we view as worthwhile activities from what is accurately and objectively assessable. It is exactly for the wider view of A level (and GCSE) as part of a general musical education that I suggest Composition’s removal from specifications. Most former A level musicians will not compose following the course, whether they continue with music or not. All will continue to listen to music and many will perform. Those who want to compose will find ways of doing that too.

      There are many activities which we do in A level music lessons at KEGS which are not part of the examination. They sing, accompanied and unaccompanied, in as many parts as we have candidates. They write proper music essays rather than the ‘list’ type of prose required in the exam.

      Just because something is not a part of an exam does not mean it cannot (or should not) be done.

  9. I would say that if an insufficient number of music teachers value composing as a worthwhile assessible form of expressing musical understanding then it should be dropped.

  10. You raise some valid points here. However, I would say from experience that most of the children I teach find the listening part of the exam much less accessible than composition, which they love. I felt the same about composition as a child – it was extremely hard for me and I had to sweat over every note. Part of the problem is that composition is so difficult to teach well – it’s taken me ten years in the classroom to be even remotely happy with the way I do it.

    • Agreed that part of the problem is teaching it well. I also didn’t touch on the tendency of some colleagues to give more help than is appropriate, disadvantaging those who do not.

      I realise that in many schools it is the Listening exam is the most challenging for pupils. It is, however, the main part of an exam they can’t get anywhere else (as they can with performing). It is also the most reliably assessable part of the exam, as long as the examiner doesn’t write “Guess what I’m thinking” questions.

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