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GCSE Music (New)

Brief GCSE Course OutlinePerformancePerformance - Teacher GuidanceCompositionListening and AppraisingGlossaryExam Question Words

Students starting in September 2016 will be the first to take a new course, graded from 9-1. However, the changes are relatively modest, and are nothing to worry about if you are a hard-worker. Music has always been about performing, composing and listening and these activities remain the foundations of new course.

The full specification document can be found at, or by searching for EDEXCEL Pearson GCSE music 2016.

What are the main attributes of a good GCSE musician?

  • Someone who has enjoyed music in Year 7, 8 and 9, and wants to take a subject with a lot of practical work.
  • Someone who likes performing in front of others, and wants to practice and attend their instrumental/singing lessons.
  • Someone who has the patience to stick at long-term composition tasks, and is happy to take constructive criticism and refine their work.
  • Someone who likes listening to a wide variety of music, and is prepared to be open-minded about different styles.

FAQs / dealing with misconceptions about GCSE music

Do I need to be having instrumental/singing lessons already to do well at GCSE?

No, but once you commit to taking GCSE music, it would be a very good idea to start them. The individual tuition and attention to detail that you get from a specialist teacher is extremely valuable, and will have a positive impact on your grade.

Do I need to have passed any music exams succeed as a GCSE musician?

No, not at all. Many students who have never taken grades achieve levels 8 or 9 (A*) in performance. However, if you do take exams, you can use the same material for GCSE music.

I’m worried about composing – I think I can’t do it.

This is a common misconception. Hard-working students will produce good compositions. Most start the course as relatively inexperienced composers when compared with their performance level. They soon pick it up – like most other things, it just needs practice and patience.

I’ve never taken a written music exam. Would I do well?

If you’re a hard-worker, then yes. Read on to find out exactly what we do, but this is not a theory test. In the exam you answer questions about set works we listen to, and write one short essay.

Do I need to be able to read music fluently to do well?

Not at the start of the course, but this is something that you will need to work on. There is more emphasis placed on musical literacy in the new course than there was previously, and students will have to be prepared to work on this. However, you will be given plenty of help, so don’t panic about this – again it will improve with practice.

Performance – worth 30% of the GCSE grade

This is not an exam. All formal performance work is assessed in Year 11, usually during lesson time. In Year 10 students have the opportunity to complete practice performance assessments. All work must be completed by May of Year 11.

Students must be willing to perform to the rest of the GCSE music group. After all, you’d be a funny sort of a musician if you didn’t want to do this!

What do I have to do to complete the performance part of the GCSE?

  • A solo performance, at least one minute long – one or more pieces
  • An ensemble performance, at least one minute long – one or more pieces. An ensemble means a group of two or more musicians, in which you are the only person playing/ singing your part. This is usually a duet, trio or quartet performance
  • There must be a printed version of the music you play available to assess your work
  • It is possible to improvise as part of your performance, but you don’t have to
  • The total length of both performances must add up to four minutes
  • All performances are recorded, and will take place in Year 11

How is the work assessed?

  • All work is assessed by Ryedale School music staff, and each performance is marked /30
  • You are marked on your technical control – this includes any aspect of articulation, pedaling, bowing, breath control, tone, or anything else specific to your instrument/voice
  • You are marked on your expression and interpretation – this includes control of tempo, phrasing, dynamics, communication with the audience, and in ensemble performance whether the balance between you and others is good
  • You are marked on your accuracy and fluency – this means wrong notes and rhythms, hesitations, and in ensemble performances, the timing between you and other parts

Difficulty Levels

  • Your piece is assessed against difficulty levels, which affect your marks
  • The exam board produce a comprehensive list of repertoire and grades
  • Less difficult – Grade 1-3
  • Standard – Grade 4
  • More Difficult – Grade 5
  • If you perform a Grade 1-3 piece, you cannot get a level 8 or 9 (A*) for performance

Who assesses the performances?

  • All worked is marked by staff at Ryedale School
  • A sample of the work is sent to the exam board for quality-assurance

Below is a copy of the guidance issued by Ryedale School to instrumental/singing teachers, but it is obviously useful for students and parent/carers to read this and be familiar with what is expected.

New GCSE performance guidelines EDEXCEL/Pearson (for first examination at GCSE in 2017)

  • One or more solo performance lasting at least 1 minute.
  • One or more ensemble performance lasting at least 1 minute.
  • Combined performance time should be 4 minutes at least.
  • If 4 minute time limit is not met, then they get 0 (zero) marks.
  • All performances must be recorded in Year 11.
  • Difficulty levels still apply: grade 1-3 ‘less difficult’, grade 4 ‘standard’, grade 5 ‘more difficult’. If students perform less difficult pieces, they cannot receive an A/A*.
  • EDEXCEL have produced a difficult level book which covers both GCSE and A-level for solo performance which covers a huge amount of repertoire. Difficulty levels of popular music are judged in the book from original recordings by artists. If using sheet music, it needs to be compared with the original recorded version to see how similar they are to each other.

Both solo and ensemble performances of all styles are marked using the same mark scheme:

  • /8 for Technique – coordination, breath control, tone, pedalling, intonation, and a judgement as to whether the music is within the compass of the candidate’s ability. There is a cap on the maximum mark awarded in this area if piece is grade 2 or below.
  • /8 for Expression and Interpretation – tempo, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, communication with the audience and balance in ensemble performances.
  • /8 for Technical Control (Accuracy) and Expression and Interpretation (Fluency) – accuracy of pitch and rhythm, fluency, appropriate response to improvising stimulus, and in ensemble performance, how they cope if the ensemble starts to go wrong and they/others make errors.
  • Once pieces are assessed /24, it is then applied to the difficulty levels to end up with a final mark /30.
  • If candidates are performing more than one solo piece or ensemble piece, then the performance of all pieces as a whole is assessed and not each piece separately which is then averaged out.
  • If a candidate chooses to accompany themselves, they can only be assessed on one of the roles that they perform and that the difficulty level will be judged on this role only. For instance, a singer accompanying themselves on guitar would only be their singing.
  • All solo performance work must be recorded in one take. It can be rerecorded as many times as necessary, but candidates are not allowed to rerecorded part of the performance.
  • All ensemble performance work must be recorded in one take. It can be rerecorded as many times as necessary, but candidates are not allowed to rerecorded part of the performance.

All of the above are ‘rules’ created by EDEXCEL. You may not like them all, and I certainly don’t, but they are what they are and there is no changing them.

I would like to add the following suggestions to the above which I hope won’t restrict what you do too much, but will aid your GCSE student and me equally.

  • Please ensure that your students choose solo performance material from the difficulty level booklet, or is taken from a grade examination syllabus such as ABRSM/Rock School (doesn’t have to be the current syllabus) The difficulty booklet has a huge range of repertoire and this shouldn’t be restrictive.
  • That you time pieces in lessons to give students an idea of how long their material is. I will still take ultimate responsibility for using a stop watch in formal recordings to ensure that their pieces are of sufficient length.
  • If students are performing more than one ensemble piece to ensure they meet the minimum time limit, they must perform with the same musicians in every piece recorded.
  • We will have a series of formal recording sessions during Year 11. I will make sure that I pass on dates well in advance so we can plan who needs to be ready when. What we can no longer do is record any work in Year 10 and submit it.
  • At the moment there is no guidance provided for ensemble EDEXCEL are working on providing support for this during the current academic year.
  • EDEXCEL are very clear that candidates performing music which is too difficult for them is self-penalising. A piece that is too difficult for candidates will get a weak mark.

Composition – worth 30% of the GCSE grade

You have to produce two complete compositions by May of Year 11. We begin composition work at the start of the course, but it is likely that early pieces will be practice compositions, and that the work you submit will all be written in Year 11. You have to submit a recording and musical score of your piece. All work must be completed by May of Year 11.

How do I produce my compositions?

This is up to you really, but the following is acceptable:

  • Sibelius software
  • Cubase software
  • Hand-written full manuscript score
  • Lead sheet/graphic score, plus recording

You do not have to be able to perform your own piece, but writing sensibly for instruments and voices is important – just because software can play what you’ve written doesn’t mean that a real musician could!

Both compositions must be at least one minute long individually, and at least three minutes long in total.

Composition 1 is a free composition – you can compose what you want, for any combination of instruments and voices. This piece can be started in Year 10, and continued into Year 11.

Composition 2 – the exam board will produce a choice of four briefs on 1st September of Year 11, and you must choose one of these. The briefs will be under the following headings:

  • Instrumental Music
  • Vocal Music
  • Music for Stage and Screen
  • Fusions

The briefs will be quite broad, and allow for a large amount of freedom of interpretation.

How is the work assessed?

  • All work is assessed by Ryedale School music staff, and each composition is marked /30
  • You are marked on how you develop musical ideas – this includes how the piece comes across to the listener, an understanding of the style that you are writing, and for composition 2, that you have matched your work to the brief
  • You are marked on how you demonstrate technical control – how you handle all the elements of music, such as pitch, harmony, rhythm, use of instruments and how they are combined
  • You are marked on how you compose with musical coherence – the way the piece is structured and how it develops from the starting point

Who assesses the performances?

  • All worked is marked by staff at Ryedale School
  • A sample of the work is sent to the exam board for quality-assurance

Listening/Appraising – worth 40% of the GCSE grade

Students sit a 90-minute exam at the end of Year 11. The exam is in two parts, and the content is based on the study of set works, and other music related to the set works. It is assessed externally /80.

Areas of Study and Set Works

AoS 1: Instrumental Music 1700-1820 Bach Brandenburg Concerto no. 5, 3rd movt.
Beethoven ‘Pathetique’ Sonata, 1st movt.
AoS 2: Vocal Music Purcell ‘Music for a while’
Queen ‘Killer Queen’
AoS 3: Music for Stage and Screen Schwartz ‘Defying Gravity’ (Wicked)
Williams ‘Main title/Rebel blockade’ (Star Wars IV)
AoS 4: Fusions Afro Celt Sound System ‘Release’ (Release vol. 2)
Spalding ‘Samba Em Preludio’ (Esperanza)

These eight pieces cover a wide range of musical styles, and you might not immediately like all the pieces, but most musical tastes are catered for!

Additional Listening

As part of the exam, you will also be played one piece of music which is not a set work. You will be given the music of this piece, and asked to compare it with one of the set works. This is a new element to the GCSE course, and will rely on your ability to listen and analyse a piece of music.

Musical Analysis Skills

Preparation for the exam needs students to develop good analytical skills. This includes the ability to:

  • Listen to the set works and understand how elements of music are used in them
  • Read the music and understand how elements of music are used in them
  • Listen to other pieces similar to the set works as part of a comparison exercise
  • Write a short essay about one of the set works

The exam board provide a glossary of technical terms, which covers the elements of music, and will help you prepare for the exam.

Organisation of pitch (melodically and harmonically – pitch refers how high or low a sound is)
The chords that conclude a musical phrase (e.g. a perfect cadence with chords V‒I or an imperfect cadence with I (or other non-dominant chord) and V)
The simultaneous sounding together of two or more notes
Circle of fifths
A chord progression where the root of each chord is a 5th lower (or a 4th higher) than its predecessor (e.g. in C major with chords of C F Bdim Em Am Dm G C). In practice, segments of the circle of 5ths (rather than complete circles) are often used
Chord sequence
A series of chords, usually repeated (e.g. in a 12-bar blues) 
Diminished 7th chord
A chord consisting of three superimposed minor 3rds (e.g. C sharp, E, G, B flat)
Especially in non-classical genres, the extended sustaining or repeating of a note or a harmonic interval (notably a perfect 5th)
Successions of chords (or sometimes refers to single chords)
A melody (or ‘melodic line’) is a succession of single sounds – most frequently an individual strand or part within a fuller musical texture. A melody is usually ‘tuneful’ or otherwise prominent or memorable
Neapolitan 6th chord
The first inversion of the triad on the flattened supertonic (usually in a minor key – as, for example, D, F, B flat in A minor)
The process of elaborating or decorating musical material (particularly a melody). Includes conventional ornaments such as trills and turns
A short musical pattern repeated throughout a section or complete piece
Pedal (or Pedal point)
A note (usually in the bass, and generally either the tonic or dominant of the key) which is sustained or repeated while chords change, often resulting in dissonance
Similar to ostinato, but applied to popular styles of music
Repetition of a melody (or an harmonic progression) but at different pitch level(s) rather than at the same pitch
A melody (or occasionally some other form of musical material) on which part or all of a piece is based

Tonality (The relationship of notes within a scale or mode to a principal note (the tonic or final). A wider term than key, but often used synonymously with it)

Absence of tonality or key
Chromatic notes are those progressing by semitones, especially to a tone having the same letter name, e.g. C to C sharp
Chromatic notes are those outside a particular major or minor key (e.g. G sharp in G major). Notes belonging to the scale of the key are ‘diatonic’
A form of tonality based on major and minor scales
Based on major scales, with a major 3rd between scale degrees 1 and 3
Based on minor scales, with a minor 3rd between scale degrees 1 and 3
Tonality based on modes (precursors of modern scales – of several types, each with a different series of tones and semitones)
Change of key
Based on a five-note scale (often equivalent to scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 of a major scale, or 1, 3, 4, 5, (flat)7 of a minor scale)
Form, structure (the overall shape of a composition (e.g. binary, ternary, rondo). ‘Form’ and ‘structure’ are largely synonymous)

Arch form
A form which is broadly symmetrical. In a sense ternary (ABA) is an arch form, but the term is normally applied to longer patterns such as ABCBA
Da capo
A da capo song or aria is ternary (ABA), the second A being signalled by the words ‘da capo’ (= ‘from the beginning’), with ‘Fine’ marking its end
Sonata form
A large-scale form which evolved in the Classical period. It combines elements of binary form, and (in having exposition, development and recapitulation) ternary form
A strophic song has the same (or very similar) music for each stanza of the poem being set. (A song in which some or all stanzas are set differently is ‘through-composed’)
A common pattern in popular songs particularly. There are ‘verses’ (with different text but the same or similar music) and a ‘chorus’ repeated after some or all verses with recurring text, and usually a different melody and/or different scoring
The nature and quality of musical sounds
The degree to which a note is separated from the note that follows it (ranging from minimal (legato) to much greater (staccato or staccatissimo))
The particular tone colour of an instrument or voice
Texture (the number of parts in a piece of music and how they relate to one another. Several types of texture are listed below)

Musical background to a principal part or parts (e.g. piano accompanying a solo singer)
Where two or more parts play the same melodic line simultaneously, but there are small individual variations
A widely-used type of texture consisting of a melody part and other subsidiary (accompanying) parts moving together
Music in which only one note is heard at a time – a single melodic line
In one sense any texture with two or more parts, but commonly used as a synonym for ‘counterpoint’ where there are two or more simultaneous and largely independent melody lines
Two or more parts share the same melodic idea (not necessarily in full, exactly or at the same pitch). Each new part enters separately, the preceding one continuing with shared or new material
Tempo, metre and rhythm (‘tempo’ is the speed of the music. ‘Metre’, often indicated by a time signature, concerns the pattern and number of strong and weak beats (e.g. 2/4 metre has two crotchets per bar, the first ‘strong’, the second ‘weak’))

Cross rhythm
Cross rhythm is the effect produced when two conflicting rhythms are heard together
Dotted rhythm
The term ‘dotted rhythm’ is usually applied to a pair of notes consisting of a dotted note and a shorter note (the two making up a complete beat or number of beats), or to several successive such pairs of notes
Two notes of the same value (usually quavers) are played with the first lengthened and the second correspondingly shortened (as often in jazz)
Swung rhythm
Two notes of the same value (usually quavers) are played with the first lengthened and the second correspondingly shortened (as often in jazz)
A ‘strong’ or stressed note occurs on a part of a bar or beat that would normally be ‘weak’ or unstressed
Three notes of equal value taking the time normally occupied by two notes of the same written value (or by one undotted note of the next highest value)
Dynamics (the changes in volume of musical sound(s), and also the symbols used in a score to indicate volume (e.g. f))
Suddenly (subito forte – suddenly loud)

Get gradually louder

Get gradually quieter

Accent (written directly over or under a notehead)

Staccato/detached note (written directly over or under a notehead)

Other terms (performance, composition, presentation of scores)

Backing track
A recorded musical accompaniment, especially one for a soloist to play or sing along with
Con sordini
With the use of a mute
DJ performances
D[isc] J[ockeys] use special musical performance techniques (e.g. use of multiple turntables, turntable scratching) that are acceptable under the scheme of assessment
Double (verb)
Doubling occurs where one performer consistently plays or sings the same notes as another – strictly speaking at the same octave, but duplication at the octave may be involved
Almost self-explanatory: wind players (especially flautists) produce a special ‘whirring’ effect by fluttering the tongue
The instrument(s) and/or voice(s) that perform the music
Graphic score
Graphic scores, particularly used in experimental music, employ visual symbols of the composer’s choice instead of (or sometimes together with) the traditional musical symbols of staff notation
A piece composed as it is performed, although frequently based on a pre-conceived ‘stimulus’ such as a melodic theme or chord scheme
Lead sheet
An outline form of notation for popular styles of music, with the melody (in staff notation), lyrics, and chord symbols
Live electro-acoustic sound diffusions
Electro-acoustic music involves sounds not available from acoustic instruments, accessed via electronic technology. It may, however, be performed live via a sound diffusion system
Acronym (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). A means whereby devices such as electronic musical instruments and computers can connect and communicate with one another
The correct observance of divisions between whole phrases and sometimes shorter groups of notes (often to accord with a composer’s phrase markings)
Professional reference recording
A recording of a piece submitted for Component 1 in lieu of a score – with the performance and the recording of professional standard
A recorded image from a computer screen – normally requiring some form of labelling or annotation if displaying the operations of sequencing software
Sequenced compositions
Compositions produced mainly or entirely via electronic sequencing software
A complete piece (or a section) for one player or singer with no accompaniment, or for one player or singer with accompaniment
Sul ponticello
A direction for stringed instruments to play with the bow kept near to or on the bridge
Notation other than staff notation with letters, numbers or other conventional signs – today used particularly by guitarists
Tone quality
The quality of a performer’s sound (which may be ‘rich’, ‘rounded’, ‘thin’, etc.)
In films, the provision of music to accompany dialogue or visual scenes and emphasise moods and enhance atmosphere
Vocal score
For a work for voices and orchestra, a vocal score has the voice parts and a keyboard reduction of the orchestral part (the latter often annotated to give some indication of the scoring)
In aleatoric (or aleatory) music aspect(s) of composition normally under the composer’s control (e.g. aspects of pitch, rhythm or even form) are left to chance and/or to the choice of the performer(s)
A type of virtuosic one-movement composition for piano pioneered by Chopin
Refers to music in the Western Classical Tradition from c1600 to c1750
Strictly relates to music and dance from the Punjab, but is also applied to some related styles of popular music that may show the influence of reggae and electronic dance music
A work (sacred or secular, and particularly associated with the baroque period) in several movements for singer(s) and instruments
A type of hymn traditionally sung in Lutheran churches in Germany. Harmonising chorale melodies has long been an academic discipline in music
Classical (with upper-case C)
Refers to music in the Western Classical Tradition from c1750 to c1820
classical (with lower-case c)
Describes music from the Western Classical Tradition generally (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc.)
Electronic music
Music produced by and for electronic musical instruments and other forms of electronic technology, including computers
Adjective describing an early 20th-century movement in the arts (chiefly in Austria and Germany). Expressionist music portrayed extravagant (often dark) emotional states, and is often associated with free atonality
The blending of more than one musical style or culture to create a new ‘fused’ sound (e.g. Afro-Cuban)
Term applied to Indonesian orchestras (largely consisting of gongs and metallophones) and to the music composed for them
Originally a fusion of African and North American styles. A number of varieties of jazz have developed over time, including New Orleans, swing, bebop
Art song with German text, chiefly from the Romantic period. Plural: ‘Lieder’
Art song with French text, composed chiefly from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century
Musical theatre
Musical theatre integrates songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance, within a popular idiom. ‘Musicals’ are extended pieces of musical theatre from which favourite songs are often performed separately
Oral tradition
Music learnt by listening and repeating, and passed on orally
A multi-movement work for soloists, choir and orchestra, on a religious text
Programmatic music
A type of art music (sometimes known as ‘programme music’) characteristic principally of the Romantic period, and generally for orchestra, in which the composer depicts a pre-conceived series of extra-musical events or ideas. (The opposite of ‘absolute’ music, which is non-representational)
(Or ‘raga’/’raag’.) In Indian classical music a melodic framework on which improvisations and compositions are based (not to be confused with ‘rag’ or ‘ragtime’ in Western music)
Emerged in the 1950s as ‘rock and roll’, and subsequently developed into a range of different popular styles
Refers to music in the Western Classical Tradition from c1820 to c1900
In a serial composition the composer manipulates a set of notes (often all twelve notes of the chromatic scale) to establish thematic unity, within a piece, most commonly one without a clear sense of traditional tonality. The term originated in the early 20th century
A composition for one or more solo instruments, usually in three or four movements

Question words and what sort of information you are expected to write

Dictation questions, for example, to fill in blanks on a score
Give points which may or may not be linked When linked there will be a correct order
Give points that are linked to a justification or extension May be describing the effect something creates
Make points about the similarities and differences Make relative judgements
Identify the issue/situation/problem/argument that is being assessed within the question Explore all aspects of an issue/situation/problem/argument Investigate the issue/situation/problem/argument by reasoning or argument
Examine, dissect musical elements in detail Focus on individual musical elements and how they combine to create an effect/achieve a purpose
Make judgements against parameters Draw conclusions

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