Dialogue and Difference in GCSE Music

In last week’s blog I considered the balance of exam and no-exam assessment for Art and Music in the GCSE to be first taught in 2016. I highlighted differences in the way Art and Music approach processes of ‘making and thinking’ as sources of valuing what is important (what is assessed). [1]

Now I am thinking about another issue that aroused disquiet amongst those responding to the draft proposals – the singling out of a mandatory area of study.

In the new GCSE for Music, as in the old, the Area of Study acts as the structuring device. It is the place where with imaginative planning all things come together and make sense. The Area of Study can be thought of as the place where music is lived and re-lived together here and now in the classroom, while being in touch with the then and there, the how and why, the who and what of musical practice. There should be at least four areas of study.

In dealing with areas of study the draft subject content for GCSE Music published in July 2014 proposed that

  • at least one area of study must be drawn from music composed in the western classical tradition between 1700 and 1900 [2]

This caused some turbulence, contributed to an ISM campaign and there was a minor twitter storm.

It was seen by many as a symbolic marker of the way GCSE as a whole would be narrowly centered on one segment of the western classical tradition. One argument runs like this:

1700-1900 in the western classical tradition (WCT) marks the establishment of tonality and conveniently secures the theoretical template for everything else.

The list of subject content confirms this.

As a mandatory area of study the WCT 1700-1900 would in effect define other areas of study as Other waiting to be accommodated to ‘the chosen one’, WCT 1700-1900, ‘the special one’.

The list of subject content confirms this.

The objection to a mandatory area of study is that all others would be viewed from the perspective of ‘the chosen one’, ‘the special one’. This would encourage a process of ‘sameing’ bringing the ‘other’ into the totalizing orbit of the ‘special one’ with the ensuing violence done to ‘difference’. Why should other areas be made sense of through the prism of WCT 1700-1900?

The list of subject content presented justifies this question.

94% of those responding to the consultation (606 respondents) declared that the proposed content in Music was inappropriate. In response the government’s final judgment reads

  • at least one area of study must be drawn from music composed in the Western classical Tradition with all or the majority being composed between 1650 and 1910 [3]

The concession is minimal, the doctrine reinforced.

However, we note that:

‘An area of study might be, for example, a genre, style, musical device, idiom, musical process, period of time, cultural tradition or contextual influence.’ [2]

I take this statement as an invitation to uncover different ways of understanding music and musical practices and to explore different ways of studying music. So here might be a potential antidote to the hegemony of the mandatory 1650-1910 WCT.

So, let’s consider, for example, four areas of study working as a ‘dialogue of difference’ and offering alternative ways of thinking about music and thus furthering critical thought about musical practices.

The Hip Hop Diaspora: three case studies 1) local 2) far away 3) ……..

The Great American Songbook 1920-1950: making a canon

The rough and smooth of music 1750-2015: the uses of music in society and culture

Diatonic stereotypes 1650-1910

Some elaboration for this one. (I’m getting some really good ideas for the three above as well.)

Heinrich Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor composed in 1676 is for solo violin and shows Biber’s variation technique. The notes G-F-Eb-D are repeated sixty five times. These are the first four notes of the descending melodic minor scale or if you prefer the diatonic tetrachord. The pattern is a Baroque stereotype.

Other stereotypes 1650-1910 – any ideas?

In order to counteract the process of ‘sameing’ and its threat to ‘difference’, careful thought will need to be given to areas of study.

The example above attempts to explore what this might mean. In this example subject content would be defined in fresh and interesting ways. Means and ends could keep up a conversation.

What is urgently needed now is imagination from the exam boards and a conversation with teachers and pupils. In this way some of the tensions existing between differing standpoints might be alleviated and a GCSE in music might emerge that is more than a minor variation of the existing one.


[1] See https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ofqual

For ‘making and thinking’ read ‘performing, composing, appraising’.

[2] See https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/gcse-subject-content

For the source of governmental ideology see blog below 18.12.2014

[3] See https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/gcse-and-a-level-reform


3 thoughts on “Dialogue and Difference in GCSE Music

  1. davidashworth

    Thanks, John
    This is really helpful in spelling out the dangers of singling out one area of study. The idea that it then compromises the way you have to work with the ‘others’ is a powerful argument against it.

    Others have rallied against it, but yours is to only post I’ve come across which explains WHY this is a problem

  2. Pingback: Interesting musical practices – Music Education Now

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