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GCSE Music (9-1) - Help With How To Score High Marks - 32 Composition Tips From A Moderator

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

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This post is going to give GCSE music students some tips on how to score a higher mark for their composition coursework. It is likely that some of these tips will also be useful to A-Level music students or students studying any music course where composition is required.

My background is in education and performance. I have many years of experience teaching GCSE and A-Level music in the UK and overseas and I have also served as a head of music and a moderator.

A moderator is someone who views a selection of coursework for an exam board and checks the marks that the teacher has awarded. It is a highly rewarding job, because you get to hear many new compositions but it can also be frustrating when the same mistakes are being made by students and even teachers. I hope this blog post will help anyone involved in composition and help raise the standard and marks gained by some students.

GCSE Music Study Guides to help Composition

It is important to get the correct study guide for your course. Check with your school if you are provided with a free copy and if not I highly recommend buying one. You could even ask any ex-students from your school if they will give your theirs! Some can be found below, using my affiliate links.

GCSE Music (9-1) Composition - Teachers Understanding (or lack of it!)

Before I give any tips to students, it is important that teachers realise that they hold the power to get any students marks up higher. There are courses provided by exam boards which help support teachers. I always tried to attend the courses because it gave me a better understanding of the course and a better understanding of how to support my students.

Compositions are technically time gated, so students have a certain amount of time to complete the work they submit, it isn't exactly checked, but in some cases it is clear that students are either spending way too long on compositions or worse, not doing enough, leading to big parts being missed out.

It is the teachers job to teach the students how to compose music. If a school is following the National Curriculum then composition should be taught in classroom music lessons even before students start their GCSE's. Even better, is if composition is being taught in primary schools. If you are a head of music or school leader, it is essential to look back to the younger years and support the learning of music from the start.

Then, when students start their GCSE music courses, get them composing straight away, use it as a baseline assessment. Even if they just compose an unaccompanied piece for their instrument (or voice). From this point, show them the mark scheme and show them what needs to be covered in order to score higher marks. Then, repeat this process by having them compose pieces of music in different styles in each term, ideally based on the learning they are doing in relation to any set works they are studying.

GCSE Music Students - Make Your Teachers Accountable!

If your teacher hasn't or doesn't mention the word composition in the first week of lessons that you have in September, then I guarantee you are going to have issues. As a student opting to take GCSE music, you probably already enjoy playing an instrument or singing. Performance is as big a part of the course as composition, but you are probably way more experienced in performance already. It won't always be the case but on average I find it is.

It is tempting to just want to get into the practice room with your mates in lessons and play music. I know this is the case because I have experienced it as a teacher, but composition is what you need to be working on asap. Push your teacher to help you in this area, ask your teacher what composition work you are doing in the first term and this can help drive your teacher in the right direction. Get your parents or head of year involved straight away if needed.

I have personally witnessed GCSE or A-Level teachers that have no clue when it comes to composition. They will not have had to directly prove their compositional experience in a job interview for example. I have taken over classes in year 11 that have done zero composition work in year 10. It happens, so watch out for it.

GCSE Music - Compose to Your Strengths to Score Higher

Sometimes, teachers have all of their students compose a similar piece. They don't do very much compositional teaching because they believe they have a template or system that works. You might be given a document outlining all the steps or even in some cases which chords to use and how to set up a score all in the same way.

In my experience, these compositions never score top marks. It might be useful to do this sort of task as part of teaching classes about specific styles or specific compositional skills throughout the year, but it should never be the tactic for the final submission.

For you as a student, it can be comforting knowing that you can speak about your composition or even compare it to others in your class. But, imagine if you had to listen to 20 pieces of very similar music, it really isn't showing off the skills of the students. If every member of your class play the same instrument, at the same ability and love the exact same music and have the same tastes, then perhaps it might work out, but in reality this is never the case.

Mozart Bored
My face when listening to 20 copies of the same composition!

You must compose to your strengths. If you play the piano then create a solo piece for the piano in the style of Beethoven or compose a study for a student to use in an audition. Always think about the purpose of the music and the audience it is for. If you play drums in a rock band, compose an unaccompanied drum kit solo in ternary form.

Start with the instrument you play, that is your speciality, so use it. You can always add more instruments as you go or create other compositions. Remember, the more instruments you include in your composition, the more challenging it will be. If you compose for a banjo, but have no idea about the banjo's capabilities, then your composition grade will suffer.

GCSE Music Composition Tips on Presenting Your Work

Before going into more specific tips, I want to talk about how you present your compositions. As a moderator, the very best compositions tend to be recorded live. A student has taken time to perform their composition themselves or has enlisted the help of other students to do this. Remember, your composition can be performed by anyone. If you have a family member who plays an instrument or your history teacher is a skilled pianist then utilise that. The recording quality doesn't matter, as long as everything can be heard clearly.

GCSE Music Notation and Commentaries for Compositions

If you cannot record the piece of music for real, then the next best option is that you notate your composition and submit an audio file direct from the software you used. Musescore is free and very simple to use. Again, something a good teacher will start teaching students how to use very early on.

Not all compositions have to be notated. However, it is essential that you submit some form of audio and some form of score or commentary. If you record your piece of music, how would you expect another musician to learn it? This is the part many students struggle with and is a grey area with exam boards. If I wrote a song and accompanied myself on guitar. In order to explain to someone else how to perform it, I would need to describe a lot of things. A lot of things which are far easier to notate than to write about. So where possible, notate your compositions. You can use guitar tablature or any form of notation suitable to that instrument.

I don't understand why exam boards do not just accept that for the majority of people nowadays, learning any popular style song, they learn it by ear from a recording and not from any form of notation or written directions. Meaning, a basic written commentary and audio track should suffice.

All I will say on this to sum it up, is make sure that you provide as much information as possible in your composition submission. An audio file is essential, screen shots of your compositional process can be handy, an actual score is best but bits of notation could also work. Notate a melody or a riff and show how it is used throughout the song structure. Do not just use a piece of music software, like Garage Band or Dance Ejay and expect to submit only a recording with very limited other information. Write on your scores, draw arrows with labels to describe what you have done, this makes it very easy to be awarded higher marks, when the evidence is clearly shown.

That is lots of help already, so let's get into some specific tips. I hope that these help you score higher marks with your GCSE music compositions. They are not in any special order, but can serve as a nice checklist for you.

If you do not understand some of this, then research it online, speak to your class teacher, speak to ex-pupils, book me for a lesson or use the online courses I shared above.

1) Compose music that uses your own instrument(s).

2) Give your composition a good title.

3) Make sure your composition is well over the minimum time limit.

4) Make sure your composition has a brief stating the audience and occasion.

5) Use as few instruments as possible.

6) Make sure every instrument in your composition is used to its full potential.

7) Include detailed dynamics (volume levels) for all instruments.

8) Include style markings like accents, tenuto, legato, use lots of musical language.

9) Add variety by changing key in your composition.

10) Add variety by changing tempo in your composition.

11) Don't spend hours writing lyrics, focus on a well shaped melody.

12) Use instruments that compliment each other and are regularly used together.

13) Write in a style that you like, using instruments you like.

14) Make the music personal to you, give it meaning.

15) Annotate your score or write very detailed information about how to perform your composition.

16) Use features that you find in the set works you have studied.

17) For set brief compositions, do exactly what the brief ask you to do.

18) Get a copy of the marking criteria and look at the highest marks.

19) Demonstrate that you understand the elements of music.

20) Don't write anything that is impossible to play by a human.

21) Use a variety of textures (never use language like, thick or thin).

22) Make sure the piece feels balanced, beginning/middle/end.

23) Give your piece an intro and link sections together creatively.

24) Make sure the music feels like it is moving forwards.

25) Develop your ideas, extend ideas, change earlier material when it returns in the music.

26) Make your music more complex, using rhythm, different note durations and pitches.

27) Give your composition very clear structure, suitable to the style of music.

28) If in doubt, always ask for help from your teacher or musical professional.

29) Don't spend ages getting started, don't keep restarting, just go with your gut instincts.

30) Create balanced phrases, giving performers chance to breathe or rest (even if a computer is playing the music).

31) Use repetition to make music catchy.

32) Careful when selecting instruments using Garage Band, Soundtrap, Bandlab (see below).

GCSE Music Compositions Using Music Technology and Problems That Can Arise.

Music technology is great but following on from the last tip. Sometimes it can seem too easy. I have seen compositions with 20 different instruments being used. Maybe the student has included a tuba to play one single note in the whole piece. Most exam boards want to hear and see how you are exploiting the potential of musical instruments. If you are composing a piece of music that will never be performed by real people, then please state this in your brief.

Imagine if your composition was selected to win a prize and to be performed live. But it had a few instruments that only played a few notes, then it might be very hard to book those musicians and would also mean they required paying for minimal work musically. Imagine the real life logistics of performing your music.

Likewise, if you like the sound of the flute when played very low in your music software, that is fine, providing you state this in the brief or write it somewhere for your teacher and moderator to read. That part might be impossible to be played but if it isn't being composed hypothetically for anyone real person to play then it is fine. It could be a piece of dance music or music for a computer game, all made with technology but always best to acknowledge this.

One more thing on this topic. If you write music for say a trumpet but have chords written, this would be impossible to do by one player. It is therefore essential that you make sure the teacher or moderator knows that it is for more than one player. Or as before, state that you just like the sound it makes in a chord, but have no intentions of the music being played by real players.

GCSE Music Composition Example

To end this blog post I want to share an example of a composition that a GCSE student of mine created, which scored full marks. If you can in anyway match this sort of quality, detail, musicality and style then you know you are going to do very well. I am not referring to recording quality either, only musical quality.

Good luck with your compositions!

I hope you found this useful and thanks for reading. Please consider signing up to my blog and email list, where you can get my FREE - Performing From Memory pdf.

Mark Glover


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