AQA GCSE Music Unit 2

I think the thing I read the most questions about online is in relation to the Old AQA Spec Unit 2. Music teachers out there seem to struggle with this unit and frankly I am not surprised. I used to be really unsure exactly that I needed to do with this unit, and it was only after a set of awful results that I decided to really take the bull by the horns and get things sorted. So I hope that this blog might help you to work out exactly that you need to do.

Firstly you need to download the following document that gives you the links to the Strand for 2017. Having this to hand will help all the more as I move through this blog.

Links to Strand 2017 Document

I think the most fundamental mistake that people make with this unit is the Strand. Teachers are led to believe that students need to compose a “Western Classical” piece and therefore start talking about generic structures like Ternary Form or Theme and Variations. Not admittedly you could follow this path, but I believe that this formulaic approach is not popular with the exam board and also might not best serve your students. So my first key point is:

  1. You can compose in any genre or style. Any structure or type of piece is fine. Get students compose what they know, working with their strengths and knowledge.

When I teach this unit to my students I ask them to come up with the following:

a) A style, genre or type of piece. They might want to compose a Rock Song, create a minimalist piece, write for a string quartet or compose a Romantic Film Score. They need to choose to compose a piece in a style that interests them.

b) They need to LINK TO THE STRAND. Therefore I print out the above document and ask students to firstly go through all of the key terms to see which ones they know and don’t know. I then get them to pick 3 links from a range of Areas of Study. These links might change, but they need to start with 3, and these should fit with the genre they have chosen. A Film composition could easily include syncopation or pedals notes for example. A Baroque Fanfare could easily include use of ornaments. As long as they have a link to the strand that is fine – but they do then have to actually use and explore that link.

c) Next they need to choose two Areas of Study that they are going to explore and focus on as they compose. Lets face it all compositions are going to have Melody, Harmony, Texture & Tonality and so these Areas of Study work well for all compositions. But I still ask them to choose them so that they have ownership.

d) The next crucial thing to mention is that the piece they compose must have a clear context – this comes up in the appraisal and I think it is sometimes overlooked. If they choose to compose a film piece then they need to able to justify what makes it a cinematic piece. This justification needs to include research and listening that they have completed during the process. I think sometimes teachers get students to compose a classical ternary form and think that it will tick all of the unit 2 boxes. Unfortunately it may not if the context is not clear. I remember once a student composed a minimalist piece, well at least that is what they called it. however when it came to the appraisal they didn’t actually do all that well because the piece itself wasn’t really minimalist – the context couldn’t be fully explained or justified. So make sure that students go and research key features for the genre and style they have chosen. Film music is a good one as students love listening to it and watching films.

Once they have completed these steps they are ready to start composing. Their piece will contain links to the strand and focus on two Areas of Study. Their piece will also have things that are key to the style or genre they are composing in. So if they want to write a Baroque Chamber piece, or a Baroque Flute Solo, then their piece will likely include balanced phrases and lots of ornaments for example. If they say their piece is strictly Baroque and yet include a piano, or a saxophone, then maybe they are not heading down the right path.

The Appraisal

I think it can easily be forgotten that the appraisal itself is worth the same as the composition. This written document needs work and time spent on it. Students can’t simply approach it without preparation, and when they sit down to write it in 2 hours they need to have their notes and ideas and answers all ready to go. I think the exam are clear that they can take notes in with them, and I always get my students to type theirs up.

First Big point – this is worth Half the Marks for the Unit – HALF! So time needs to be spent getting it right. It is a chance to appraise the PROCESS & OUTCOMES of the composition in relation to the Areas of Study and the Strand of Learning – 20 marks out of the 40 and therefore 10% of the GCSE!

There is no credit given for an appraisal that just states what a candidate would have LIKED TO HAVE DONE in the composition – so leave that out!

And it is important to remember, as the 2013 Examiners Report states:

“It is overwhelmingly evident in this examination that the outcome is much better if candidates are encouraged to work to their strengths and are therefore able to have real engagement with the task and to show a sense of originality. It must be remembered that, whatever choices have been made about Areas of Study and the link to the strand, candidates are free to compose in any style.” 


“The majority of candidates tackled the six questions set out in the booklet in turn. This is to be recommended, as it enables them to progress logically through the task and helps to focus their ideas and thoughts.”

The Questions:

1. What Areas of Study did you choose and what is the focus of your composition within the given strand?

Here you are discussing the two AoS that are best represented in your composition – you have to choose the ones that will get marks, the ones that are clear and that you can point out to the examiner.

The Focus of the composition within the strand might for example be Blues or Film Music. You will then need to give a brief definition of what your chosen focus is (blues etc) and say how it fits into the strand. What are the main features of the music you have chosen?

This was taken from the Report on the 2014 Unit 2 Exam:

Most schools and colleges have now realised that, as long as the link is to this strand, the music can then be written in any style, thus allowing students still to write to their strengths. However, some took the link to the Western Classical Tradition as restricting the choice of instrumental resources: it was not unusual to come across comments which referred to, perhaps, wanting to use an electric guitar or drum kit, but then the student rejecting it as it was not part of the Western Classical Tradition and thus, incorrectly, deemed inappropriate for use in a composition this year.”

2. Why did you choose these Areas of Study and the particular focus within the given Strand?


Here you need to explain why you chose the genre/style e.g. film music, as a focus. You also need to state examples of things that you listened to for ideas and inspiration. Here you would say:

I chose to work with….AoS in my piece because – link to what you have said about the genre you have chosen, link to any listening you have undertaken.

The first area of study links to my composition because….

The second area of study links to my composition because….

I chose the focus within the World Music strand because….

3. How did you go about composing your music and how was the final recording achieved?

For this question you need to explain how you input the work – did you compose some ideas first and then enter onto Sibelius or into Logic/Garageband?

Did you improvise with ideas and then evolve them from there – fine tuning melodic ideas etc.

Have you added performance marks – dynamics, tempo, accents, repeats etc.

You should also look to add:

  • Precise chord progressions
  • How the melody was created
  • The process of deciding on accompaniment styles / patterns
  • How did you ensure there was contrast between sections?
  • How did you ensure the whole piece sounded ‘finished’?
  • Consideration of instrumental techniques and how they are used in your piece

The Final recording was produced using – garageband, logic, Sibelius etc.

The examiner wants to see that you have understood the process of composing – why for example did you settle on a particular melody or chord sequence or why a specific key was chosen or why a time signature was used. Show the reasons behind the choices made.

4. What difficulties did you encounter during the task and how did you overcome them?

This is not the place to talk about computer issues, or software short-comings. This is a chance to consider a few key things:

What was a musical problem you faced and how did you deal with it:

The melody at first sounded too boring and plain – so I decided to add some more passing notes and ornaments and I also adjusted the rhythms. 

‘I didn’t want my middle 8 to start abruptly in a new key and after listening to many pop songs I decided to use a dominant 7th chord to lead into the new key.’ 

‘I couldn’t hear the flute melody in bars 16-24 as it was in the low part of the flute’s range. I wanted the melody to be this low so I gave it to the saxophone that could play at this pitch but at a louder dynamic.’

Think about – WHAT you started with, WHY was there a problem & HOW did you resolve the problem. For example you might actually edit sections out of your piece – WHY? Too Long, unnecessary, interrupted the flow of the music. How did you get to where you are now?

Think about the impact that any changes you made had on the final piece & recording.

5. What makes your composition successful in relation to the Areas of Study and the focus chosen within the given strand?

Here the exam board want you to choose sections that illustrate good use of the AoS and appropriate use of the focus:

My first area of study chosen was ….  and my piece fits this area of study because…

My second area of study chosen was ….  and my piece fits this area of study because…

My link to the strand  of … was… you can hear this in my piece through the use of…

The 2014 Report on Unit 2 Stated:

Success is to be measured in terms of the AoS and the link to the strand. The best answers pointed out, precisely, locations within the composition which demonstrated good use of the various musical elements contained within the chosen AoS. Here, students showed how the piece had successfully achieved its composer’s aims and met the given link to the strand. It is not part of the appraisal to write about what might have been done had there been more time or if the student were to approach the task again: this is not required and there is no credit available for it.” 

6. What is the relationship of your composition to its context?

The context is unique to each candidate but is also defined by a recognisable style or genre of music which has influenced the candidate. Essentially this question is about the extent to which the composition reflects the characteristics of these influences. This is a like a final conclusion. What elements of your chosen genre (blues) have you successfully incorporated. Link back to the chosen AoS in relation to the style (blues). This section can feel repetitive but shows you have understood the task and the style you have composed in. Here you will outline your chosen style(s) and why you feel that your finished composition meets the musical “fingerprints” of that style. I always ask students to mention music that they have listened to.

The intention of my composition was to be a ….

The 2014 Examiner Report puts it like this:

“The context is what has been established as the area into which the type of composition to be undertaken fits best, be it a classical string quartet, a piece of programmatic piano music, a song in a particular style, a waltz, a piece in a named musical form. The best students identified composers and examples of their music which demonstrated the characteristics they were aiming to emulate and, in their response to this last question, made it clear just how successful they felt they have been. There should be precise references to locations in the composition which exemplify this success.” 

Here are a few sentence starters that I have given to students in the past to help them out with the appraisal:

My Chosen Areas of Study are…

My link to Classical Music is…

It is inspired by …

I have achieved a sound similar to these composers through my choice of…

The reason I chose these Areas of Study is…

I particularly liked the sound of…

I play the __________ and therefore…

I included _____________ because I liked the way it _____________

Initially after working out some ideas on keyboard/guitar/piano I started to gather my ideas using Sibelius

Description of the piece with mentions of links back to the Areas of Study that you have chosen.

During the composition process I struggled to…

I overcame this by…

Another problem I came across was…

I believe my composition is successful in relation to my areas of study within the given strand because…

I feel I have some clear links to my strand which is classical music…

In terms of my composition context ___________ I deliberately wrote to relate to that style…

Something I clearly associated with Classical Music was….

Obviously I am a teacher and don’t work for the exam board, so if you have any questions then you might want to contact AQA. I have however had success with this method and feel that the students go in to Unit 2 well prepared. Last year I got a few full marks for this unit and lots of high marks. The appraisals were generally scored well.
If you have any questions then please do get in touch! And don’t panic! There is plenty of time to get this done! I aim to have students writing a draft appraisal over February Half Term…but that might be a long shot!


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