The Edexcel A-Level Essay – The Match of the Day approach!

I have spent the last three weeks really wrestling with the new spec approach to essay writing. It is always a tricky one when there are no past papers and only a handful of examples. But I think I am getting there and I wanted to share my findings. I will say thanks to my good friend Paul who has helped me a great deal! You know who you are! Anyway, this isn’t an oscars acceptance speech so I will move on.

I regularly use the example of “Match of the Day” when I am teaching. It is a programme that analyses something. It is a programme that brings together opinions in order to make an evaluative judgement about a football match. If they just gave facts then there would be no analysis and the programme would not be useful to us or informative.They draw on examples from other matches and look at past fixtures etc. I will come back to this later.

There are a few things that are clear to me at this stage:

  1. There is no need to quote bar numbers in the essay
  2. Students need to make clear musical POINTS and avoid stating FACTS
  3. There is a desperate need to quote as much wider listening as possible
  4. There is a need to focus on the context/genre/period/composer/style
  5. There is a real need to make an evaluative comment or judgement at some point albeit maybe obvious to the student

One or more of the above 5 points might be fairly obvious, but as I say I have really been thinking through what is required and I feel I am getting somewhere, and even the obvious things need some thought process behind them. I don’t work for the board or have any actual board insight, these are just my musings and the product of a few hours of chat with friends and colleagues. I hope this blog might prove useful to you if you are tackling essays.

1. There is no need to quote bar numbers in the essay

This is a big one. The examples online and what I have read in the spec suggest that this is not necessary. I actually find it helpful to discourage the mentioning of bar numbers because that can lead to students just listing “musical events” in the piece and not really thinking about the music. The old AQA spec described it as cataloguing events and I think that is a great way of thinking about it. Going back to Match of the Day, if Gary Lineker and his panel of experts simply listed the results and said when goals were scored in a game it would make for a boring programme and a very poor analysis. So avoid bar numbers and avoid just listing events.

2. Students need to make clear musical POINTS and avoid stating FACTS

Stating facts is fairly easy isn’t it. You open a text book and just write stuff down. You don’t need to listen to anything, you just remember a stream of information. The thing is in an essay you need to make MUSICAL POINTS. Our teaching needs to not be a dry approach where students write out things that happen in the music. They need to have an angle such as Programme music and look at the features in the music that are common for that style.

A musical point is where you take an element of music and you put it in the context of the piece you are listening to:

“Cinematic composers sometimes chose to use chromatic, unstable & non-functional harmony. This is immediately seen at the start of “Prelude” from “Psycho” where we hear the “Hitchcock Chord” (a minor chord with an added major seventh) juxtaposed with rhythmic punctuation. Hermann hasn’t established a tonal centre in the music and has thus created a tension in the score that is perfect for this film setting. This appraoch is also seen in Hermann’s music for “Vertigo” and “Mysterious Island” and was a technique used by Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring. 

“Like other composers of Programme music, Berlioz was keen to establish a character in his music and he achieves this through his use of the “idée fixe” or Fixed idea. This short thematic idea helps the listener to follow the path of the artist in the story and brings together the music, taking the listener on a journey through this 5 movement piece. Elements of the idée fixe are then used to influence melodic ideas throughout the piece such as the second subject. This approach was also used by Berlioz in “Harold in Italy”, and Wagner in his “Ring Cycle.”

I am not suggesting the above points are perfect, but hopefully you get the idea that what is needed is a point that helps to evaluate the music in question. Students should pick points that are going to help explain the genre, style, period & composer. Points need to link directly to the genre of music – above I immediately mentioned cinematic music and programmatic music. Sometimes my students have said something which is perfectly true and present in the music, but in itself it doesn’t really say much and just serves to be a fact about the music.

This is a section from one of the few model answers that you find on the Edexcel website:

“The harmony that arises as a consequence of these ostinati is fairly static. This can often be true in works built on persistent repeated patterns, like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It also gives rise to many dissonances based on clashing seconds, also true of the Stravinsky score. There are some passages where parallel harmonies can be heard, and sounds from the whole tone scale, suggesting an influence from the musical language of Debussy.”

AND NOTE – NO BAR NUMBERS IN SIGHT!

3. There is a desperate need to quote as much wider listening as possible

For me this is the key thing that students need to do. They simply must make a point, link it to the piece in question and then link to wider listening. It must not be a token gesture reference at the end of the essay, but it must be embedded in their work. So I would advise teachers to be constantly referring to wider listening as you teach. There are suggested pieces in the anthology, but I think students need to be encouraged to look for as many examples as possible. The more they listen the better. I think listening to other works by the same composer they are studying is a great idea. I reckon about 3 or 4 references to wider listening are needed in an essay. So get your students listening to as much as they can. I bet Gary Lineker watches every match before he starts analysing. Listening to music is a joy!

4. There is a need to focus on the context/genre/period/composer/style

It is not enough to just analyse the piece and learn the facts of the piece. In essence I don’t think that is what is required. I think what is needed is an understanding of the context, the genre, the period of composing and the composer. Students need to be able to state why a feature is present in the piece. If they are evaluating melody for example then they should be able to suggest what was common practice at the time and how this is also seen in the works of other composers. Discussing the style of the music is also a good approach – explaining how the melody is in keeping with the impressionist approach for example. It would therefore be beneficial in lessons to look at features in the music that are common for that style and features that are less common. The Psycho score is in many ways revolutionary in its use of just strings when compared to the music coming out of Hollywood at the time and before. And yet Hermann also uses a number of common cinematic approaches to rhythm, harmony and use of melody to create atmosphere.

5. There is a real need to make an evaluative comment or judgement at some point albeit maybe obvious to the student

At the end of the essay they need to evaluate – a comment in conclusion. They need to say that it is a great example of Programme music, or Baroque Music or whatever angle they are taking. This may seem unnecessary or a bit of a box tick style approach, but I think it is key. Students can often write lots of lovely points but not really evaluate. This is also where wider listening comes in to play because they are making judgements about the style compared to other composers. Make sure that students always evaluate.

In conclusion

These are just a few thoughts on how one might approach the new Edexcel essays. The key thing is that students are analysing music and really unpacking what is happening in the context of the period of time and the style of the music. When Gary Lineker is on Match of the Day is able to analyse football matches because he has knowledge of the game from playing it and watching it over the years. He doesn’t just state facts, but he gives opinions and compares matches with other matches, players with other players. Students need to write about music having experienced it through listening and study. Students need to be able to analyse the music and make an evaluation of its success in relation to other pieces. They need to work out what moments or “highlights” they are going to discuss, and these moments should be carefully chosen to get the most out of their point.

I hope that you find some of this helpful and I would gratefully receive any additional thoughts or comments. I am not suggesting that I have got it all sorted and so I will keep you posted on any further thoughts! And remember these are just my thoughts! None of this is official! But I have read the spec and I think this all ties in with what is said in there.

 

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