GCSE Revision Pt. 1

The GCSE listening exam is now my focus for the coming few weeks and I thought I would blog my approaches to revision. My feeling on revision lessons is that they need to be helpful, enjoyable and totally exam question focussed. What we all want is to send students in to that exam room with the knowledge and skills that they need to get the top grades. So let me tell you what I did today.

Now firstly I will say that my revision lessons are not in any way revolutionary or innovative. They are simple, but with clear aims and clear foci. But in my revision lessons I sit at the piano in my room and I think that is the key to their success. I also make sure that they are helpful by feeding off of questions from students. Sometimes preparing stuff is great but might not actually tackle the live issues in the lesson.

Today I wanted to focus on Melody and the infinite number of misconceptions about what describing melody is actually all about. Whatever the exam board, melody will come up in some way shape or form and often students don’t really grasp how to write about it. So today I asked my students for three ways to describe a melody. And guess what, on the whole they didn’t describe the melody. They told me how loud it was played, or how fast, but not the actual melody. So I got one thing straight with them. Melody is the horizontal organisation of pitches. It has got nothing to do with dynamics or tempo or texture. They are all related, but if you are going to describe melody successfully you need to ignore these things. As music teachers we need to get students into good habits with how to describe melody. We then discussed how we can actually go about describing melody and melodic features/devices:

conjunct
scalic
Shape
Ascending/Descending
Sequence
Contour
Disjunct
Ornamented
Repeated
Ostinato

etc.

I then asked students to imagine a melody they know really well – maybe a recent performance piece. I then asked them to describe that melody. I didn’t let them listen to it, I just wanted them to think about it. We then chatted over answers and from the piano I attempted to play their melodies and show how I could change the melodies etc.

I then played them some melodies – Bach Anna Mag. being one of them, and we chatted over the intervals and the shape. I also used Eine Kleine for a bit of arpeggios based melody!

The thing that worked in this lesson was the focus on melody and my strict approach to students who talked about anything other than melody. I sat at the piano and played as much to them as possible, but didn’t play overwhelming examples that are hard to work with at times. I just played melodic ideas to them to get them thinking and chatting over melody. We looked at sequences and their impact and also thought about intervals and their impact. It was a great lesson and I feel they came away with a clear picture of melody and how to write about it. The key thing for me is that they need to think about melody and hear lots of examples. Full orchestral recording examples are great. But sometimes a simple melody on piano can really help. I like just coming up with tunes on the spot. I enjoy it and you can tailor the melody directly to any questions from the class. Finding tunes in advance is great, but the live nature of the lesson is really fun and enjoyable for me and the students.

So I suggest focussing on different elements and giving them lots to think on and listen to. Link it all to the exam and make sure that you are forcing them to only think about one element at a time and also use musical terms as their primary language. Melody confused with dynamics or texture can really lead to lower marks. And if you are not sure where your class are at then ask them to tell you what a melody is and some of the ways they would describe it. You will soon know what they need to cover for revision.

And get yourself a copy of the Classical Fakebook – it is a bible of classical tunes and I love it.

Happy revising!

3 comments

  1. My daughter had a similar issue just before her gcse and did not know some of the basics, like your melody point. I cannot understand how she did not know this sort of thing when she had been learning music since year nine.

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  2. I find your blogs interesting and useful with some really great ideas and tips. So I hope you don’t mind me questioning something in this particular blog.

    Do you think rhythm is an equally important aspect as pitch when describing melody? I’ve always thought melody is a combination of both pitch and rhythm and so when asked to describe melody in an exam I encourage students to refer to the organisation of pitch as well as rhythmic features. For example a melody may consist of ascending, conjuct intervals and a dotted rhythm. I think just referring to pitch would be appropriate if only asked about pitch. (Similarly when only asked about rhythm the answers would only refer to rhythm.)

    I’d be interested to know if you think I might be misinterpreting the question of melody here.

    Many thanks again for your great blog.

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    • Thanks for getting in touch. I think you raise a good and interesting point. What is a melody. It is definitely a combination of pitch and rhythm and can’t exist without one of those elements. What I find is that students often miss the pitch elements of a melody and don’t always refer to intervals, shape and direction. I think it would be good to mention rhythm but I think it should be attached to comments on intervals, shape, contour. Just describing a melody as dotted doesn’t really describe the melody. And yet on the flip side I think that describing a melody as Scalic is a good answer. What I am always keen to do is make sure students maximise marks and also understand what they are describing. Having looked at a number of exams over the years I have always felt that when asked to describe a tune the examiner wants to read about intervals and direction.

      In conclusion, I think we need to get students focussing on intervals and pitch firstly and then add in rhythmic features. I guess you could dot a tune and it would still fundamentally be the same melody despite having a different rhythm.

      Do share any further thoughts.

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