A-Level Revision

The Unfamiliar Listening Question

The Unfamiliar Listening Question 5 in the A-Level exam will be based on a piece of Unfamiliar music and it is worth 20 marks. It is something students will have to prepare for in a slightly different way to Question 6. I will just add that I am talking about the Edexcel A-Level Specification, but there might be some hopeful points here for any board. THe Unfamiliar Listening Question is not something we need to be afraid of!

What Can I Hear?

Think to yourself – What can I realistically hear when I don’t have a score in front of me? What are the more obvious things that can quickly jump out at me? This is something that you can start to think about in your revision. Listen to any piece and think about the music. The more you listen, and the more you think about what exactly you are listening to, the better. You never know, a piece might come up that you have already listened to – that would be a stroke of luck. But chances are you won’t know it and so you need to think fast and make clinical decisions about what you are listening to.

Hearing the Elements

Some things are more obvious than others, but not necessarily less relevant. And we are all different, so some people may notice something that others don’t.

  • Instrumentation & any obvious techniques.
  • Texture – Can we quickly and easily describe the various layers that are present in the extract.
  • Tonality – You should be able to quickly ascertain what the tonality is and therefore state that in your answer.
  • Time Signature, Tempo, Dynamics – These are all fairly obvious, but should be mentioned and then described and linked to the question.
  • Potentially the use of music technology.

Musical Features

There are other features that may take a little more thought and reflection as they are less obvious, but very important to consider:

  • Guess the period – or you might know the period due to a key feature.
  • Guess the composer – You have got nothing to lose by naming a composer, even if you are not sure. You should only do this if you have a rough idea and you are aware that the composer was alive during the period.
  • Naming specific chords or chord progressions
  • Naming a musical device such as an appoggiatura.
  • Dissonance or extended chords.
  • Some layers will be more difficult to name or describe – you may not for example instantly spot an Alberti bass.

Approaching The Unfamiliar Listening Question

You will be told which Area of Study the piece is linked to and given a brief explanation of the piece. You won’t be told the title or composer and you won’t have a score. What you need to quickly do is start to compare it to music that you know or a piece from the anthology. This will help you to think about the context and potential lines of argument. You may think of a composer that you think could have composed the piece.

You then need to clearly look at the question and see what it is asking you to do. It is likely to ask you something specific but give you scope to talk about a range of musical elements. It might suggest how the music represents something or how it portrays some specific lyrics. The question could ask about features of the music that place it in a specific time period. You can prepare for this by really knowing your music history. The question is fundamentally about unpacking and unpicking the composers intentions behind the music. What did the composer want to achieve and what sound were they going for?

What should be included?

You need to aim to discuss as many of the elements of music as possible:

  • Harmony & Tonality
  • Texture & Melody
  • Instrumentation – listen out for specific instruments that may point to a period in history or may be obviously representing something specific. Also consider the instrumental grouping and if that points to a specific period or genre. A chamber group for example or a Concerto Grosso. The harpsichord might be used if it is a baroque piece or if it is aiming to make you think of that period of time.
  • Rhythm – don’t forget that this means the value of the notes and anything that affects this horizontal organisation of note values. But make sure you can link it back to the question. Mention tempo and metre when you discuss rhythm, but it is the nature of the rhythm that is most likely to answer the question.
  • Dynamics, Tempo, Time – state the obvious/key features
  • Structure potentially, although it might be hard to define it with only 2 minutes of listening. You can comment on phrasing and the structure of the melody or suggest what you think it might be based on the period.

Initially think about how the music makes you feel and then you can start to attach adjectives to some of the key musical features e.g. – Arresting horns, Brittle Xylophone, melancholic melody on the flute etc.

Linking the Elements

What you are doing is linking musical elements to the question. So if they question asked you to suggest how the piece is a good example of 19th century music, you would need to select elements that typify that 19th century style.

There is no point discussing something that isn’t backing up or addressing the question. If the question asks how the music is presenting something in a film then you pick the best and most obvious musical features. For example, the time signature might be 4/4 but it is only relevant if that is helping you answer the question. The use of modality in a piece of music might be more beneficial to discuss if the music is from a film that is representing the past – like The Duchess. So just make sure you pick a musical feature of the music that address and links to the question.

It might be a good idea to add a conclusion at the end because it is a good writing approach and helps you to round things off.

Wider Listening

The best place to start is with something from the Anthology. The Unfamiliar question will link to one of the Areas of Study from the Anthology. Once you have a piece that you think sounds like the unfamiliar piece, you will open the door for all the Wider Listening you have covered. But start with the anthology as it will tell you in the question which Area of Study the piece links to.


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