A-Level CPD

Forget the Set Works

I have gone for an attention grabbing title here, but I really do think that we need to Forget the Set Works. When we are working on essay writing with our students they need to make sure that they don’t get bogged down in the set work details before considering the context.

Obviously you can’t Forget the Set Works completely, but you can shift the focus and start with the context

So, join me on a journey that will help you to Forget the Set Works! If you aren’t with Edexcel for A-Level then you still might like to join us on this journey, I think it is relevant to all boards in some way. However, I will be looking at Question 6 of the Edexcel A-Level in this blog.

And if you are still wondering what I am going on about then please do read on, and hopefully all will be revealed.

Question 6

Lets look at an example of a typical Edexcel A-Level Question 6:

“How does John Cage use Rhythm, Stucture & Instrumentation in his Three Dances for Prepared Piano”

I want you to read this question a couple of times and really think about what it is asking our students to do. Look carefully at the wording – read the question like we ask our students to do in the exam.

Hopefully like me you will have noticed that before anything else in this exam, immediately after the fist two words we get JOHN CAGE. We don’t get Rhythm, Structure & Instrumentation until “later”, firstly we encounter JOHN CAGE.

I believe the reason we need to Forget the Set Works is because we need to focus much more on the composer & context. Question 6 is not asking students to give an overview of the elements that are packed into the piece. The question is also not asking for a roadmap of the piece, a series of statements about what happens. It is not asking students to merely catalogue events from beginning to end.

Question 6 is asking students to talk about John Cage and what he chooses to do in this piece. The examiner wants to read about him, when he was alive, what kind of music he wrote, who he was influenced by and what was going on at the time. Everything students write about is in light of the fact that the piece was composed by a certain composer at a certain time.

Historical, Social & Cultural

So how do we help our students to approach Question 6?

Forgive me for the title, but I do think that initially we do need to forge the set work and focus on the context. We need to consider the historical, social and cultural context of the piece. We need students to understand John Cage if they are then going comment on how HE uses the elements.

So start with the history – what year was the piece composed in and what was going on at the time? What was happening in music? What had changed and why? Get your students thinking about the actual period of time. Just like considering the Baroque Period for the Bach Set Work, get them to look at the 1940s and exactly what state music was in.

Then move on to the Social setting of the piece. What were people listening to? What was going on in society. The answers to this might need some research, but that is a good process for our students to go through.

And finally they need to consider the cultural context. This piece was composed for a specific reason linked to Ballet, choreography and a need for some percussion alongside the traditional “rehearsal” piano.

Wider Listening

The Edexcel mark scheme talks about “Embedding” Wider Listening in the answer. So this is where it comes in. What have the students listened to that helps them in their understanding of John Cage? Have they listened to the other Prepared Piano movements for example? What about other music from the 1940s? But also how can they weave in other set works?Bach, for example, has a fairly clear and rigid structure and so does Cage. Admittedly his is less “conventional” but there is still a structural link between these two set works.

Students could find the following Wider Listening examples as a starting point:

  • Same Year
  • Another work by the Composer
  • Similar genre/style/period

Embedding Wider Listening will then come at the start of the essay when students are giving their overview of John Cage and his music, his style and his approach to composition. This essay is not about the elements of music.

Now back to the Set Work

Now that students have considered the context, style, genre and wider listening they can return to the set work and look at how Rhythm, Structure & instrumentation are used by JOHN CAGE. They are not just listing features, they are going through the elements in light of all they have learnt and stated about JOHN CAGE.

An Example Paragraph

“John Cage was an Experimental, Avant Garde composer who had possibly sprung to fame with his 4’33”. Such an attention grabbing composition revealed to audiences that Cage wanted to take music in a new direction. It is therefore no surprise to us that Cage took a slightly unconventional approach to Instrumentation. But it was more than a pursuit of the unconventional, Cage wanted to solve a problem when he prepared his piano by providing some sense of percussion for the ballet.

It is a Dance after all and combined with his clear sense of structure, this piece was used to support a modern dance with choreography by Merce Cunningham.” His use of bolts, rubber, weather strips, nail and screws to “prepare” the piano helped him take a traditional and well known instrument and turn it into a experiment with timbre. Cage was detailed in his approach and the sounds he made allowed him to move away from conventional melody and truly explore rhythm, metre and structure. And yet he didn’t always take this approach to piano writing as seen in his piece “In a Landscape”. He knew how the piano could be used and that possibly helped him all the more in his unconventional & experimental use of a prepared piano.”

The above is far from perfect and I am sure there is a lot more I could put in. But what I am trying to emphasise here is that it is all about the context. There is no point students just listing reams of features if they are not linking back to Wider Listening and context. I need more Wider Listening above of course, but I hope you are getting the idea.


Alongside my students we have concluded that we need to start to focus on the context and then look at how the composer “uses” the elements. How did Cage use melody in a different way to Portman? How did his approach to harmony differ from Berlios – and why? When students start to consider this they will gain a real insight into how music has changed. If they are going to understand how Cage takes music in a new direction then they need understand what direction it had travelled in the lead up to 1945.

Has this blog has got you thinking? Read the questions, they clearly put the composer first, not the set work. So maybe we do need to Forget the Set Works and start thinking more about music and its glorious history. And then you can go back to the set works with students really knowing what was happening & why.

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  1. Sounds like a very broad minded approach educating children about culture and history rather than only musical techniques. Do you use the same approach for GCSE as well?

    1. To some extent yes. The demands are less at gcse but we do cover as much as we can! The more they listen the better!

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