Essays at A-Level

Essays at A-Level seems to be a popular topic and hopefully you have read my recent blog on Forgetting the Set Works. I am working hard with my students on essay writing because it is clearly an area for development. I think most of us would agree that the goal posts aren’t really clear! And yet I believe there are some ways in to writing essays.

In this blog I am going to be looking at a method I have been working on with my students:


Essay Questions

If you are with Edexcel then you will know that Question 6 essays all follow the same format: How does “composer” “use” “elements” in their score. I think it is quite helpful that this format doesn’t change as it gives us a target to aim for. I have been thinking about this and in my last blog I stressed the importance of context and composer.


When you start your next Set Work, start with the Composer. Here are a few things I would include in that lesson:

  • Composer Context – When they were alive, what they were influenced by, what instruments they played, what they were known for?
  • Historical Context – What was going on at the time and how might this have impacted music?
  • Social Context – What were society looking for in music? How were society experiencing music?
  • Cultural – What changes in culture were happening at the time of composition?
  • Line of Argument – What angle do we need to look at when considering this composer? For example, if studying Psycho then we would be thinking about cinematic music. How is the music is being used to enhance what is happening on screen? Whereas, for the Bach set work, we are thinking about what makes this a great example of Baroque Sacred writing.


For this part of the essay students are required to pick musical features that are used by the composer. But they are not just picking & listing ideas, and such cataloguing of key terms is not useful. Students need to think about the composer and what THEY USED. What features most exemplify the style of the composer and the genre of the piece? For Psycho they might focus on the Hitchcock Chord for example. They need to think about what the composer used rather than simply what is used. Does that make sense? this essay is about a certain composer and a certain piece. It is not just a chance to write down as much as possible. Here is a short example of how a paragraph might look:

Bernard Hermann was tasked with composing a score to bring to life a 1960s Horror Movie in Black and White. This was his sixth collaboration with Hitchcock having previously worked on “Vertigo”. Hermann’s approach to Harmony is therefore all centred around subject matter and how he can best support the on-screen action. He tended to use harmony for its sound rather than its function. Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart are all seen to use Functional Harmony within a clear harmonic structure. Hermann however does not concern himself with a prevailing tonality. This can be seen in his use of Non-Functional Harmony and his use of chromaticism, dissonance and atonal triads. His avoidance of conventional & familiar triads creates suspense for the audience. Hermann adopts a range of harmonic techniques including the use of a Hitchcock Chord in the Prelude. This chord creates an immediately un-stabling sound. The Hitchcock sounds uneasy because it is a minor chord with a major 7th. This is hugely affective in creating unease and suspense.


This is a crucial part of any response – why did the composer use the chosen feature? Again, this is all framed around the composer and why they used it. Students need to link their answer back to the line of argument and the composer context. Simply giving a feature, even if it is linked to composer, then they are not giving a full answer. Saying the impact will help them to have a line of argument. For Berlioz they will be thinking about how the featured used contributes to the programatic nature of the music. For Portman they will be linking back to the impact the feature has on the on-screen drama. What impact does the use of Modality have in Vaughan Williams?

Who, What & Why

In conclusion I guess it all comes down to Who, What & Why. But it all starts with Who. If students can link every point they make back to the composer then they are on to a winner. If they then explain the impact then that kind of answer will serve them well in an exam. Understanding why Mozart approached melody differently to Debussy is crucial. They didn’t just happen to do things differently, there is a reason. Harmony, Melody, Texture & Instrumentation all changed as we move through the anthology. It might be good for students to map this out for all anthology pieces. Essays at A-Level aren’t easy, but hopefully this blog has helped with some ideas. You might like to read all about my Match of the Day approach to Essays.

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