GCSE A-Level

Music Set Works

Some exam boards will require students to study Set Works and this blog will focus on How to Study a Set Work. Obviously every teacher is different and will approach this in different ways. But also there are sometimes scenarios where students need to study at home or individually. This blog will provide one approach that you might wish to take.

If you are a student reading this then please always work with the methods given by your teacher! If you are a teacher, then hopefully this might be helpful!


Study should start with Listening, and lots of it. It is hard to do much else before we have listened to the music. The more we listen, then more we will know. But I think there could be three stages to this listening:

  1. Listen to the Set Work without any distraction, score or notes.
  2. Secondly, listen to the Set Work and note down what jumps out to you.
  3. Now get your anthology and listen and follow along.

It is helpful to build up your listening and not try and to do much at once. Once you have listened with the Anthology you are ready to start to investigate those things that jumped out to you.

What jumps out?

I think it is important to think about what jumps out at you when you listen to a piece of music. Jotting down some notes as you listen can be really helpful. Sometimes something familiar can jump out to you. Alternatively, there might be something you hear, but can’t explain. Both of these are useful to recognise in any studies as they highlight things you know and things you don’t know – obvious, but important.


By now we are aware of what the piece sounds like and we have followed the score, noting down any key features. Now we need to start to analyse the piece and the most important place to start is context. Here are some questions that can be used to begin the process of understanding the context behind a piece of music:

  • When was it composed & who composed it?
  • What era of musical history is most relevant?
  • Where was the piece composed?
  • What is the over-riding structure, genre or style?
  • Do any other pieces of music spring to mind?

It is important to start the study of any piece of music with context because that really sets the scene for all of the musical features. Read up on the style, era in musical history, composer details and any other key information.

5 W’s

This is an approach to studying a Set Work that you might find useful. It focuses on 5 W’s and there is an explanation below for each. There are various sheets that you can download to help you with this and you can also see it in action in more detail if you Click Here.

  1. Who – composed the music? What type of composer & musicians were they? What was there nationality, year of birth/death and place of work? What other key works did they compose and did they have a favourite style. What was going on when the piece was composed. This can be looked at from 3 angles – Historical, Social & Cultural context.
  2. What – This is where we go through the set work and look at what key features appear. this will include a wide range of key terms that need to be understood and remembered. 
  3. Why – In light of all the key terms & features in the music we need to consider why. Why did the composer do as they did or compose as they did? What features are typical of the period of time or the cultural setting. Add a why to every key point made.
  4. Wider – We need to ensure we have a good amount of Wider Listening examples that link to the GCSE Set work and help to explain the style, context, composer and piece itself.
  5. Weigh – We need to be able to compare and contrast the Set Work with another piece of music or “weigh-up” the differences and similarities.

The Anthology

Hopefully you will have a copy of the sheet music for your Set Works. All of this study of the music will involve you looking at the music itself. It is important that you are able to identify the key features in the score. This will help to bring these features to life as well as aiding in your overall understanding of musical notation. We want to be able to see the elements in notation or written form as this will also help us as composers. When we see things notated we start to understanding their nature and role within a piece of music. I get my students using Coloured pens to annotate their scores as I find colour brings the music to life.

If you are studying a piece of music and don’t have the sheet music, then you could try and find it on www.imslp.org


Having listened to the music we then started to consider what jumps out to us and then some of the context behind the piece. We then looked at 5 W’s to help us fully analyse the music we are listening to. The final set is to get the sheet music out and start to annotate the music.

This approach to Music Set Works will hopefully lead to a fuller understanding of the music. It is crucial that you are able to say exactly why the music sounds the way it sounds – using knowledge of key elements and context.

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