Who should study GCSE Music?

I have seen a few discussions recently, and indeed over the years, about who should study GCSE Music. Options have possibly already been picked and now is the time where students might change their mind or be asked to make changes. Whether before or after the options process, it is good to consider who should study GCSE Music.


It is my firm belief that what we want is to make GCSE Music open to everyone. Before you instantly think that is not possible, lets just think of it as a target. Whilst we don’t work in a utopia, if we did then we might want to ensure that all our students can comfortably opt for music at the end of Key Stage 3. This is something that I like to say to my students in Year 9 – I want you to be in a position to take music GCSE in Year 10. Why not have that as a goal? Is it likely that you will get 200 students, no, but it is a nice dream to have.

But is it really that hard to believe? Is it in any way possible? I would certainly say that we want to strive towards this goal in our teaching. And the opposite of this is that we almost put students off the course and make out that it is unattainable for them.


So let’s look at some of the barriers that exist and also some of the barriers we put in the way. If we want more students to take GCSE Music then we need to consider any issues and look for ways to overcome them. I am a realist and I do understand that these barriers are real. Let’s have a look at them before I share some thoughts on how to overcome them.

  1. EBACC – Big big issue for music teachers and of course all other Bucket 3 subjects. If you haven’t looked at the ISM work on the EBACC then please do. It is something we need to consider and it is certainly having an effect on numbers. But we can help to change the narrative in our schools and start encouraging students to consider music.
  2. Performing – This is something that I think we can focus on too much. Yes students need to be able to perform, but to what standard will depend on who they are, what their target grades are and what their overall academic profile is. But it is a barrier we need to consider so that we can advise students as to the reality of the GCSE Course.
  3. Composition – For some students this word brings them out in a cold sweat simply because they don’t see themselves as a composer.
  4. Music Theory – Personally I don’t like the term Music Theory and it is a huge barrier. Students, but more often Parents/Guardians, get very worried about how much theory they need to know. It might be that some adults are thinking back to their school days when music was taught in a very different way.
  5. Budgets & Technology – One barrier for schools is access to technology and how to get good numbers taking GCSE Music. With potentially limited resources & budgets it can be tough to work out how we can get students through the course.
  6. Grade 4 Benchmark – This can be a barrier for students who don’t take grades or understand the grade system. We can easily change this narrative.
  7. Outcomes, Data & Targets – Teachers are often controlled by outcomes, data & targets. The sad reality is that we need to do what we can to get students to a certain level. Cherry picking the “best” students is therefore something that often happens in music departments.

Overcoming Barriers

I want to start by saying that I completely understand that every school, teacher, department and pupil is different. I think it is important to go into this process looking at your own school, department and students. Sometimes we can seek opinions on Facebook that are only helpful if put into the right context. I hope that some of the thoughts I share here will help you, but I do understand everyone is different. Sometimes we read online that a school has 100 students studying music and we start to worry that we aren’t doing a good enough job. Context is crucial and we must never compare ourselves with other schools as that is a dangerous game to play. You might have 10 studying music compared to none when you took on the job – this is a massive achievement.


If a student opts for GCSE and can’t play an instrument is this a problem? That is the essence of the debate on music and a benchmark that we often set. I completely agree that if a student can’t play an instrument then GCSE Music is going to present a challenge to them in the form of 30% performing coursework. But does it mean that we should put them off – absolutely not. Does it mean that we will have a challenge on our hands, well potentially yes. But that is the same of Maths, Physics, Biology and English teachers. Some students read a lot and well, some don’t – English teachers can’t stop them for taking English. So we can and should learn from this.

But James, Music is very different and they can’t do it is they don’t play.

I get that, but only in part. It all depends on who they are, why they are taking music and what their target grade is. The target grade is important even though we don’t like to be run by data.

Performing Scenarios

Let’s consider some scenarios in our quest to think about who should study GCSE Music:

  • Student A, with a target grade of 4 wants to take music. They don’t currently learn or really play much, but they have a piano at home and can play a few things. They really enjoy music and generally work hard.
  • Student B, with a target grade of 8 wants to take music. They currently play the clarinet a bit and have lessons once a week but they don’t really enjoy the instrument.

Student A might be the kind of student that worries us as music teachers. How can they possibly take music if they don’t already play. And yet their target is a 4 and over the two year course it is possible for them to learn to play something. Whilst it isn’t ideal, they only have to be able to play two pieces! And who’s to say that they aren’t an amazing composer & listener.

Student B already plays and might have even been in some concerts. They have a high target grade and yet don’t really love the instrument. At the start of the course they might look like they will be fine. But yet they don’t keep up the playing and getting a performance out of them is tough.

The thing is, just because they do or don’t play an instrument might not be the actual issue. It all comes down to what drives them and what their target is. A student with a lower target grade might end of pulling a great performance out of the bag. This will be be down to work hard. The student who already plays might actually go “off the boil” if we are not careful.

My point – we have to look at each student and assess what their needs are for the course. As long as they know what they have to do, it is our job to support them, inspire them and guide. Easier said than done, but it is possible. We can take that performance barrier away with careful planning and support. Remember that a Grade 2 piece might be enough for a student to get that Grade 4 at GCSE.

Music Theory

I don’t know about you, but I hate this term. Whilst I understand it, I feel that it creates this barrier that other subjects simply don’t have. I can’t see a student or adult asking a Geography or Business Studies teacher about the theory! And yet it seems to be something that students get worried about.

When I am asked about theory I explain that whilst it is helpful for students to be able to read music, it isn’t essential. And I have seen it happen over the years on countless occasions. Some students are amazing guitarists and read Tab fluently. But they get put off music GCSE because they can’t read traditional notation – this is madness surely!

Music Theory is the stuff we teach them on the course and we have to make sure that all students are challenged by this. Some do know more, but they can still build upon this knowledge and develop it within with compositions. It all comes down to the students and what they know and don’t know. But over the course there is plenty of time to cover the theory and teach them all they need to know. It is the same for other teachers and we need to not let music theory be a barrier.

One recommendation is the book – Step Up to GCSE Music. It is a great resource for students to use before they start the course.

Let’s break down the barrier that Music Theory is really tough and if you can’t read music you can’t take GCSE.

Outcomes, Data & Targets

This is a tough area that does affect us as teachers. We want to do our best, but we also know that it is about the student and not the data. When we are presented with students who we feel won’t achieve, it can be really disheartening. But we do have to try to see them as more than a number and consider what progress they can make. It might be tricky and present some issues, but it might also be entirely possible. Also, GCSE Music might be the thing that they need on their timetable to keep them enjoying school. I know this doesn’t help us with our targets, but it might help us with our sense of moral obligation to the students.

My tip for this is to just keep talking with SLT throughout the course. Make sure you are clear on who they are progressing. How much work they are doing and what they are getting for assessments? Keep records and keep track. Surprises in Year 11 are not helpful for anyone. And often I find that students can really turn things around with the right support.

Data is indeed used as a way of judging us, but there should always be a dialogue with your line manager. Performance Management is not perfect but the best thing is to make sure we have some context as well as lots of tracking information. I know some schools might have toxic scenarios where unfair processes are used – thank goodness I work in an understanding school. But on the whole, we can present justification for the grades students get and we can’t always work miracles. I have had scenarios where amazing musicians have simply gone down hill during the course. This can be for a number of reasons.

The Whole Student

Ultimately we need to consider the student in front of us, the whole student. We need to look at their potential, ability and targets. We need to consider what is best for them and how we are going to help them achieve this. If they are going to work hard then they will most likely get along just fine with GCSE. Not every student is going to reach Grade 8 and play a solo at the Albert Hall. But that student that is causing you concerns as to their suitability but just reach their target grade. They will be the student you then think about and talk about for years to come. I can think of so many examples that show me that anything is possible with hard work and dedication.


At times it can be difficult when working with other colleagues. Heads of Year might try and move students around in their options and this can be frustrating. The most important word here is Communication. Make sure that you chat with colleagues about the strengths and weaknesses of your students. Explain why a student might struggle, but also be open to accepting students. None of us want to work with a student who simply doesn’t want to do music. But sometimes that is unavoidable and we have to adapt. Aim to explain your reasons and don’t assume that they understand music.

Some view music as an easy option or something anyone can do. Whilst I have said that we want anyone to be able to do music, some students simply don’t engage with it. A simple question to ask a student is – “Are you prepared to stand up and perform something during the course”? Asking them this with the Head of Year or parents present can help to gauge their commitment to music. If they do end up taking the subject then at least you have been clear and transparent.

Perfect Situation

I am not sure a Perfect situation exists for us as educators – we all face challenges. We are not alone as music teachers and we must always remember this. The challenges we face can be overcome, but that is not always easy. There isn’t really a guide to who should study GCSE Music, so we have to write our own. Sometimes there are impossible situations and as we go through these we learn so much. I don’t have all the answers nor do I think that it is “as simple as that”. I would love to hear from you if you feel you have a question/scenario you would like advice on. You might disagree with me that every student should be able to take music, that is fine, and I would also love to chat.

Who Should Study GCSE Music

I guess I like to try and be positive and steer my students towards GCSE Music. Once I get them in front of me in Year 10 I can then start to really mould them. Some are easier than others, but if they have a love for music I think that is a good starting point. And even when there is that student who ends up in your class and really isn’t suited to it, well, take on the challenge. Our greatest achievements can come out of our greatest challenges. And I know we don’t all get a kick out of a challenge, but I bet the student will appreciate your efforts!

All the best as you start to look ahead to next year and beyond. Teaching Music is the best job in the world – but it isn’t always the easiest!

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  1. I absolutely agree with everything you say!

    Music Theory is a nonsense unless it helps develop musical understanding and access. We teach notation to help students access the world of music – this could be staff notation, guitar and drum tab.

    We need to teach students from Y7 (if not earlier) how to sing from sight – using conjuct melodies starting with a range of a 5th, moving to disjunct. Before extending the range. Do that and GCSE music is by no means outside their ability.

    And EVERYONE can sing! So teach the whole class a song and record them individually – thats such a simple trick, that people seem to miss…..

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