Question 9

This week we have had news that for Edexcel GCSE Music Question 9 will focus on Defying Gravity. I welcome this helpful document and if you haven’t seen it yet then here is a link so you can read for yourself. Effectively we can now help our students to prepare for this question, and I am thrilled about this!

Question 9

This is the final question on the GCSE Music paper and it is the one where students have to compare and contrast with another piece of music. I really enjoy teaching this question and I have a number of blogs on here for other set works – Bach, Beethoven & Queen.

So how can we use this pre-release information to help our students to prepare for the exam in the summer. Question 9 carries 12 marks and so we have a real chance to help to prepare them for this and I have already started to get Year 11 ready. I wonder if I should reveal all or just keep my ideas to myself – of course I will share them with all of you!

Defying Gravity

Defying Gravity is a fantastic song from the 2003 musical Wicked! It is a great example of a large scale musical theatre song and contains a number of key features of the genre:

  • Large scale orchestra – Strings, 4 reeds, 6 brass, 2 electric guitars/harp, drum kit, additional percussion and 3 keyboards.
  • Belt range for the lead singer – the show was basically written for Idina Menzel who played the role on Broadway and appears on the recording
  • The song is basically one long crescendo, full of drama, atmosphere and climax. There is a constant sense of momentum.
  • Use of recitative style as well as colla voce
  • Mainly Syllabic word setting
  • Changes in texture, key, tonality and tempo.
  • Use of leitmotif – “unlimited” theme
  • Use of solo voice, duet and chorus
  • The song is a finale to Act 1 (I will come on to this in a moment)
  • Use of vocalisation – aah at the end of bar 175

I am sure there are more musical theatre features, but that is a good list to be starting with. The key thing is that in Question 9 students will need to seek out these features in an unfamiliar piece. They might find some of them, but also the unfamiliar piece may contain others features not mentioned above. The more students can listen to musical theatre, the better. You never know, the song they listen to before the exam might be the unfamiliar listening.

Wider Listening

Wider Listening is crucial for GCSE & A-level and for this exam they should be really focussing on musical theatre. Listening to the whole of Wicked would be a good start! But students should also listen to other musicals and maybe watch some on TV. There are so many musicals available on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. The more they get acquainted with the style the better.

What they should do though, and students hopefully you are reading, is look out for other features that are not in Defying Gravity. For example, the orchestration might be very different in the unfamiliar piece. Musical theatre has a rich and long history and it might be that the other extract doesn’t have electric guitars and a singer with a belt style voice. Spotting the different styles is important and voice types can change.

  • Belt – full voice, very prominent in Defying Gravity. Brassy and climatic!
  • Legit – more traditional style of singing – classical voice training. Think Julie Andrews and you are in the right style.
  • Contemporary Style – more linked to pop, rock, hip-hop and r&b. This is the kind of voice that relies on vocal distortion, growls, breathy tone and vowel changes.

There are of course other styles, but there are three to be getting on with. Wider Listening is easier than every and I would encourage students (and teachers) to listen to lots of musical theatre.

End of Act 1

For me, this is crucial. Defying Gravity is not only a great musical theatre song, but it is a great end of Act 1 song. It has that sense of climax and makes you want to come back after the interval. It is loud, has a constant build and obviously on stage it is a massive theatrical ending. And it also gives us a clear angle to look at other songs from the end of Act 1 – they aren’t all as climatic as this. So here is a my list, and this will really help you with your teaching & wider listening! This list could very well contain the unfamiliar piece that will be used in the summer – who never know!

Hopefully that list is helpful and you can click not the links for the Youtube videos!

The Question

The question in the exam is highly likely to focus on the musical theatre style, but could also look at contrasting moods. It is wise to prepare for different angles and make sure that all bases are covered. It might be that they attach specific elements to the question, but it will definitely involve them giving context and setting the scene. I think it would be good to practice different styles of question, all giving a chance to compare and contrast. We can practice lots, prepare answers and “go in” to the exam having a good idea of what to do.

I would say students are aiming for about 350 words and they must refer to both extracts. They need to show knowledge of the set work context and the overall genre. Mentioning that Defying Gravity is “modern” and comes at the end of act 1 is important. It might be that the unfamiliar extract sounds a bit like an end of act 1 song and there is nothing wrong with suggesting that. Look for clues that might give that away.

Example Questions

Before you ask, I don’t have a mark scheme, yet. Keep in touch and I am sure I will have some soon. But here are some questions that you might like to try:

  1. Defying Gravtiy is a high energy song from Wicked, a climax to Act 1. All I ask of you is a love song duet also from the end of Act 1. Evaluate how effectively Schwartz and Lloyd Webber write in the musical theatre style.
  2. Defying Gravity comes at the end of Act 1 of Wicked and is a climatic end to the act. I’d Give my life for you from Miss Saigon is also at the end of Act 1. Evaluate how Schwartz and Schoenberg create a sense of climax.

I am sure you can come up with similar 12 mark questions and you can easily look out for the key features. The thing to spot is a sense that students understand the genre and use a compare & contrast approach. The example student responses on the Edexcel website are really useful if you haven’t seen them.

We don’t know what the focus will be, or the unfamiliar piece. But we can prepare and do all we can. Listening is key and questions in timed conditions in the lead up to the exam will help no end.

Enjoy preparing for the exam! And please see my Defying Gravity blog for more information.


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