Making the Right Choice

It is that time of year again, options season. Up and down the country students, parents & guardians will be working with schools to choose options. It can be a difficult time and it is important to get it right. Making the right choice is going to be a number one priority and I hope that this blog helps when it comes to GCSE Music.

Usually I blog for music teachers, but I am aiming this blog at all the adults & students who are looking at making the right choice. hopefully if I share this widely enough, parents will be able to use it to support the process. here are some of the things I will be covering in this blog:

  • Is Music GCSE the right pathway?
  • Are you suitable, eligible and right for the course?
  • What are some of the potential issues you might face?
  • What are some of the myths around GCSE Music?
  • What should you actually consider compared to what some might think or say?

What does your school say?

I am a music teacher, and I have the utmost respect for my colleagues up and down the country. It is important therefore that your first port of call is the music teacher in your school. They will have criteria, parameters and processes that you will need to follow. Every school is different and will have different requirements for GCSE. I would suggest that you make sure you speak to the school first. But it is sometimes nice to hear things from other people, and I know as a parent myself, that I always listen to a wide range of ideas and opinions when making decisions with/for my own children.

Why GCSE Music?

GCSE Music is a wonderful course to study at Key Stage 4. It has the variety of performing, composting and appraising, as well as the chance to be creativity during the week. Students get to explore the process behind writing their own music. They get to express themselves through group and solo performance. During the week they will listen to a wide variety of music, analysing it as they go. It is a coursework GCSE, but also has written elements that keep it relevant and academically stimulating.

I guess a simple answer I give to parents is that GCSE music is a natural progression after 9 years of schooling that will have included a great deal of music. A good key stage 3 curriculum should lead to GCSE Music. Studying music will be something that might seem more of an obvious choice for an instrumental player, but it should be an option for all students. I can’t say WHO should study music as such, because that is down to individuals and schools. But it is my firm believe that music GCSE is probably open to more students than you might think.

What is a GCSE Music student?

A GCSE Music student is a student who wants to study music. The options they choose are their choice and parents can help guide young people in this decision making process. Students who study GCSE music will enjoy composing and creating music, whether using technology or an instrument – or both. GCSE music students will have a keen interest in music, listening to it regularly as part of daily life. Those studying GCSE music will play, or start learning to play an instrument. Of course they may also be a singer and this is a great performing pathway for so many.

But often parents worry that they don’t have a musical child because they are not grade 3, 5, 8 etc. A music GCSE student will need to perform something, but this could be simpler than you expect. As a parent it is important to get the facts about “how good” your child is at music, and this mustn’t come from comparison. There are also pathways whereby they can perform using technology.

What are some truths?

There are certain facts and truths that both students and adults need to be aware of:

  1. You will have to perform something, and this is most likely on an instrument or your voice.
  2. During the course you will have to create/compose music.
  3. Listening to music and enjoying that process is crucial.
  4. Reading music or tab notation will be helpful. But it isn’t completely make or break.
  5. Students will be rehired to write about music and complete a listening & appraising exam.
  6. Having a basic knowledge of music, that should have come from Key Stage 3, will help students.
  7. If you already play/sing then that will obviously help.
  8. It is possible to learn an instrument in year 10 and succeed in GCSE music. But practice is needed!
  9. Not every student will get a grade 9, and for some a grade 4 is all they need.
  10. The course won’t be easy, could be hard and might have challenges – it is a GCSE after all.
  11. Not every aspect of any GCSE will come naturally to every student.
  12. Theory is a word that gets in the way – musical knowledge can be taught and understood from any starting point.

Every Student?

I am keen to not upset any music teachers out there, but I believe that music GCSE is for every student. The reason I believe this is because every student has the potential to achieve with hard work. It is also true to say that not every student is going to be aiming for the top marks, because students are all different. Therefore if a student wants to take music and is target grade 3 or 4, then they should absolute have that option.

But all schools are different and may have entry requirement based on numbers, resources and budgets.

There is a myth that I want to bust. Music GCSE is often seen as a subject reserved for a small group of students who are “musicians”. This is just not true or helpful. We don’t think the same about history and “historians”. Music can be for all, and I would urge you to enquire and investigate as you go about making the right choice.


Theory, as mention above, is a word that can get in the way. Parents, I am sure you are worried about this thing called “music theory” and may have asked the music teacher about it. But did you do the same in Geography? I doubt you did, and so please don’t panic in music. We teach musical understanding and students can and will acquire the theoretical knowledge that they need during the course. Yes of course it helps if students can read music and have taken a theory exam – but it isn’t essential. Reading music is great, but it isn’t the be all and end all, and it shouldn’t stop students exploring the option of GCSE music.

Grade 4 vs. Grade 9

And so I return to this idea of target grades and what students can, might, should or will achieve. Not all students are grade 9 – the old A* for those born last century! Some students are C grade, will pass, grade 4. For these students, they won’t need to play a piano concerto at the Albert hall, be able to read fluently and write music that might be performed at the proms. A grade 4 student will need to play a piece on a instrument of around grade 2/3 standard. They won’t get everything right in the exam, but they can still take GCSE music. This might come across as putting a dampener on things, but it is just the reality.

But some students will be aiming for the top grades, and therefore it is important that they are aware of what the GCSE will entail. If a student is aiming for all 9s, then it will definitely be important that they can play/sing to a high standard. I hope that this is making sense to you as a parent. I guess in essence, the context of your child is important, and this can be discussed with the music teacher in your school. They might say no, and they might have a reason. But you may want to chat to them about this.

Making the right choice

When making the right choice it is important that adults, students and schools work together. But it is also important that the student studies the subjects they enjoy, can thrive in and fundamentally want to study. There might be some barriers, hurdles and bumps int he road, but these can all be discussed before year 10. My mission is to ensure that parents of my students don’t write off music because their son is not a concert pianist or a regular at the local concert hall. I want to give students the facts, and then work with the adults to cover all the basses.

Marking the right choice means looks at the whole student, their ability, attitude and current outcomes. It will take into account target grades, musical ability and in some ways talent. But I believe that students can also learn, develop and progress when they choose to study music. I have taught students before who have target grade 4. They have picked up an instrument in year 10, learnt to play some pieces and gone on to achieve their target. Sometimes we think of a GCSE music student as only being a performer, but some students are keen and able composers – and for most courses performing and composing have equal weighting.

So please, don’t rule out music GCSE. Explore it as an option, talk to music teachers and get as much advice as possible. I think music GCSE should be open to all students, but I am also aware that every child is different. The process is important and the outcome should be a set of Key Stage 4 pathways that work for the student. It might be that the school offer a vocational route, and that is worth exploring.

I hope that this blog has helped and given food for thought. I wish you all the best as you explore the options available to your kids!

Leave a Reply