Each exam board's specifications (AQA, Edexcel and OCR) use "areas of study" to give a thread of continuity to the whole course, providing an integrated approach to teaching and learning. The areas for AQA include exploring musical language, change and development in a musical genre, style or tradition, music of the 20th and 21st centuries and the language and context of music.
Edexcel candidates choose two contrasting areas, of which at least one should be from the Western classical tradition, from keyboard music, music for large ensemble, music for small ensemble, music for film and TV, popular music and jazz, 20th and 21st century art music, sacred vocal music, secular vocal music and world music. OCR bases its specification on two broad areas: tonality and use of instrumental techniques.
Assessment Objectives and Performing All boards include an element of solo performing and the performance of a composition. AQA takes an integrated approach where study in Unit 1 provides the stimulus for a composition in Unit 2, which is then realised in Unit 3. Edexcel is the only board to assess performance during the course. OCR includes performance on a second instrument or in an ensemble. All boards emphasise the development of performing skills from AS to A2. AQA examines ensemble skills. Edexcel has an optional solo performance component plus the assessment of performing during the course. The OCR performance element at A2 is supplemented by a recorded performance comparison.
Composing Areas of Study 1 and 2 for AQA candidates provide the stimulus for at least one of the compositions. Edexcel sets out specific compositional techniques. A free composition element takes formal structures again related to the chosen area of study. OCR includes a set of six exercises in a variety of styles plus a composition task or arrangement. At A2, AQA students compose a piece informed by the investigation of two connected works, for example, Mozart's Requiem and Britten's War Requiem, leading to a choral setting of part of the requiem text. Edexcel candidates have an option to extend the compositional techniques acquired at AS nd to present two compositions plus a commissioned exercise. OCR candidates extend their understanding of vocal music (the only board to specify this genre) from historical and analytical studies to their own techniques for vocal composing.
Candidates also choose from a range of traditional stylistic techniques, with the addition of 20th-century musical theatre or incidental music to a given film storyboard. AQA does not include elements of traditional harmony and counterpoint.
Understanding AQA candidates study four set works and submit an extended essay. The dissertation element of the former Edexcel specification has been replaced by a written paper linking theoretical and practical aspects of chosen areas of study. OCR questions are related to the two areas of study and students answer questions on one of two extracts.
The two groups of set works for 2001 are the late 18th and early 19th-century orchestra and instrumental jazz of 1920. The contextual study for OCR comprises five short questions on the historical background and understanding of both sets of prescribed repertoire.
The focus at A2 is on further development of aural techniques and more detailed analysis. AQA candidates study music since 1900 from the Western classical tradition, world, jazz and popular music, and either Messiaen's Quator pour la fin du temps or Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8.
Edexcel candidates have a single work or extract from a "special focus" centred on music in the anthology.
The extension from AS to A2 is emphasised by the identification of set works within the period. OCR candidates study one prescribed historical topic linked to the areas of study. The OCR listening paper assesses candidates' ability to apply aural and analytical skills, knowledge and understanding through early 20th-century vocal music linking with the vocal composing element.
With the diverse nature of music and music-related courses on offer in further education, this holistic approach should give students a good grounding for further study.
The specifications defined overlap with other qualifications (such as BTEC national diploma course, GNVQ advanced diploma in performing arts, advanced GNVQ media), and this, with the option of students taking a subject to AS level only, should open up the subject to more students.
John Browne is director of music at Berkhamsted collegiate school, Hertfordshire