Assessing composition

After reading a forum post on what a music teacher considered the variability with regards to the marking of composition coursework, I wondered what made the assessment of this component a challenge. We often consider ‘art’ as something difficult to assess – it’s subjective, how can we make judgements and apply one marking criteria to a range of work that is incredibly diverse and different? Having studied composition for so many years in tertiary education I can see there is indeed several components that are objective; we can perceive particular components that can be found in virtually all compositions. I will try and draw attention to some of these as a way of helping other teachers prepare their candidates for this part of GCSE and GCE courses. Of course, not all candidates’ work will subsequently fall in the top band of the mark scheme, but if we are to help all student composers progress we should endeavour to help all of them develop to the next level.

I have been applying examination marking schemes for several years now in my teaching and they remain illusive in their meaning. Looking at the top band for Edexcel AS Music – the holistic criteria – a composition that falls in this category will be “impressive and imaginative in style, ideas and development. Complete (or almost complete) control of compositional methods and techniques
used. Sense of musical wholeness with no passage sub-standard.” What this tells us is first that the composition will be in a “style” and there will be ideas that are “developed”; how ideas are developed isn’t stated but it is expected that the development that occurs is “impressive and imaginative”. Exploring how Beethoven develops material from the exposition – in the first movement of a sonata – in the ensuing development section is revealing of what “imaginative” development looks like. It is transforming material, playing with its intervallic components, exploiting rhythmic features through subtle variation; above all it is avoiding repetition. An “almost complete control of compositional methods and techniques” suggests that these will exist in a piece; drones, pedal notes, sequences, augmentation, diminution, canon, variety of textures, and serialism are all devices and techniques that can be applied by a composer. It is worth asking a pupil to see what techniques they have used in their piece. It is not about “ticking a box” but it should be seen as educative; we teach our pupils compositional approaches and we want them to be confident in their application by using them in coursework. Finally “a sense of musical wholeness” surely refers to the structure of a piece. There needs to be a fitting close, an appropriate start and a clear structure. There does not need to be a conventional form such as binary or rondo but the structure should be apparent. All music is structured – even the seemingly complex sounds of Boulez are ordered – and we need to encourage our pupils to plan compositions like they might plan a painting or an essay.

Edexcel marking criteria has further more specific criterion; three compulsory and then optional ones. By considering carefully what each of the statements mean one can feel increasingly confident with their application. I always start at the top – ensuring I know what they consider to be an “outstanding” composition. It is of course a difficult issue to try and define an outstanding composition but it is necessary for the exam system to work so we must endure it, however contentious the definition may be.

A good composition will compel a listener to keep listening. It will exploit the the chosen forces idiomatically, and be notated with precision and concern for not only accuracy in terms of pitch and rhythm but in dynamic and articulation detail. There will be a sense of wholeness created through careful pacing and design; form will be apparent to the listener and defined perhaps through key, texture, rhythm or melodic features. A consistent sense of style will be created through a varied harmonic palette and material presented will be subject to more than repetition. These are characteristics of good compositions regardless whether they are for coursework. If we strive for our pupils to write effective pieces, they will reach higher up on the marking criteria as a matter of course. Writing works where they feel a sense of ownership and pride should outweigh any marking issues but hopefully they will perform better if given clear guidance of what makes an effective piece early on in the writing process.

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