A level music technology – no more tinkering, it’s time for an overhaul!

Boston College A-level students revising Following some recent discussions at the Music Education Council [MEC] Summer seminars in Leeds, I thought I would share some reflections.

They are to do with the proposed changes to teaching music technology at A level… Many students and teachers would agree with me that the present syllabus is uninspiring. The proposed revisions are possibly an improvement, but there is still an awful lot of talk about technology and not that much about music.

And, once again, Ofqual show that their priority concerns assessment, as opposed to content and musical activity. Their priority has always been that the specification:

can secure valid assessment, including reliability and manageability

So they are now proposing that 60% of the marks should now be assessed through examination –  a huge increase. In other words it is more about what you know about music technology, rather than what you can do with it!

This all makes for dispiriting reading. So I compared this with another practical arts subject, in which technology can play a significant part – Art & Design. It was like stepping into a parallel universe. How much more fortunate are art students who work with a specification that includes:

  • Students are required to participate actively in their course of study, recognising and developing their own strengths in the subject and identifying and sustaining their own lines of enquiry.

They are encouraged to develop practical and theoretical knowledge and understanding of:

  • relevant processes, technologies and resources
  • how ideas, feelings and meanings can be conveyed and interpreted
  • how arts relates to the time and place in which they were made and to their social and cultural contexts
  • continuity and change in different genres, styles and traditions
  • a working vocabulary and specialist terminology.

They analyse, discuss and evaluate; and make and record independent judgements. They use knowledge and understanding of the work of others to develop and extend thinking and inform own work Students can work entirely in digital media or entirely in non-digital media, or in a mixture of both.  If we had a framework for music technology couched in these terms, I could get excited.

Somewhere in the consultation it says that this new music technology specification will prepare students for further study in colleges and universities. Is this really the case? Not so, according to Ambrose Field from the University of York:

‘… it is proposed that by making music technology more culturally relevant, avoiding dry technical skill teaching, and by demonstrating the musical achievements of young people currently working with technology, we can begin to rethink this subject area as a discipline in its own right.’  

(Field, A. in Music Education with Digital Technology (eds) John Finney and Pamela Burnard, Continuum, 2010)

So, yes it needs an overhaul. Music students should be given similar opportunities to art students in the ways in which they work with technologies. And a new specification should refer to things such as mobile technologies, use of technology in live performance, Ableton and Max/MSP, Raspberry Pi, Gaming music, Warp Records, Radiohead, Aphex Twin and Paraorchestras and much, much more.

The consultation group should have included a much broader range of perspectives which, in turn, might have led to a more fundamental starting position. It should have included organisations such as Sound and Music and Drake Music. It should have included leading practitioners and teachers such as Phil Heeley, Tim Hallas, John Kelleher, Evangelos Himonides, Ambrose Field, Pam Burnard and others.

Music technology students are locked into working in a framework which is hopelessly out of kilter with the musical world in which they live their lives. Given how important music and technology are to so many young people you would have thought this should be one of THE most popular subjects to study. Instead, young people will continue to vote with their feet and the numbers taking it will remain pitifully small. Our students deserve better than this.

Further reading

These DfE/Ofqual documents are deeply hidden in respective websites. To save you the agony of fruitless web searches, I supply some links here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/444779/A_level_music_technology.pdf https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/447178/2015-07-16-developing-new-gcses-as-and-a-levels-for-first-teaching-in-2017-part-1.pdf https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445656/Reformed_GCSE_and_A_level_subject_content_consultation.pdf

These consultations invite you to tinker. Nothing more. There is no opportunity to radically overhaul the subject.

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Posted in Curriculum, Technology
4 comments on “A level music technology – no more tinkering, it’s time for an overhaul!
  1. Hello David,
    I agree about the consultation group + overhaul, but found your article to be a little confused at times…I felt that your criticisms were sometimes not targetted at what I believe are the key areas in need of improvement.

    A quick reply to a few of your words – I’m not trying to ‘have a go’ at your ideas; just trying to help move the situation forward as positively as possible! I do appreciate your expertise and the important role you play in many linked areas.

    1) “Many students and teachers would agree with me that the present syllabus is uninspiring.”

    That simply is not the experience that I have had over last 12+ years of teaching the subject – far from it in fact. As someone who has a good track record in teaching KS5 MT, I have led other schools in South Birmingham for a number of years and the word ‘uninspiring’ has never arisen. The biggest issue I have found with many teachers is their lack of specialist knowledge on the ‘technology’ side of the subject – many of them are music specialists who are tinkering dangerously with a subject that is significantly outside of their main sphere of expertise…not a good idea at KS5!

    2) “but there is still an awful lot of talk about technology and not that much about music.”

    This is a discrete subject to Music, with a separate set of skills, concepts and principles – there should be an awful lot of talk about technology! I fully understand that musical elements should play a significant part in the assessment of the course and I believe that they they do, with the balance being about right:

    AS level:
    Task 1a – To successfully sequence this to the highest standard, knowledge and understanding of various elements of music are central – articulation and phrasing is probably top of the list.

    Task 1c – To arrange any piece of music into a new style with development of such features as structure, harmony, melody, rhythm etc…this is a very musically intense task, by any standards.

    Exam – knowledge and understanding of various musical elements of the listening pieces are tested every year – a significant minority of the questions…just about right for me.

    Similar comments could be made regarding the A2 course.

    3) “How much more fortunate are art students”

    That’s not the feedback that I’ve had from art teachers over the years…They seem to appreciate certain aspects of their syllabus, but have regularly used words such as ‘woolly, vague, non-specific, hard to pin down what’s wanted’.

    You list 5 bullet point examples from A&D that you would want to see in MT; I’ve spoken to a couple of colleagues…we feel that they are all already in there – at least to some extent for each and every bullet point. Not perfect, but better than you suggest.

    4) “a new specification should refer to things such as mobile technologies, use of technology in live performance, Ableton and Max/MSP, Raspberry Pi, Gaming music, Warp Records, Radiohead, Aphex Twin and Paraorchestras and much, much more.”

    The present syllabus has areas, particularly in the A2 syllabus, that can, (and should), refer to present and future developments such as mobile tech – I certainly covered that with my Yr 13s last year.

    Ableton and Max / PsP – ditto my above comment + I’ll come back to this as I sum up.

    Rasperry Pi – not a specific link to MT there, but worth a passing look as part of the A2 year – on my list!

    If a present teacher is not referring to gaming music at least in a small way, then they are missing out something that could appear as part of Q.4 on the exam – the essay question.

    Warp Records and Aphex Twin – covered in the present AS syllabus – particularly when the Special focus style revolved around various Club Dance styles.

    Ditto Radiohead in a number of ways!

    Paraorchestra – point taken…on my list.

    To sum up my point of view:

    The syllabus does need a shake up – agreed, but I don’t think it should go down the road ‘chasing’ every new technology that might appear…

    a) Impossible – changes so quickly
    b) Teachers who aren’t experts’ won’t be able to keep up
    c) Huge pressure on equipment in schools

    The focus should be on CORE SKILLS, CONCEPTS and PRINCIPLES. I speak to universities all the time as every year I send several students off around the country to continue studying the subject. In my experience, lecturers don’t care strongly at all about what software has been used / experienced; they want students who can:

    a) Talk about processes and concepts using music and music tech terminology
    b) Demonstrate their skills in technical and creative situations
    c) Are at least reasonably literate
    d) Have a good level of musical skill in performing and / or composing

    They don’t care whether they’ve used Sonar / Cubase / Logic / Ableton / Reason et al. they just want enthusiastic students who have all the basic, general ideas strongly in place.

    Perhaps the two biggest areas of concern for me regarding the KS5 course are:

    1) The quality of the teaching and learning – my experience suggests that it is patchy and inconsistent, with too many ‘music’ teachers attempting something that they think will be not much different from music and then constantly playing catch up! There are also many issues with inadequate equipment + of course teachers who don’t have the time to learn how to use it to the correct level of detail.

    2) The people running the Edexcel MT department – frankly they verge on incompetent at times. The quality of the assessment is pretty random at times; their knowledge is shaky at times – I had to correct the Head of Dept during an online training session when he got key points regarding his own course wrong. I could go on for hours here, with huge amounts of paper evidence to back it all up…let’s just say that the MONO CD for last year’s AS exam was a new nadir! How do you accidentally create a mono CD in 2014? How do you manage to NOT notice that it’s in mono?

    I’m unusual in that I have a background in both Music and Music Tech + I work in the industry outside my part-time teaching role. There are actually surprisingly few specialist Music Tech teachers at KS5 level – a concern, I think. This year my students, have all had experience of various software – LOGIC, SONAR, CUBASE, REASON, ABLETON, REAKTOR, KONTAKT and MAX / PsP…

    But! I’ve use all these in my job as a composer and sound designer andI know them inside out, (OK, except for MAX, which I only dabble in so far). That’s too much to expect from most teachers running such courses, so there can’t be too much emphasis on specific technology…it just won’t work without extra training of a very intense kind!

    Apologies – I got on a roll!



  2. davidashworth says:

    Hi Mark

    Many thanks for your detailed and considered reply! Given that you are an experienced practitioner who is actually delivering this course, I find what you have to say particularly helpful and, of course, I agree with much of what you are saying.

    It is important that skilled and experienced teachers deliver this course and, as you are showing, there are ways of navigating through this course which can be inspiring and musical. I suppose the ideal I am still looking for would be a single Music A level where the options to use contemporary technology were more integrated [as in the Art specification].

    I also agree with you that we should not be chasing every new techno fad that comes along. It is important to focus on the core basics, whilst retaining an awareness of more recent developments. And the latest spec does show a move in this direction, which I welcome.

    Regarding my statement ‘how much more fortunate are art students….’. It is the students, not the teachers, I’m referring to here. I do appreciate that more open ended, exploratory work can be harder to assess, but the priority has to be the activity, and assessment should not be allowed to drive or compromise the activity.

    I think we probably both share the same concerns. In the hands of a less than confident teacher, working with music technology is likely to be ‘safe’ or what I refer to as dull and uninspiring. If we want more of our students be able to access music technology at this higher level, there is work to be done in the ways in which we use technology at KS3 and KS4. This is a big, long term job which involves the way we train teachers, curriculum design and resourcing, and a fresh look at examination and assessment structures.

    But it sounds as though you are doing some really interesting, worthwhile stuff in your area. I may well be in touch again to find out more…!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “I suppose the ideal I am still looking for would be a single Music A level where the options to use contemporary technology were more integrated”

    Totally agree – That is a position that I’ve argued for quite vociferously over many years. If we’re to have a separate Music Tech qualification, then it needs to have a strong emphasis on the tech side, but my preference has always been for it to be integrated into a flexible Music syllabus.


    1) Teacher expertise / lack of it in Music Tech
    2) Constant pressure on specialist equip / software
    3) Music Tech industry is NOT producing anywhere near enough opportunities to justify a separate course at this level or above…the most popular / successful courses at Universities are already the ones that combine Music and Music Tech elements in a coherent fashion.
    4) Music Tech industry needs new blood that has strong, high level expertise in both Music Tech and Music! That’s always been the case for the vast majority of those who achieve success in it anyway.

    (I remember the old Edexcel Music A level with great affection – it integrated Music Tech quite effectively).

    “the priority has to be the activity, and assessment should not be allowed to drive or compromise the activity.”

    Agreed! I don’t actually have that many major issues with the activities in the present AS and A2 Music Tech courses…my problem with them mainly stems from the quality of the T&L + the erratic approach towards assessment.

    “there is work to be done in the ways in which we use technology at KS3 and KS4”

    ..and don’t I know it..aaargh! I could go on here for days!

    Again the biggest blocks I have come across over the years here have been:

    1) Teacher attitude / training / deep rooted nervousness with anything ‘technological’
    2) Funding for equipment
    3) The curriculum itself as laid out by people outside the classroom who, frankly, are NOT always in the best position to design it without lots of consultation!

    I’m not perfect, (not even close), but I try and keep my mind open and constantly self-evaluate so that I can hopefully continue to improve. .One observation from my 25+ years in the job:

    A big, regularly occurring issue with music teaching and the curriculum is the fact that 95% of all teachers are performance specialists. they don’t always have a strong interest in composing / arranging and have often never done it on any sort of regular basis. Consequently, too many have a poor understanding of the processes involved and are unsure how to teach it. My experience is that some minds are quite closed as regards this fundamental aspect of music and often adopt one of two general approaches:

    1) Too vague with little sense of focus or direction.
    2) Too prescriptive with little room for the students’ ideas.

    This, of course, very much links into technology as composing and arranging are much more strongly linked into the use of music tech than performance; (I know there are strong uses of it in perf as well, but they are less central to many people’s performing experience).



  4. Althea Wray says:

    Phew ! Thanks for the points you made Mark – my son is about to start Music Tech and I was getting nervous as I don’t want him to get turned off. He is already very knowledgeable with Logic and Pro tools – I am not sure about the others – and although he is preparing for grade 8 violin, I couldn’t get him to do Music A level (and anyway it was cancelled due to lack of numbers – surprise surprise)….and I am insisting he does this so he can function on many levels in the industry. As a music teacher with limited technology skills myself I get what you are saying Mark…..I will be following what my son is doing keenly given the above comments of you both!


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