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A Level Music Technology fails the test

With exam results set to make headlines within a few weeks, George Hess, MUSIC:ED Music Technology Editor, looks at one Music Technology A Level syllabus and finds it not fit for purpose.

Another testing season is coming to a close. Around the world, thousands of students await the results to exams that will go a long way towards determining their future. To say I’m not a fan of these tests would be an understatement.

I could list all the things wrong with testing in general, but that’s another column for another day. However, the topic here is music technology, so let’s take a look at the Edexcel A-Level Music Technology curriculum and exam.

The A-level in music tech is for those students who are interested in studying music beyond KS3 but aren’t interested in musicology. It’s a good idea, but unfortunately, it’s considered a ‘soft’ A-level and top colleges in the UK won’t accept it as part of entrance requirements. Whatever the reason, there was a 20% decline in the uptake in 2017.

People don’t understand what music technology means and that includes the publishers of this exam

First off, let’s be clear: it’s not really about ‘music technology’. As I’ve been saying for some time, we have an existential crisis in our field. People don’t understand what music technology means and apparently that includes the publishers of this exam. In this case, ‘music technology’ means ‘audio production’. Nothing wrong with that, as it’s pretty close to what many of us teach, including me. But it completely ignores things like notation, programming, and other software. It’s also not very technical and doesn’t touch on actually developing technology. Perhaps ‘music production’ would be a better term.

The syllabus includes recording and production and technology-based composition, basic listening skills and, for the most part, emphasises practical knowledge over technical and theoretical. In my opinion, there’s an overemphasis on historical production, but, otherwise, students who study this curriculum should end up with a decent background in music production.

The exam is another story. It includes four parts, a recording project, a composition project, aural analysis and timed practical test. The sample exam materials from 2017 often resort to trivia and trickery, and exhibit much that is wrong with standardised tests.

Let’s take a look at the content.

Creativity isn’t encouraged

The first task is to record a cover tune. The candidate is expected to record, mix and master the recording according to very narrow specifications. I found the time limits to be ridiculous. Of course, we don’t want a one-minute miniature, nor a twenty-minute magnum opus, but violate the narrow constraints and you are automatically marked down severely. Creativity isn’t encouraged either. If you dare to add percussion or other instruments that aren’t specified, you’ll automatically be knocked down two levels.

And don’t even think of collaborating. Technical skills are undoubtedly critical in the music business, but so is the ability to work with people, something prohibited in the exam. I hear you saying, ‘well, it’s a test’. I agree, and that’s the problem. It’s not authentic, and it’s not assessing some essential skills.

I expect this is all in the name of fairness, but the grading of these projects is anything but fair. Ask ten engineers to evaluate a mix and you’ll get ten very different answers. It’s a creative process and only the most basic things are close to black and white. Which explains why what usually follows exam season is griping about the results.

The emphasis on the historical practices of recording is baffling. Now, I enjoy learning and reading about early recording practices, and I love vintage gear and the fantastic plug-ins that emulate it. But I can’t say I use many of the techniques of that time. For example, one question was about the processing of the drums on a Beatles song, which were very heavily compressed as a special effect. As an ear training question, it was akin to one of those trick questions to which theory teachers often resort. (Doubly-diminished thirds, anyone?) But while it worked great on that song, I can safely say I’ve never had a need to process drums like that as I’m not doing much acid rock these days.

Another question on a recording from the 1950s asked about characteristics that date it. So far, so good. But then they ask how to remaster it to make it sound more contemporary. The marking guidelines gave answers that all would have required stems, but the original was a live mono recording! There are things that can be done, but they aren’t found in the marking guidelines. Which means it was all theoretical and no one actually tried to remaster it, students included.

There are other issues: strange scenarios for the technology composition; questions that purport to be about aural skills that could be answered without even listening to the example; no aural skills questions about EQ, which I’m sure engineers would agree is the most crucial skill; and fundamental concepts that are just omitted.

A-levels deserve an E. There’s no educational value whatsoever

So I don’t have much good to say about this exam. Good course design should align assessments, with outcomes and activities. Assessments should be part of instruction and learning. By these criteria, the A-levels deserve an E. They are examiner-centred and appear to be designed primarily to make them easier to grade. There’s too long a wait between the exam and the results, and the only person who sees the feedback is the teacher.

In other words, there’s no educational value whatsoever.

Lesson planning shouldn’t involve guesswork.  This hamstrings teachers who are under pressure to produce higher and higher scores. As someone who observes many online education groups, I’m dismayed by how questions about the test dominate the conversation. It’s rare to see a pedagogical or musical question on the A-level and IB groups. The music tech groups are a little better in this regard, but the test is still the focus.

It’s all about the numbers

So, why do we this? It’s all about the numbers. Everyone likes numbers, as they are easily understood. Parents like grades as they can tell how well their child is doing. Politicians like averages as something they can show the voters. And of course, the businesses that produce and administer these tests like the bottom line.

But notice that none of those answers is ‘students’.

And beyond all the criticisms of the actual exam, that’s the real problem. The uptake in music and music technology has been declining for some time and is in danger of extinction. But when confronted with these realities, the response from teachers is that they need to double down. If only we teach more intensely and promote our programs, it will turn around. I’ve lived abroad for some time in countries that follow the British education model, so I’m quite familiar with the obsession with testing, but sorry, that’s not going to solve the problem.

It’s true that most UK universities require A-levels. Well, as a university professor, I can tell you if there are no students available that meet our criteria, we’re going to change our entrance requirements. In any case, we should be looking at the whole student: their works or performance, academic record, and interview or essay. Frankly, I don’t need an external examiner, one whom I’ve never met and who has never met the student, to tell me whether that student will be a good fit for my programme.

In the US, universities are moving away from the reliance on standardised tests as entrance requirements. It’s time for UK universities to do the same. While A-level results may be a predictor of academic success, academic success is not a necessarily a predictor of success in the real world. Just ask Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. and I’m mindful of not being that Yank that tells everyone what to do. But, in this instance, it’s warranted. These tests are harmful. They aren’t pedagogically sound; there are errors; they limit creativity and don’t assess some necessary skills.

And the students aren’t interested.

About the author

George HessGeorge Hess is an educator, guitarist, composer and author who has taught music technology, jazz and theory at leading universities for over 25 years.

The author of Create Music with Notion, he is a regular contributor to leading music education publications and his tutorial videos are published by Groove3 and featured by MuseScore.

Dr Hess is an Apple Distinguished Educator and award-winning teacher who serves on the board of directors for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) in the US. A certified Flipped Learning trainer who regularly presents at conferences and workshops around the world, he is currently Associate Professor of Music at Sunway University in Malaysia.


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