Year 8 “Production” Launched

This first week of 2019 has seen the launch of our exciting new “Production” unit in KS3 music at Manor. The unit gives students the opportunity to explore the type of work they might do on our new GCSE Music Production Via Technology Pathway. It could also be the first step of development towards a career in music, media, theatre, film, TV or journalism.

In addition to the ‘Developing, Securing & Mastering’ standards now operating at KS3, we’ve introduced ‘Super-mastering’ to challenge students, even at age 12-13, to develop industry-level production values.

To begin with, the unit encourages students to learn about the role each instrument plays within a band. Rather than working towards a particular style or genre, they are concentrating on understanding how musical parts fit together in pitch and rhythm. Once these fundamentals are in control, they will have absolute creative freedom to explore their individual chosen style or genre.

Each student will take the role of the producer, taking the creative lead in the process to deliver a fully mixed and mastered recording. They are each given a lead sheet of the song and audio tracks of the vocals – there are female and male vocals to choose from. They must understand and record all of the instrument parts (piano, bass guitar, drum kit and acoustic guitar) using their iPad with GarageBand. Initially students will be challenged to create the chorus. More ambitious students will aim to complete the whole song in the next 6 weeks.

The level of discussion between students using musical language is already amazing. In the first week, many came to realise that the “annoying thing ticking in the background” (the metronome) had a real and important purpose. Their new musical world relied on it and by ignoring it their music did not sound good at all! It was also fascinating to learn of the number of students who hadn’t realised that all instruments follow the same lead sheet. They had not comprehended that bass, guitar and piano would need to play similar notes at each of those points in the lead sheet. This realisation gave them confidence that music wasn’t as hard to understand as they’d thought. Above all, they were instantly challenged to listen critically and learn how to improve their work if it wasn’t what they wanted.

They began by recording the piano as chords. Once recorded they used quantisation and were able to choose the correct settings, based on their chosen rhythm. They also edited the individual notes, by listening, to make sure they were each the desired length and volume for their chosen style of production. Following on, some students recorded a complementing bass line and a drum kit track. One student, Hollis, recorded and edited 4 tracks (shown below) within the 40 minutes available in the first lesson. When I asked him about the process so far he said “it’s really good, the only frustrating thing so far is that the quantisation function does not consider the strumming motion which was helpful to use in the recording of the acoustic guitar”. He was absolutely right and I was slightly taken aback at the level of thought already in his work.

Another fascinating conversation was with Lauren on Thursday. She had recorded the bass to fit with the piano, but wanted the bass to have more punch or presence in the mix compared to the piano. I really didn’t think I’d be teaching about compression and EQ in the first lesson of our new year 8 unit, but she understood the theory well enough to create a great piece of work. Amazing!

Title Photo by Mitchell Leach on Unsplash

Melody Detox – updated

For this first week back of the new year, I decided to focus on melody with all my year 9 and 10 students. For year 9 this was their first experience of writing melodies with this amount of depth of thought, and a timely reminder for year 10 who are beginning to compose longer works. As mentioned in a previous post, the melody is so fundamental in any composition.

I began by asking them what a melody was. Answers included:

“It’s the ‘main bit’ of the music”



“Tells a story”

“Makes a piece unique”

“Can make us feel sad or happy”

“Can make it sound like someone is eating chicken in a medieval castle”



“Sets a mood”

All brilliant answers, but I wonder how many of them had re-considered these purposes before writing their last melody.

I continued on to ask them, what makes a good melody? Answers included:



“Major & Minor scale”

“The right key… not all plonky!”

“Keeping it in time like pulse”

“Different textures”

“Not repetitive”

“Fits together and flows”

“Doesn’t jump up multiple octaves”

“Makes sense with other parts of music”

“Uses musical devices”

A huge range of answers here showing that some students are more confident than others, but overall this was a harder question for them than the first.

Next I gave them this brief, which is their challenge to have completed in 6 weeks time.

We began together in each class by planning or drawing out the requirements of the task.

As in the image below, this discussion included:

– A decision for everyone to write initially in D major, with a time signature of 4/4, for piano, tempo of crotchet = 115, and with an 8-bar melodic structure of ABAC.

– To write out the notes in the D Major scale and discuss the points of the scale, making particular reference to the tonic and the dominant.

– To draw out the 8 bars, marking on bar numbers and the structure ABAC. Discussion of which bars would then be the same and which different

– Make decisions of how each of the 4, 2-bar phrase sections would end, ‘finished’ or ‘unfinished’.

– Make decisions about which cadences to use later on in the harmony and therefore which melody notes to target at the end of each phrase.

The year 9 and 10 traditional Music GCSE students are completing this individually. The new Production Via Tech pathway are completing it in pairs as many do not play instruments or read notation, so extra support and encouragement is helpful.

Students began by composing a 2-bar rhythm, with all notes on ‘D’. Having considered the melody structure, they copied and pasted this into bars 5 and 6. To compose the rhythm for bars 3 and 4, they listened to the first two bars, both from Sibelius and by clapping, and wrote down the idea that made most sense to them as a response to their opening idea. Then listening to bars 1-6, they created their 7-8 in the same way, with the addition of considering that it need to sound finished.

Having shared their work with each other, they returned to the previous question of ‘what makes a good melody?’, now also recognising that is was helpful to have a deeper level of control. Their answers now:

– “Clear structure”

– “Music broken down into phrases”

– “Some thought of where the melody sounds finished and unfinished”

– “Use the longest note at the end to make it sound finished”

– “For memorable, it helps to keep it simple and have some repetitive parts”

All excellent answers, showing musical understanding.

Next we considered the pitches in the melody. We had a discussion about how, when listening, movement by-step was simpler to understand than by-leap. Students discovered quickly that the amount of up and down motion in each of the 2-bar phrases could also control how simple or complex the outcome was. Thinking about the cadence points in the initial plan helped students to place those ‘signpost notes’ into the music before beginning to change others. They also found another controller of simple/complex was the range.

The outcomes of all pieces were amazing. All learners in years 9 and 10 completed their unique melody within the 2 hours and all met the required standard. Perhaps most fascinating, was that Year 9 Production Via Technology found the task most straightforward. Their melodies were of equal standard to the other students’, despite many of them not having notation backgrounds. I am continuing to learn much about how our young people learn in many different ways.

As I draw this entry to a close, I must mention the music of Lucas & Leo, two of our 9PvT class. They mistakenly selected a key signature of 2bs instead of 2#s at the start of the lesson and at some point in the process also decided that C was the tonic note. They had inadvertently composed in Dorian mode in C. Their melody was absolute exquisite and mouths dropped open around the room as everybody heard it. It sounded amazing as they’d understood how to balance rhythm and shape, how to create an ABAC melody structure and how to consider cadence points at the end of each phrase. By listening critically and with a determination to control their music, they were able to create something magnificent.

Title Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

A Wall of 2 Sides – increasing students’ learning ambition in Music

One wall in the Manor music department is more important than any other.

Side A – The Wall of Fame

The Wall of Fame is a visual display to celebrate the achievements and progress of Music students choosing to study for graded exams. Students have a choice as to whether or not they would like to be included on the wall. On entering the academy, or completing their latest grade, exam students use a board in the music room to write down their details of instrument, grade and result. For GDPR reasons they must also sign and date to confirm they’re happy for this information to be displayed. A new coloured slip is then created and added to the Wall of Fame. The slips are in the three colours to show whether a student has received a pass, merit or distinction in their grade. This encourages discussion between students at all levels about the aspects of exams they struggle with.

A student must achieve at least a ‘grade 1 pass’ to be added to the board. When they achieve a higher grade, the previous slip is removed and they move up the wall, attempting to reach grade 8 by the time they leave us after year 11, which is usually achieved by 2 or 3 students each year. Through our tutor team, students are encouraged to develop technical competence and musical understanding, rather than focusing on taking back-to-back grades, but the most committed and passionate students can make an incredible amount of progress in a relatively short period and we are constantly challenged to create higher expectations.

Students walk past the ‘A side’ of the wall every day, whether they have a music lesson or not. Students are proud to have their achievements shown and they are encouraged to move up the wall during their time with us. Community is so important at Manor and students are encouraged to build good relationships with other musicians in the academy, no matter what year they’re in. Younger students see our higher grade students as role models and as they get older, or more advanced in their studies, they aspire to become leaders themselves.

As a leader in music it is great to celebrate with them in this way and so important that I keep track of where everybody is up to. It also helps when planning our extra-curricular programme.

Side B – The WordWall

I created the first version of the WordWall as a result of a piece of action research in my NQT year at Huntington School, York. The enquiry was looking at how we could help students to use appropriate vocabulary in their learning. The ‘wall’ began with around 200 words, but has evolved over time and its use has inspired students to be more ambitious in their studies. The latest version of the WordWall (shown above) has now developed to over 500 words. The terminology hasn’t changed in the last ten years, but the depth of understanding we are now seeking has increased greatly. This is incredibly exciting. It is not really creating more work for us, but a greater opportunity that allows us to understand more music and in more detail. The expansion challenges students to be more passionate and determined in their approach to the study of music than ever before.

How does it work?

The WordWall is fundamental in every lesson and makes musical language the starting point, reference point and focus. Towards the bottom of the wall, the ‘elements of music’ are printed in bold. These categories of musical words have a column each and are printed onto different colours of card. Elements that are closely related to each other are given a similar colour, for example ‘pulse’ and ‘tempo’. Students find it helpful to remember terminology in categories rather than individual words, just in the same way as they recognise foods as fruits, meats and breads etc. Above each element, there is a list of related ‘musical words’. The order of the words is important in each column. Dynamics, for example, are ordered from top to bottom as loud to soft. Below the elements in bold, there are words to remind students of their meaning, but these are not then used when students give answers. They just act as a safety net.

Lessons often focus on experiencing and discovering what a word means, before then having opportunity to explore how it feels to sing, perform or compose with that concept in mind. Students are encouraged to think of each term in its category or context and discuss an alternative or combination of words (or devices). This approach ensures that students are not just learning words, but understanding tools to use, which is great for composing.

The concept of printing key terminology to stick on a classroom wall has been around for years, but this is not a poster… it is an entire wall! It is very much an evolving resource as students discover more helpful ways to order the information too. The ultimate aim is to be able to describe any piece of music, from any year and from any culture or country.

I recently spoke at the Education Expo conference at Old Trafford, Manchester. During the panel discussion, a delegate asked how I even begin to plan to teach the increased depth of content in the newly reformed GCSE curriculum. I explained that, in the lesson time we have available, it is just not possible to teach every style and genre of the last 400 years. The students would also not be inspired to learn in that way. However, I can encourage my students of how to listen, how to analyse and crucially, how to discover the terminology that all of our music has in common to the point where they can confidently understand it and create their own.

GCSE iPad Music – a game-changer for Music Education

In September 2018 we began our new “GCSE Music Production Via Technology” course. Students are still entered for AQA GCSE Music 8271 in the same way as our traditional course, but they learn and study music in a completely different way. The difference in teaching on this new course is fascinating and has required me to be more open-minded than ever in my approach to planning.

Already the amount of progress for the tech students has been vast. There is greater control in performance, further understanding of details in notation and more confidence in composition than expected at this stage.

The cohort is predominantly made up of students who don’t play an instrument, but who are passionate about music. There are also two electric guitarists, a classical guitarist and a pianist.

It has been possible for technology or DJing to be used within the AQA GCSE course for quite a few years, but few schools take that option. We haven’t chosen that route ourselves before due to the extra expense of having to buy equipment and to pay extra teachers with specific knowledge. It also seemed in the past that it would be difficult for students to access the full range of marks as there was little information published about that type of assessment.

At the start of 2018, a meeting with a principal music examiner and several other heads of music in London changed everything. We discovered that there was now sufficient focus for technology in the GCSE Music (examination from 2018) to enable all learners to access to full range of marks. Furthermore, there was sufficient rigour in the mark scheme to demand a very high quality product to achieve the top marks, just as in the traditional course.

As they learned of my meeting, there was just enough time for three of my traditional 2018 exam cohort to opt for ‘Performance Via Technology’ as their ensemble performances. The work of those three young men has established an amazing new approach to understanding music in our department. They didn’t all achieve the top mark for PvT, but their understanding of the music was greatly deepened and this period of learning was fundamental in them being able to achieve their two ‘9’s and ‘8’ overall.

Most excitingly, this new pathway for GCSE Music has emerged at a time when portable technology and free music apps have developed sufficiently to allow the user to create a musical product with the required level of control of each element. Already in this first term, we’ve found that students are far more creative as they can make their music whenever and wherever they like. They are no longer having to wait for the class time or extra curricular club in the music room. They can compose music anywhere and at any time. Once they’ve created something, they post it securely to me using Showbie and I can listen and instantly give feedback, which creates a great sense of momentum for them in their learning.

The KS3 national curriculum requirements to perform, listen, review and evaluate, are intrinsically linked to everything students will do to create a quality music product. In fact, more than ever, each individual student now has a personal, instantly accessible resource to learn with. We’ve begun to re-write our KS3 curriculum as the iPad technology is having such a profound, positive effect on learning. For example, many students find ‘texture’ and ‘structure’ difficult concepts to understand. In one year 7 lesson in December, all students composed and recorded an 8-bar, 5-part, rhythmic ostinato from scratch. All developed their work by editing textural and structural aspects. In the same lesson, students mixed-down their piece and uploaded to Showbie allowing us to collectively listen and evaluate the outcomes of each one. There was no homework set from that lesson, but some students chose to continue their development and re-posted new work later that evening. This is how music education should be!

For students (and teachers) with instrumental skills, it’s possible to connect a USB keyboard/piano to the iPad and it’s now possible to record with zero-latency. In fact, I was without an accompanist in our ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ at York Minster earlier this month so pre-recorded the piano part for the recessional to allow me to conduct. I recorded the piano into GarageBand on the iPad, which then even had sufficient control of EQ to adjust the frequency response as was needed for the Minster acoustics.

My initial thought on beginning this work was that technology would make music accessible to students without an instrument. In reality, it’s far more exciting than that! It’s inspiring instrumentalists and vocalists to play and sing more, it’s inspiring students without an instrument to learn to play instruments and it’s creating a way that every single individual young person can understand and make music. That is awesome!

More to follow…

The real-world truth about… GCSE Music Composition (How to start)

Most GCSE Music students feel stressed as they begin their composition work. This stress is often nothing to do with music whatsoever and therefore very unhelpful for our young musicians. The stress is usually rooted in expectation about grades, either their own or that felt from a parent or teacher. Without experience of composing before, they have no idea of what to aim for, no concept of a ‘finished product’ or understanding of what it takes to get there. Perhaps most frustratingly, they have no thought of writing music with a context or purpose. They just make sounds, or they don’t make anything. They cannot evaluate their sounds as they’ve nothing to compare it to, not understanding what they’re aiming for. Often the ‘purpose’ is derived later on to tick a box on an exam paper, rather than being a fully explored concept. There are many misconceptions that do nothing but create anxiety and confusion.

I’ve drawn the two images above to describe what I see from students if they begin to compose without a clear purpose. Notice that both are titled “untitled”, proving a lack of consideration of the purpose and making use of the default software file-naming system. There is no less-inspiring title to read when marking a piece of music. The ‘draft 1’ image depicts a student who has sat down in front of Sibelius and decided that they will use every different note duration, every mark, dot and squiggle they can find. Their perception of the construction of music is based on complexity, not understanding. Students creating this type of outcome are also not likely to have listened to their work. The ‘draft 2’ image depicts a student who is overwhelmed by the thought of their music not being ‘good enough’, although it’s also a common 2nd attempt, when the student writing ‘draft 1’ finally listens to their music to discover a wall of stressful noise and chaos. Within ‘draft 1’ there are some great ideas, unfortunately hidden by excessive and un-necessary additions.

Using technology to create music is wonderful. It gives our young musicians the instant opportunity to write an idea, listen to it and simply decide whether to keep or delete. However control is everything. I remember once discussing ADR techniques with Nick Lowe (no relation), who had recorded and edited dialogue on some of the Harry Potter films. His role was to re-record and re-sync aspects of the actors lines that weren’t sufficiently clear from the recordings made during filming. In every re-recording he described having to listen so carefully (or critically) to ensure the quality was as good as it could be. At this point in post-production, the vast sound design and orchestral music was yet to be added, so it was possible to hear and fix any problems. If anything was wrong later, it would be very difficult to resolve once the other 200 tracks of sound were laid together. Students need to think similarly when they compose.

Music composition is a wonderful thing to do and quite unbelievable that something of such joy can be related to a school examination given the current challenges in education. The freedom to be creative and explore, invent and build something for others to enjoy is so unique. The exam boards have helped too by developing their courses to invite students to write in any style or genre and for any combination of instruments. What an amazing opportunity!!

However, control is everything. Students should first listen… Listen to as much music as they can, in many styles, from many cultures, in films, theatre, television, video games, supermarket tannoys, sporting venues etc. The role of the music teacher is very much to be ready to help them to understand the music they’ve discovered. Good questions for students to ask could be… “Why does this music sound exciting?”, “Why does this melody make me feel sad?”, “Why did the music make me jump at that moment?”. All answers should be given using the elements of music to encourage them to adopt this language.

Students need support and encouragement in understanding and using every element in context with a purpose. A few years ago at a round table discussion with other heads of music in York, we agreed that the single most fundamental aspect to be successful in composition was melody. That is, without a successfully written melody, the music will struggle to connect to its chosen audience.

The challenge we face as teachers is how we can support and encourage students in composition without being prescriptive or restricting their own creativity. I try to set small tasks or challenges in preparation for composition, but not relating to their final piece. Often students respond much more positively if they are controlling, or focused on, one element, like melody, rather than considering all together. I encourage my students to reflect on and describe the musical qualities they create in each task. Once they have many small experiences and have begun to understand how to control musical ideas with a purpose, finding an inspirational starting point is quite straightforward.

Mini-Mr Lowe


Something I use on a daily basis is “Mini-Mr Lowes”.

My own understanding of music has developed so much more during the period of my teaching than at any other time. Every day, students approach concepts differently to how I have ever perceived or imagined them before. I provide a starting point with a specific focus, but there are always a vast array of related outcomes found. I therefore encourage all students to share the leadership of learning in the class environment.

This strategy instantly recognises and rewards confident understanding of musical concepts. It deepens the students’ understanding by adapting what they’ve learned to support someone else. It helps students to understand how others learn and provides unique information about their strengths and weaknesses. It grows confidence in subject-specific conversation and discussion, and rewards a passion and determination to learn.

As soon as a student feels they can demonstrate confidence in their understanding, they come to show me evidence at the front of the classroom. If I agree that they’ve sufficiently understood the concept, they are offered the opportunity to be a “Mini-Mr Lowe”, which gives them a merit and the freedom to wander around the class. They can ask to hear the work of any other student, question their understanding and offer verbal support. They cannot create work for somebody else, but can encourage and support them to create it themselves. Other students may ask them for specific help too.

There are always a maximum of 5 Mini-Mr Lowes at any one time. This strategy generates rich, musical conversation and development, and encourages students to use appropriate vocabulary.

Discovering a ‘Production Environment’ for learning

In the early 2000s (before I retrained to be a secondary music teacher), I was greatly fortunate to be invited to some of the leading music and audio production facilities in the UK, perhaps the world. The primary purpose of my visits was to meet professionals at the top of their industry and to learn about the protocols that made it possible for a world-class creative product to be developed. Every visit and conversation was an absolute privilege. Not only did I meet incredibly kind, passionate and gifted people, but I learned how they were able to inspire each other, constantly endeavouring to develop the quality of their overall product. This was especially impressive under the pressure of each client’s expectations of delivering the ‘ultimate sound production’ for their (in some cases) $100million project.

It was an amazing period of learning, but I couldn’t possibly imagine the scale of the immense impact these visits would now have on my practice as a teacher. I will forever be grateful to the amazing people at Pinewood Film Studios Post Production, Films@59, BBC Radio, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Reelsound, Twickenham Film Studios, Dolby Laboratories and The Digital Audio Company.

The single most important asset of all of these studios was ‘environment’. Not necessarily the building design, comfy furniture or well-stocked fridge, but those were important too! For exceptional creative developments to occur, the environment had to be designed with purpose to enable individuals to form exceptional, trusting relationships and to maintain open and honest communications. These aspects were completely fundamental in every aspect of production. Every stakeholder had a clearly defined objective in their work, but there was great transparency and respect between colleagues with each individual seeking to encourage others or having the flexibility to support others as they needed. Every stakeholder constantly looked for opportunities to discover something new, not relying on their own understanding and were frequently asking others for evaluation or advice. There was a hierarchy of roles and therefore responsibilities, but no-one was ‘more important’ than the others. There was a genuine passion for the product and collective excitement when something new was achieved.

We can learn much from this as education leaders and it is greatly relevant to our young people. The insight of how our production industries operate at the highest level is greatly inspiring. I wonder if students ever stop to consider how creativity is truly encouraged and developed by those who create the film and video game products they experience every day. I try to keep this experience of the ‘Production Environment’ at the centre of my curriculum design as it makes such a profound difference to the young people I work with.

(No part of this post is affiliated with any of the companies listed above.)