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OCR’s A-Level Music Specification

OCR A-Level Music draft specification - teacher and musician

This post is the sixth in a series looking at the draft specifications published by the exam boards and the second looking at the A-Level options.  You can find previous posts in the series by clicking here.  Today, I’m looking at OCR’s A-Level specification, which you can download from their website here.

Unit structure

OCR is referring to their units as ‘components’ and they’ve come up with an interesting method for candidates/schools to weight the course in favour of either composition or performance.  Unsurprisingly, students have to take units in performing, composing and listening but there are two options for the first two of these.  Essentially, the unit structure looks like this:
  1. Shorter performance
  2. Longer performance
  3. Longer compositions
  4. Shorter compositions
  5. Listening and appraising
It seems a petty point but I find it strange that the length of the first four units goes ‘short-long-long-short’.  My brain would have found it easier to cope with ‘short-long-short-long’ but maybe that’s just an obsessive desire for order and symmetry on my part.  
The ability to construct a course around the specific strengths of learners is very welcome and, to me, this seems preferable to AQA’s one-size-fits-all approach of weighting the entire course towards performance.  

Areas of study

One thing that’s very clear with the OCR specification is that the board has gone out of its way to make the offer as synoptic as is sensible.  Page eight of the specification makes this clear by stating that:

“[The areas of study] are designed to encourage a musical and practical approach to teaching and learning, and to promote integration between the skills of performing, composing and appraising (listening).”

This integrated approach seems entirely sensible to me and it’s nice to see an exam board being explicit about this expectation rather than encouraging a discrete approach to each skill simply because that’s easier to assess.  
Candidates must study Areas of Study 1 and 2 and then must select “at least two more” from the remaining four areas of study.  The “at least” seems a little odd to me but is, presumably, intended to prevent teachers and learners from discarding useful learning opportunities just because they’re not related to the chosen areas of study.  The areas of study are:
  1. Instrumental music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
  2. Popular Song: Blues, Jazz, Swing and Big Band
  3. Developments in Instrumental Jazz: 1910 to the present day
  4. Religious music of Bach, Purcell and Handel
  5. Programme music 1820-1910
  6. Innovations in music 1900 to the present day
I find it interesting and, if I’m honest, a little surprising that there’s no area of study looking at recent popular music.  I’m pleased to see that popular music features in a mandatory area of study but it seems odd to limit this to blues, jazz, swing and big band music.  


Regardless of whether candidates take the longer or shorter performing option, this unit will divided into two elements:

  1. Recital (shorter = 6 minutes, longer = 10 minutes)
  2. Description (a written or verbal account of their chosen pieces)
Both the shorter and longer version of the performing unit state that candidates:

…may choose to relate their recital to one or more Area of Study…

A somewhat non-committal but, nonetheless, welcome way of giving encouraging a synoptic approach when teachers design their scheme of work for this course.

As with Edexcel, the recital must be completed between 1st March and 31st May in the year of certification.


All candidates will submit the following as part of their composition unit:
  1. Composition in response to a brief set by OCR
  2. Composition in response to a learner set brief
No great surprises here considering Ofqual’s requirement to include a composition to a brief.  OCR has been slightly more prescriptive than AQA in stating that the ‘free composition’ should be in response to a learner set brief, whereas AQA says that a brief is optional for the second composition.  In all honesty, I welcome the requirement for learners to set a brief as I believe that this is both a more realistic take on what it’s like to be a composer and is likely to result in better compositions.  I always encourage teachers to ensure that compositions are in response to a brief or, at the very least, a title (whether it’s set by the exam board, the teacher or the student doesn’t matter to me).  
Those who opt for the longer composition unit will also have to submit “three short technical exercises”, which may or may not be welcome news to learners who opt for this pathway.  I certainly see the sense in OCR taking this approach for the A-Level course but I suspect that some candidates may have preferred to submit a third composition instead.  

Listening and appraising

The 2hr 30mins examination is divided into three sections:
  • Section A: Areas of Study 1 & 2
  • Section B: Areas of Study 1 & 2
  • Section C: Areas of Study 3-6
Each section of the exam requires longer answers from candidates and is worth more marks than the last.