A change would do you good? – Assessment and examinations in Music

by Dr Angela Jaap
Lecturer, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

The Scottish Government’s ‘U-turn’ on the SQA results has prompted some very lively discussions around the approaches to assessment and examinations in Scotland. A quick scan of social media highlights a range of views which make it abundantly clear that there is an appetite and willingness for change; from strong advocation of a ‘root and branch’ review of the current approaches to more subject-specific thoughts, detailing potential ways forward to ensure effective evidence gathering for demonstrating learners’ progress.

Having followed the broader discussions with interest I have also thought about my own subject of Music and the potential changes that the SQA exam system could take in the future with regards to the subject. As a subject and wider discipline Music has an interesting relationship with examinations, sometimes highlighting a variety of nuances around assessment and examinations. While there are some very specific and challenging issues around assessment (for example, subjectivity and appreciation of nuances of genre, the authenticity of assessment) this blog will focus on three broader issues of assessment and exams in Music which may be useful in revising and refreshing our school-based approaches.

Existing continuous assessment in music

Firstly, as a subject Music is rich with assessments and examinations, all of which are integral to our practice as musicians. From beginners through to experienced professionals, there are a range of examples of self-, peer- and tutor-based assessments that feature in our day-to-day activities in lessons, ensembles and concerts which we use to help inform our musical outputs.

For example, a typical 1-to-1 instrumental or singing lesson might start with the teacher giving feedback on warm-ups or scales. A good example of continuous assessment in a scenario with many more participants is that of a conductor of a choir or orchestra, who will make a number of comments during a rehearsal: “that was good, but can you make sure you follow my diminuendo in bar 23?” As follow-up feedback, the singers or players might receive a brief “thank you, much better!”, or just a nod as they sing or play onwards. And the reactions of an audience, or of other players in a group, are often the most rewarding form of ‘assessment’: sometimes this is just a smile or a certain something in the room, sometimes it is rapturous applause (or, alternatively, silence!)

This continuous assessment is so implicit in our work that we hardly notice it; we draw upon it and use it to inform and make adjustments so quickly and naturally almost as though we are on autopilot. However, while continual assessment is so prevalent and valuable in the wider discipline of Music, it could be used to greater effect in the school context. How could music’s unique brand of continuous assessment be utilised in a classroom environment? And, most importantly, how can we get the learners fully involved in this type of assessment?

SQA is not the only player

Secondly, another feature of assessment and examinations in Music is that National Qualifications are only one of the exams available for learners. Beyond the mandatory school exam system, there are a variety of Graded examinations in Music Theory and/or Performance through examination boards including the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), Trinity College London or Rockschool which are invaluable for those interested in further study or indeed those who wish to gauge their skills simply as part of a hobby or a pastime.

The approach taken in preparation for these exams is quite different from that of school. For each of the exam boards above, the learner develops the knowledge and skills required of a particular Grade and then undertakes the exam when they are ready, with a choice of a variety of locations to suit the individual across the country. Could such a bold, learner-centred move be considered in a revised school-based approach? Perhaps such a shift is too radical at the moment: the thought of multiple exam points could be an administrative nightmare, but a combination of continuous assessment and an examination may provide an opportunity to draw from these broader practices of assessment and examination in Music to inform our school-based approaches and help to make it learner-centred.

Following the leaders and bridging the gap to further study

The final point for consideration centres upon the musical activities and achievements of young people who go beyond the mandatory requirements of the SQA qualifications and how these can be recognised.

Since the 1970s the popularity of Music has grown considerably. The subject has shed its perception as being only for a small number of ‘musical’ learners and is now recognised as a subject with a strong philosophy of being for everyone. As noted in the What’s Going on Now? Report (Broad et al., 2019), in session 2016-17 Music was the sixth most popular subject at Advanced Higher with presentations across the National Qualifications comparing ‘favourably’ (p.26) with other subjects.

Yet, while there are high numbers of candidates being presented across the NQ levels, for those who wish to pursue tertiary-level study in Music there is a considerable gap noted between requirements of NQs and entry requirements of Colleges, Universities and Conservatoires. In short, the National Qualifications are not enough for those with aspirations of a career in Music.

I am not suggesting that we should raise the ladder and renege on the subject as being ‘for all’, but there is a need to explore how additional challenge can be provided to those who are consistently exceeding the mandatory requirements for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher.

One possible way to provide additional opportunities for these highly able musicians is to increase access to the Music Leaders Scotland Awards (MLSA) as an extension to the mandatory exam requirements. The MLSA provides credit-rated opportunities for young musicians with performance skills higher than the standard of the SQA qualifications, supporting them to develop and refine their skills of performance and leadership while also engaging with professional music. As such, raising the profile of the MLSA across the country would be invaluable in both extending the learning of highly able musicians but also in our attempts to narrow the gap between school and tertiary-level study.


There is scope for a refresh and change to the assessment and examination framework in Music. The current structures do recognise the core elements of musicianship, but school-based assessment and examinations could look for ways to draw upon the ‘natural’ continuous assessment of the discipline, to promote pupil involvement in assessing their work, and to ensure that the work of those who are regularly exceeding the requirements of the SQA examinations are recognised with credit.

Dr Angela Jaap, SFHEA FRSA, is a Lecturer in Professional Learning at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and formerly a secondary school teacher. She is interested in high ability studies and learning and teaching in the creative arts.

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3 thoughts on “A change would do you good? – Assessment and examinations in Music”

  1. An interesting read and all very valid points, but let’s keep the debate simple: return the practical exam to one instrument (like the old Standard Grade), second instrument and composition internally assessed by teachers with improvisation being allowed to assess creativity. (Again like previous SQA assessment systems of old.) Keep listening exam as is but at a later date. Provision for recordings to be used instead of live exam to cater for the very real possibility of external practical exams not going ahead or disruption such as pupils/teachers self isolating, or the huge problems currently faced with visiting instrumental music tutors not being allowed back into schools and the fact that singing/wind instruments are currently banned. Provision for teacher evidence to be used if pupils miss final listening exam with good reason, similar to current procedures. As I say, all valid points in a very good article but right now classroom teachers need the debate to be about the here and now as believe me things are extremely challenging and it’s just going to get worse.

  2. Let’s explore further Angela’s point that SQA is not the only show in town in the assessment and certification of music.
    Is it time to widen the field and give parity on the SCQF framework?

  3. Agreed, Isabelle.

    A new approach may draw on elements of past models but there is a need to think more broadly, really challenging what we do and why and not just a sticking plaster on the current situation. Good article, lots to ponder.

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