AQA GCSE Music Overview





Areas of Study

Key Words and Definitions

AoS 01 – Rhythm and Metre

AoS 02 – Harmony and Tonality

AoS 03 – Texture and Melody

AoS 04 – Timbre and Dynamics

A0S 05 – Structure and Form



AOS 1 – Rhythm and Metre


  • Rhythm is the way different lengths of sound are combined to produce patterns.
  • Metre is a regular pattern of beats indicated by a time signature.
  • Pulse is the beat of the music. It’s what you tap your feet to!  The rhythms can vary the pulse or beat will be steady (like your pulse – hopefully!)
  • Tempo is the speed of the music, and in particular the speed the pulse of the music is beating.
    • Largo – very slow tempo
    • Adagio – slow tempo
    • Andante – at a walking pace. (Medium-slow)
    • Moderato – A medium tempo / moderate tempo
    • Allegro – Fast tempo
    • Vivace – Fast and lively tempo.
    • Presto – Very fast tempo
  • Accelerando – to get faster.
  • Rallentando(Rall.)/Ritardando(Rit.) – Slowing down the tempo.
  • Rubato – flexible tempo


  • Simple time each beat is divided into two equal parts.
  • Compound time each beat is divided into 3 equal parts.
  • Triplet is 3 notes (or rests), all the same length, squeezed into the time of two.
  • Syncopation – when the weak (off beats) beats of the bar are accented.
  • Regular metre – a time signature where all the beats are the same length.
  • Irregular metre – a time signature where the beats are grouped together unevenly (5 or 7 beats per bar). Will have a lopsided feel and may not sound western.
  • Free metre -Where the music has no definite pulse or metre.
  • Drum fill – short drum solo in between sections of a piece.

 AOS 2 – Harmony and Tonality


 Tonality – the key of the music. The piece will be built mainly from a particular scale. The tonality can be:

  • Major – a happy uplifting sound (play C-C to get used to the sound)
  • Minor – a sad, more serious sound (play A-A, replacing the G with a G# to get used to the sound)
  • Tonal – will have a sense of key/tonal centre.
  • Atonal – music with no sense of fixed tonality/key. May sound rather ‘random’.
  • Pentatonic – a five note scale. Often used in Chinese, African and Celtic Folk melodies
  • Modal – came before scales. g. play D-D on the white notes-this is the Dorian mode.  Often used in early music, folk and jazz.
  • Whole tone – a scale made up of only whole tones. (Sounds quite mysterious – remember The Sea Music project from Year 8.) C, D, E, F#, G#, A#


  • Harmony – two or more notes of different pitch create harmony.
  • Chromatic -­ scale made up of semitones (smallest interval e.g. C-C#).
  • Diatonic harmony uses only the notes that belong to the major or minor keys.
  • Consonance – music/harmonies that sound nice (consonant).
  • Dissonance – clashing music/harmonies (dissonant).
  • Discords – harsh, dissonant sounding combination of notes.
  • Close harmony – where the notes are close together within the separate parts e.g. Barber shop singing
  • Drone – long held note, usually in the bass. Often 2 notes held together.  Used a lot in Indian music.
  • Modulation – to change key/tonality. For example if the piece is in the key of C major you could modulate to the key of G major or A minor… It’s a good way of developing a piece of music. Stevie Wonder uses loads of modulation in his songs.  Listen to ‘Golden Lady’ on you tube.
  • Tierce de Picardie – when a piece in a minor key finishes with a major chord
  • Cadences – a cadence is formed by the two chords that come at the end of a musical phrase:
    • Perfect cadence V-I. Sounds final and complete.
    • Plagal cadence IV-I. Also sounds complete, but not as strong. Used for the “Amen” at the end of hymns.
    • Imperfect cadence I -V. Unfinished feel to the music.
    • Interrupted cadence V-VI. Your ears expect it to go to the tonic as in a perfect cadence, but instead it goes to the VI chord – so it is the surprise cadence!


AOS 3 – Texture and Melody


Melody (the tune)

  • Pitch – how high or low the note is.
  • Interval – the gap in pitch between two notes.
  • Scale – a group of notes played in ascending or descending order.
  • Arpeggio – playing the notes of a chord one by one
  • Conjunct melodies move mainly by step (next door notes like C-D) and sound smooth.
  • Disjunct melodies use a lot of leaps (bigger intervals) rather than step movement. They will sound spiky and are much harder to sing!
  • Triadic melodies that use the notes from a triad (3 note chord). E.g. a melody using C’s, E’s and G’s would be triadic as those are notes from the chord of C.
  • Scalic melodies are melodies that follow the order of a particular scale. Similar to conjunct melodies except that a scalic melody can only move up or down to the next note of the scale, whereas a conjunct melody can have a few little jumps.
  • Pentatonic scale – a five note scale. Often used in Chinese, African & Celtic Folk melodies.
  • Whole tone scale – a scale made up of only whole tones. (Sounds quite mysterious – remember The Sea Music project from Year 8.)
  • Chromatic scale­ scale made up of semitones (smallest interval e.g. C-C#).
  • Augmentation – doubling the note values/lengths of the original tune
  • Diminution – halving the note values/lengths of the original tune
  • Modes – came before scales. g. play D-D on the white notes-this is the Dorian mode.  Often used in early music, folk and jazz.
  • Passing notes are the notes in between the notes of the harmony. So if the accompanying chord was C, the notes not in the chord (D, F, A, B) would be the passing notes.  You need passing notes to make a melody sound smooth otherwise it would just be a triadic melody.
  • Blue notes the flattened notes in a Blues Scale. Often slide up or down to these notes.  They make a piece sound ‘bluesy’!
  • Sequence – when a tune is repeated a step higher (ascending sequence) or a step lower (descending sequence).
  • Glissando/Portamento – a slide between 2 notes. (instruments like piano or harp would play all the notes in between the 2 notes really fast by sliding the fingers over the notes really quickly.)
  • Pitch bend – bending the note on a guitar or any string instrument/voice or keyboard/synthesizer.
  • Ornamentation – decorating the melody with ornaments such as trills (2 adjacent notes played rapidly).
  • Mordents – (upper and lower) – 3 notes starting and ending on the same note with the middle note either a step higher or lower.
  • Ostinato / Riff – a repeated rhythm or tune. (Both words mean the same, but riff tends to be used in a pop context.)
  • Phrase – a musical sentence (where you’d naturally take a breath). Often 2, 4 or 8 bars long. Indicated by a curved line above the stave.
  • Articulation – how to play the notes:
    • Staccato ( ) short, detached notes.
    • Legato -smooth. Indicated by a slur (             )
    • Accent ( ) notes played with more force.
  • Improvisation – when a player makes the music up on the spot. In jazz/blues/pop players will often improvise a solo – commonly on a guitar/sax/trumpet/keyboard.



(how the different parts of the piece are woven together)


  • Monophonic – one single melody line. No harmonies, but it may be played/sung by more than one instrument/voice.


  • Unison – When everyone sings/plays one part together e.g. when we all sing Happy Birthday we are singing in unison (therefore, unison is monophonic).


  • Octaves – If the instruments/voices are an octave apart this is called being in OCTAVES. To be in unison the notes must be at the same pitch.


  • Homophonic (or harmonic) – a texture where all parts (melody and accompaniment) move in the same (more or less) rhythm creating a chordal effect. The accompaniment is supporting a clear melody.


  • Broken Chords – Playing the notes of the chord separately, one after the other. Broken Chords provide a more flowing accompaniment than when they are played as block chords.
  • Polyphonic / Contrapuntal –A texture where 2 or more equally important melodies interweave (weave in and out of each other).
  • Imitation – a phrase is repeated (imitated – so not necessarily exactly the same!). Could be one instrument/voice imitating itself, or 2 or more imitating each other.


  • Canon – is a particular type of imitation. It’s like a round (‘London’s Burning’), where the imitating part repeats the entire melody and not just a few motes of it.
  • Antiphonal –stereo effect as a musical phrase is passed from one group of performers to another. E.g. like two choirs singing alternate phrases standing in different places in a church. A lot of early religious vocal music was antiphonal.


 AOS 4 – Timbre and Dynamics

Dynamics (how loud or quiet the music is)

  • Fortissimo (ff) – very loud
  • Forte (f) – loud
  • Mezzo Forte (mf) – quite loud
  • Mezzo piano (mp) – quite quiet
  • Piano (p) – quiet
  • Pianissimo (pp) – very quiet


  • Crescendo (< )    – getting louder
  • Decrescendo / Diminuendo ( >) – getting quieter
  • Sforzando (sf) – suddenly very loud

 Timbre (the type of sound an instrument makes)

  • Vocals – The use of voices.
    • Soprano voice – A high pitched female voice.
    • Tenor voice – A high male voice.
    • Alto voice – A low female voice.
    • Bass voice – A low male voice.
    • Countertenor – a male alto achieved using a falsetto voice
  • Falsetto – ‘false voice’ technique where male singers can sing higher using a softer voice.
  • Vibrato – A slight regular wavering of a pitch used by singers and instrument players to add warmth and interest to the note.
  • Instrumental Music – Music played by instruments only. (No singing!)
  • Instrumental family – e.g. String family, Woodwind family, Percussion family, Brass family.
    • Muted (Con sordino) – To deaden/quieten the sound. Brass players put mutes in the bell of the instrument to do this.
    • Vibrato – See above
  • String instruments can be played:
    • Con arco (Arco) ­– with a bow
    • Pizzicato (pizz)– plucked with the finger
    • Double stopping – when 2 strings are played at once
    • Tremelo/tremolando – literally means ‘trembling’. Rapid up & down movements of the bow on the strings. Good for building suspense etc.
  • Technology – Use of technology in music
    • Reverb – this is when the sounds of an instrument last longer, imitating the sound of the instrument reflecting against walls, floors and ceilings.
    • Distortion – Usually used in rock, this is when an instrument is forced to sound ‘aggressive.’
    • Chorus – This is when a voice or instrument is multiplied electronically, so it sounds like many
    • Multitracking – A recording technique where different sounds/instruments are recorded seperatly and played back together e.g. Logic
    • Compression – Used mostly as a recording technique, this is where the quietest sounds are boosted and the loudest are lowered, so the recording is evened out. E.g. drums.
    • Vocodor – Device used to electronically combine a human voice with a musical instrument
    • Sequence – Electronic device or computer program that is used to record, edit and play back music data using MIDI
    • Panning – Sound is electronically moved across from one speaker to another, or is separated into different speakers





AOS 5 – Structure and Form

 (How the music is arranged and ordered. The plan of the music.)

  • Binary –
    • Two sections of roughly equal length
    • First section (A) is then answered by the second section (B)
    • Each section is usually repeated
  • Ternary –
    • Built up in three sections: A, B, A
    • Section B contains a contrast in some way to Section A.
    • The repeat of Section A can be exactly the same as the first time or it may 
have added detail to make it more interesting
  • Call and Response –
    • A musical phrase is sung by one person or musician and is followed by a responding phrase by one person or a group of musicians.
    • Common in traditional African Music and African-American music like Gospel
    • Think ‘Oh happy days’

  • Rondo –
    • A main theme (A) keeps on returning between contrasting sections
    • Would have the structure A, B, A, C, A, D, A and so on
    • The contrasting sections are called episodes
    • Rondo is an example of a multi-sectional form as it has more forms than 
binary or ternary
    • A composer may change the repeats in some way each time and other 
sections may be repeated
    • Therefore this would still count as a Rondo: A, B, A, C, A, B, A as it has 
returned to A between each episode
  • Theme and Variations –
    • Involves starting a piece with a main theme which is then repeated several times, but changing or ‘varying’ each time
    • May be changed in tempo, style, instruments, rhythm, anything
    • But the main theme is usually in binary or ternary form and is often very 
  • Arch-Shape –
    • This form is completely symmetrical
    • The plan of the music resembles an arch; A, B, C, B, A
  • Cyclic Form –
    • Constant repetition of a fixed number of beats or melodic pattern
    • During each cycle these patterns can be repeated and developed through improvisation, or changes in texture or dynamics
    • Common in Africa, India, and Asia


  • Popular Song Forms
  • Be able to recognise verse, chorus, bridge
  • Some may also involve Intro and Outro, Fills and Middle 8s
  • Ballad –
    • A common form of pop music; often romantic it is a song that tells a story.
  • Ground Bass –
    • A melody in the bass (the lowest part) that is repeated through out the music
    • Harmony and Melody may keep changing around the ground bass
    • May be known as a Riff in popular music
  • Fugue –
    • a polyphonic piece where each part enters with the same tune (at different pitches) and develops each one independently. It is similar to a canon but more complex with modulations, a development section and an ‘exposition’ where the opening section returns.
  • A piece of classical music for a soloist accompanied by an orchestra. Usually has 3 movements (fast – slow – fast).
  • In the Baroque times you could also get a Concerto Grosso which meant that in this case there were a small group of soloists rather than just one
  • Continuo/Basso Continuo
    • The Baroque orchestra also used a ‘continuo’ part beneath these instruments – a bass instrument (cello or bassoon usually) and harpsichord or organ – to fill out the harmonies. This would be the equivalent today of bass guitar and keyboard/guitar in the group – it provided the backdrop to the rest of the music
  • Pedal note
    • a sustained (held) or repeated note, usually in the bass.  The harmony on top of a pedal note must change while the pedal note stays the same or it is not a pedal note. It may be a Tonic pedal or a Dominant pedal note.
  • Concerto –
  • Concerto Grosso –


All forms used in vocal music – 

  • Strophic –
    • When the same tune is repeated throughout for each verse. Think 
hymn tunes or Adele’s ‘Make you feel my love’
  • Through-Composed –
    • Opposite of Strophic. When new music occurs for each 
verse, changing to reflect different moods or situations described in the 
  • Aria –
    • A solo singer sings a melody with orchestral accompaniment. Found 
frequently through operas

Areas of Study

Key Words and Definitions

AoS 01 – Rhythm and Metre

AoS 02 – Harmony and Tonality

AoS 03 – Texture and Melody

AoS 04 – Timbre and Dynamics

A0S 05 – Structure and Form


About neverblendin

David Watters, a graduate of Napier University, Edinburgh, Trinity College of Music, London and the Institute of Education, University of London, has worked internationally within education and Educational Management for more than 20 years. He has taught extensively within many socially and culturally diverse settings; most recently as a Head of Performing Arts within Further Education. He is a personal and professional development associate with The Pacific Institute (, personal coach, freelance writer and founding member of NBI Associates. He is a writer on social equality issues, is a key player in the Equal Love Campaign UK and author of the forthcoming book, NEVER BLEND IN which features key voices from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community and which aims to inspire and encourage those who may lack self-esteem or who question their validity. David is currently promoting a youtube campaign"Give 'em Hope"and is asking individuals, couples and groups to make and share videos telling about the benefits of living with personal authenticity. He has shared a platform with Stuart Milk and Peter Tatchell and is a supporter of 17-24-30, The Trevor Project, Schools Out, The Terrence Higgins Trust, The Albert Kennedy Trust and numerous others. His background in arts and education, combined with a solid understanding of Cognitive Behavioural Strategies, and his passion for Equality Advocacy drive every aspect of his work as a personal development facilitator, motivational speaker and writer. View all posts by neverblendin

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