IB Music Exam: Tips and Strategies for Success

As you prepare for the IB Music exam, remember to develop strategies and methods for answering the IB Music Listening Paper questions. Decide which strategies work best for you or come up with your own, or a combination of those listed below. Use the approach that provides a guide to writing detailed answers in the shortest period of time. For this exam, the more evidence you provide for your assessment, the more likely you are to receive higher marks.


Prior to the start of the exam, have a pre-composed outline you will use that is timed. Different questions demand different approaches but a pre-composed outline can help you organize your thoughts into a reasoned argument. The challenge is to quickly assess WHAT IS RELEVANT IN EACH EXTRACT AND CREATE A REASONED ARGUMENT BY USING TERMINOLOGY through the use of musical elements, structure and context. You can adjust the time as necessary and to the demands of the question. A basic guide will keep you focused and moving through the rubric. It is ESSENTIAL TO YOUR SUCCESS. Choose one of the examples below or create our own.

TIP: Write the outline on the provided notation paper and cross off the categories after you write about them. This can help remind you to stay on track and not forget the context.

Timing Yourself

Note: Times should be adjusted as you go through your practice sample questions. You may need longer to outline structure as well in different questions. Make sure you address ALL of the criteria. Remember for SL there are four questions in two hours or an average of 30 minutes each. HL there are five questions in two and half hours or an average of 30 minutes each. (Note, specific exam questions are not timed by the proctor. Also the number of minutes can be adjusted to the difficulty of the question. For example, 20 minutes on one question and perhaps 40 minutes on another.


MUSICAL – 10 minutes (Criteria A – Musical Elements and Criteria B – Musical Terminology)
• Two sentence – medium, meter, harmony, tempo (Strategy 2 – see below)
• Note musical characteristics (melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, mood, dynamics, orchestration) and use musical terms to describe
(Keep the form in mind while notating this)

STRUCTURE – 15 minutes (Criteria C – Structure and TERMINOLOGY and Criteria B – Musical Terminology)
• Create vertical time, umbrella diagram, etc to list sections, locations and musical events while you rewind small portions. Do not go back to the beginning every time you write. (Note: Vertical time line and umbrella map examples are given throughout the sample questions. Good examples are shown in the world music sample questions.)


Image credit: Shine Music

CONTEXT – 5 minutes (Criteria D- Context)
Discussion of historical, cultural and stylistic. Reminder this is 25% of the assessment. Have a plan and don’t forget.

TIP: To score in the upper bands, you must provide a great deal of detail. This can not be accomplished if you stop writing prior to the end of the exam. There is always more information that can be written about the extracts.

TIP: Writing context at the end allows you to have heard the extract several times to understand better the musical style.

TIP: You must have a plan going into the exam but it needs to be flexible. As you work on sample questions, you will learn how to adjust your times depending on the demands of the question. E.g. Often world music, takes more time to write about structure as it is often not as clearly delineated as Western art music. With the scores you will need to take more time to use your music theory background as you discuss cadences, chord progressions, intervals, etc.


Specifically with written scores, do a precursory look over the entire score. Always begin your listening paper answer with one or two sentences that cover the concepts of MEDIUM, KEY, TEMPO AND METER SIGNATURE. Four key points you can write in a few sentences that will take minutes to observe. By starting in this manner, it will allow you to not forget the easy “stuff.”

Example: “This piece is a Classical string quartet which uses two violins, viola and bass. It is in 4/4 meter or simple quadruple and in the key of D major. The tempo is allegro which means fast.”

In this short example, you have identified the medium (string quartet and the instruments), the met
er, tempo and key signature.

TIP: BUT…..don’t forget to look through the rest of the piece as the key and time signature may change. Take another look and in our imaginary example piece, we may find additional information:

“It modules in m. 15 to the key of C major where the tempo changes to ¾ time or simple triple meter and is moderato or medium fast.”

Good luck with the exam!! Hopefully these tips and strategies will facilitate your studying!

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