It’s the time of year to carefully plan your listening for the exam!   The often forgotten criterion from the listening paper rubric is Criteria D: Context.  Let’s discuss expanding the context of each of your answers.


What is “context”? IB defines context as historical, cultural and stylistic characteristics.

Here are types of contextual information:

Questions that are cultural in nature are:

  • Function of music – What was this played for? Why was it written?
  • Nationality, location, geography – This is especially important for world music
  • Language – In vocal music, name the language of the piece. This will often help you with the location and culture
  • Rhythmic language – Discuss and notate any cultural specific rhythms if possible

Questions that are historical in nature are:

  • Questions could include: What genre or composer? What is the approximate date of when the composition was written? Where does this extract fall in time? When was this recorded?

Descriptions that are stylistic could include:

  • Describe the musical features that place this piece in a certain era or a certain geographical location.
  • Fusion – describe the cultures or combination of genres and the musical characteristics exhibited by each

TIP – In Western Art Music, have a context paragraph composed prior to the exam. It can contain three or four sentences about each era. If you are do not know the title or the composer, but you do know the era, this can provide at least some contextual information.

Example: Mozart’s 40th Symphony is an excerpt on the exam. I do not know that name of the piece or the composer. I do not know what to write for context but I do know it is a classical symphony.

A possible contextual paragraph could consist of: This piece was written in the Classical era. The great classical composers were Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. The classical era was from 1750 – 1825. 1827 is when Beethoven dies. (Historical info) This sounds like a classical piece because I hear classical characteristics such as symmetrical phrasing, homophonic texture and a focus on the strings melodically. This could be Mozart as this is a trademark of his writing style. (Style info).   It is also absolute music which means it did not have a program and was intended for an audience in a concert hall. (Cultural)

This type of pre-composed paragraph can help in these types of situations.


Below is a hierarchy of how to expand your contextual answers, going from simple to more complex, lower marks to higher marks. You may not be able to expand to the bottom level in every aspect of the contextual question to earn the highest level of marks. Expanding your answers will help you gain more points.

Click to expand

Possible sample answer:

Historical: Palestrina lived in the 1500’s and worked at St. Peter’s in Rome, the heart of the Catholic Church. His music was mostly written as a result of the reforms called for during the Council of Trent, which attempted to abolish cantus firmus Mass settings based on popular (secular) songs of the day.

Cultural/Function/Geography: This is an example of a “Kyrie” from a Renaissance Mass written by Palestrina. This is part of the Ordinary of the mass and would have performed in a church with an SATB choir.

Style: This music is sung a cappella and is an example of choral polyphony. The setting emphasizes the text by repetition and is not based on obscure chant or other material. This is from the time known as the Golden Age of the Renaissance. Palestrina’s music was a return to simpler compositional techniques.

To earn the marks in the higher bands, you must go into great detail. Even if it seems obvious to you, write it down. For example, it may seem obvious to you that a mass is sacred music and performed in a church, however this is important contextual information. WRITE IT DOWN, write everything down.