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Preparing to study Music at university

We know that many of you are wondering how you can best prepare to start studying with us in the autumn. We deliberately don’t provide a set ‘prior reading list’ because we recognise that students come to us with a huge variety of existing musical experiences and interests – and we try and give you space within our programme to develop those interests further through our range of option modules, as well as hopefully pointing you towards new things that you can get excited about too.

So please don’t feel under pressure: none of the below are things we’d necessarily ‘expect’ an average student to have read or done upon arrival with us (as far as we are concerned there’s no such thing as an ‘average student’ anyway – all our students are gloriously individual). So if there is something musical you’ve been longing to do for ages – learning to play a particular piece, getting to know a composer or musician’s output really well, composing something specific – ignore this list and do that instead; we’ll be delighted to hear about it when you join us.

But if you’re stuck for ideas, or just want suggestions for even more things you could be doing, here’s a few starting points.

Reading

Many of these are available cheap second-hand; if you can’t find a cheap copy on Amazon it’s also worth searching the very comprehensive price-comparison site bookfinder.

  • Nicholas Cook’s Music: A Very Short Introduction is a great starting-point for the kinds of issues you might cover at university. (If you’ve not hear of the Very Short Introductions series, it’s a great way to get started on a specific topic; they actually cover various other musical topics too, including ethnomusicology, folk music, early music and music psychology…)
  • A slightly more in-depth guide is the edited volume An Introduction to Music Studies (ed. JPE Harper-Scott and Jim Samson) – it’s helpfully organised by subdiscipline so you can focus on the sections that interest you.
  • If you feel that your theory or analytical skills need a bit of brushing up, there are various texts you could work through depending on your current level. Anna Butterworth’s Harmony in Practice takes you through to about grade 8 theory in carefully-guided exercises and examples; George Pratt’s The Dynamics of Harmony goes a bit further and considers the broader principles of harmony. If you’re already quite comfortable with those ideas, Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis is a great overview of analytical techniques that also considers atonal and other non-traditional music.
  • There are also some excellent open-access websites that give you these ideas for free, structured so you can easily find the bits you don’t already know: I can recommend Open Music Theory, Sound Patterns, and Music Theory for the 21st-Century Classroom as particularly comprehensive and well-organised.

Listening

This is one of the best things you can do to prepare for university music studies. Listening thoughtfully and analytically is a core skill for any university-level music student. So do make the time to listen through to things you’ve not encountered yet, especially big pieces (and especially big orchestral pieces). Above all, just listen to anything you’ve not heard before. A few specific tips to help you develop your musical listening skills:

  • Set aside regular time to listen attentively to new things (i.e. doing nothing else, just listening). 10 minutes a day is a good habit to get into. Have a master list of new things you want to listen to that can feed into this time.
  • A good way to help you listen thoughtfully is to keep a ‘listening diary’: list each piece as you listen to it, and jot down any ideas/questions you have while listening. Some things you’ll really enjoy, and others you might not – try and ask yourself what it is about the music that makes you respond in this way. It’s okay not to enjoy something, but it’s good to be able to reflect on why that is!
  • Follow along with the scores – lots of pre-1900s (and some post-1900s) music can be downloaded free from org as it’s out of copyright. And in fact a lot of more recent music (especially by living composers) can be viewed legally on publishers’ websites: check out Faber Music (navigate to a composer to look at their scores, including our very own Martin Suckling), ScoresOnDemand, and Boosey & Hawkes.
  • You might also want to use this time to familiarise yourself with composers whose music has been sidelined historically for ideological reasons – such as the African-American composers William Dawson, Florence Price and William Grant Still, all of whom wrote fantastic symphonies within a few years of each other in the 1930s. The question of how we decide what the ‘great’ pieces of music are, and who gets left out of that category (and why), is one that comes up a lot at university level.
  • Spotify, YouTube and SoundCloud are all useful streaming services, but don’t forget that you can just put on the radio (eg. Radio 3) for a few minutes to listen attentively to whatever is on.

Doing

Probably the most important category of all:

  • Sing along with I Fagiolini’s series of free 'Sing the Score’ videos – miniature choral and vocal masterworks with on-screen scores. Featuring our very own Robert Hollingworth and many other friends of the Department!
  • Look for ways you can apply the things you are reading practically. For example, if you’re reading about theory/analysis, absolutely the best way to get to grips with it is to pick a few pieces to analyse, and then just do it as you go. If you hit something you don’t understand harmonically or structurally, go back to the textbooks and try and figure it out. Use the analysis as a way of helping you understand the effect of the music – that’s what it’s there for. Analysis starts with listening.
  • If you see yourself as a composer (or even if you don’t!), now’s a great time to be developing your compositional skills. If you’re stuck for ideas, it’s often helpful to set yourself specific tasks based on particular limitations; you could even try and make creative use of the current restrictions in some way, by writing a piece where synchronisation isn’t so important (so it can be played over Zoom), or where delay is an intrinsic part of the concept, or something that can be recorded in multiple layers like a multicam performance.
  • You could put together a multicam performance yourself! There are a few simple apps to help, or if you’re quite tech-savvy you could download the free professional video editor Da Vinci Resolve and really go to town (it’s pretty complex software but there are some very good video tutorials available). Now is a good time to get to grips with whatever software you might be using musically at university. From a sound-recording point of view, getting hold of Reaper (they have free licenses during the pandemic, and they are very reasonably priced in normal times too) is a great idea – it is something of a learning curve but is hugely capable once you get to know it.