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Information for successful applicants

Before you begin

Studying Music at Cambridge will introduce you to a wealth of new approaches to music, while challenging you to deepen your current interests and skills.  The most important thing at this stage is to begin thinking about music in a creative and disciplined way, exploring different repertories and traditions for yourself, but keeping in mind the ways in which music is presented to you as an object of knowledge.  The following notes are intended to provide some suggestions to ease the transition from the types of teaching you may have encountered at school to the more independent learning expected at University.  Later in the summer you will find on the Faculty website detailed descriptions of each of your first-year courses, including specified reading and listening; the suggestions below are deliberately of a more general nature.

To get a sense of the range of different approaches to music currently available, you might try reading Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2000).  Similarly, Nicholas Cook, A Guide to Musical Analysis (Oxford, 1994) will introduce you to some of the ways in which one can think about musical structure and form.  In a more practical vein, it would be worthwhile exploring musical repertories other than those related to your principal instrument(s). Getting to know as much music as possible should be one of your primary concerns, both before and during (and after!) your time at Cambridge. One of the easiest, most inexpensive ways to do this is by listening to the radio or by downloading a free music streaming programme such as Spotify: more importantly, try to expand your listening beyond your favourites, asking and following up questions about what you have just heard. Where possible, follow a recording or performance with a score: this will help you to begin to make connections between sounds and their notation. In time, you will acquire the ability to ‘hear’ a score—including one that you are writing—in your head; meanwhile, you might practise score-reading at the piano, beginning with simpler passages from string quartets and other chamber works. Conversely, these techniques will help in ‘visualising’ the score of a piece to which you are listening. It is not easy to suggest fail-safe methods of acquiring these skills; nonetheless, they will aid enjoyment of your studies at Cambridge, and you are encouraged to work at them.

The scope of the music history courses in the first year varies from time to time; as mentioned above, the website will provide full details in due course. No one expects you to read all five volumes of Richard Taruskin’s A History of Western Music (Oxford, 2005), but you should begin to acquire an outline of the chronology of western music—the major composers, genres, developments—from the beginnings of plainchant up to the present day.  It would also be good to explore at least one form of non-western or popular music: a useful beginning point would be Philip V. Bohlman, World Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2002).  As for harmony, counterpoint, and analysis, you might begin to familiarize yourself with the styles and basic procedures of later sixteenth-century sacred music (e.g. you might study some of Palestrina’s simpler works, such as four-part motets or mass movements) through the Baroque (especially fugues by J. S. Bach, beginning with the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier) and Classical periods (getting to know some string quartets by Haydn, a Mozart opera and some of Beethoven’s symphonies) to the beginnings of Romanticism (Schubert Lieder etc).  Many of the relevant scores are now available to download for free from

Once in Cambridge, you will be able to use the excellent library resources available, but it is well worth building up your own personal library of books and study scores, so that you have them to hand as and when you need them. Music and music books can be expensive, but bear in mind that they can be put to multiple uses: a volume of Mozart or Beethoven string quartets, for example, will be relevant to work in harmony and counterpoint, analysis, and history, as well as providing excellent material for score-reading practice. Dover editions are relatively inexpensive, and offer a very wide range of repertoire. If you don’t have a good book or music shop near where you live, is an excellent source for second-hand (and out-of-print) material. And don’t neglect your local Oxfam or other charity shop—there are often bargains to be had.

We hope that you find these notes helpful. Your College Director of Studies will be happy to explain matters in more detail, and to provide further advice on reading, listening and other preparatory study.

June 2015

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