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The Cambridge Music Course

Our undergraduate course (or Tripos) is designed to introduce you not just to a range of music, but to a wide variety of ways of thinking about and understanding music. In the first year, the focus is on giving you a solid grounding in the techniques and history of the Western musical tradition, as well as an understandingof the many roles music plays in today’s world. We recognise that not everybody comes to the course having had teaching in all areas. The first year allows those from all backgrounds to gain the core skills needed for university-level music studies.       

As you progress through your studies, you have increasing freedom to take specialised courses in different kinds of music, and approaches to studying it. You may also choose to follow a particular pathway through the degree, be that in performance, composition, music history, ethnomusicology, popular music, or music and science. 


Year 1: Part IA

To go into a little more detail, the first year (Part IA) comprises four major components; these are the building-blocks of the Cambridge degree, and are studied by all students:

Historical and Critical Studies

Lectures introduce you to basic issues involved in understanding the music of the past; to the variety of musics in today’s world and their social contexts; and to a selection of historical case studies, illustrating how different kinds of historical evidence can be brought together into a critical understanding of the music in question. Alongside the lectures, a carefully structured programme of listening and reading gives you a mental map of music’s past and present, together with first-hand experience of a wide range of repertory. There is of course much to cover here, and so the critical and historical studies component of the curriculum continues into the second year.

Tonal Skills

‘Tonal’ music encompasses not only the classics from Barbara Strozzi to Brahms but also jazz and contemporary film music: understanding its techniques both opens up a huge musical repertory and gives you a starting point for understanding other traditions. We see this as an essential foundation for more advanced studies in all areas of music, and again approach it through complementary perspectives including acquisition of basic harmonic skills at the keyboard, aural work, and writing music ina range of historical styles. This component of the curriculum, too, continues into the second year, culminating in a coursework portfolio in which you bring together everything you have learned about tonal music; this portfolio includes options in orchestral arrangement, and adding a soundtrack to a film.

Music Analysis

Whether you play music, write it, or write about it, you need to understand what makes it work, and analysis gives you this understanding, rather as you might strip down acar engine to understand how it works. This component of the programme builds on the tonal skills component to create a bridge between your study of style composition, and your work in historical and critical studies. Again, because it is so important in enabling you to engage musically with music, this component continues into the second year.

Individual Project

This final component of the first-year curriculum offers three options to choose from, all of which allow you to pursue your own work under specialist staff direction:

  1. a 15-minute recital on your chosen instrument or voice;
  2. a composition;
  3. an extended essay on a subject of your choice.

This component of the curriculum helps prepare you for the core extended projects in performance, composition, or writing about music that you can choose in subsequent years.

Year One Papers at a Glance

  1. Music and Musicology Today, including a choice of recital, composition or extended essay 
  2. Historical Studies 1 (Music of the Early Modern Period, ca. 1580-1750)  
  3. Historical Studies 2 (Nineteenth Century) 
  4. Introduction to Music Analysis (Baroque and Classical)
  5. Tonal Skills 1 (Harmony & Counterpoint) 
  6. Tonal Skills 2 (Aural & Practical Musicianship Skills) 


Year 2: Part IB

In the second year (Part IB), you complete the core courses in historical studies, tonal skills, and music analysis. These courses take up half your time; for the other half you choose three options from a wide range of courses. These include: Performance Studies (where you can offer a 25-minute recital); Advanced Keyboard Skills; Notation (in which you learn to transcribe Medieval and Renaissance notation); Introduction to Music and Science (which covers everything from acoustics to cognition); Ethnomusicology (where you study music within cultures around the world); Composition Portfolio; Dissertation on a topic of your choice; and an interdisciplinary course taught jointly with the Languages Faculty. There are also more advanced historical and critical courses, which change from year to year, in line with staff research interests, and to keep them at the cutting edge of musicological knowledge; these courses typically include options in popular music and topics that extend across multiple art forms (e.g. opera).

Year Two Papers at a Glance

All students study Papers 1 to 3:

1. Historical Studies (Twentieth and Twenty-First Century) 
2. Music Analysis (Nineteenth and Twentieth century)
3. Applied Tonal Skills (stylistic composition, arrangement, orchestration, film score) 

Then choose three papers from:

4. Introduction to Performance Studies (including recital) 
 Composition Portfolio 
6. Dissertation on a topic of your choice
7. Keyboard Skills 

8. Introduction to Music and Science
9. Notation
10. – 13. A range of electives* that changes annually, and always includes a paper taught jointly with the Languages Faculty, as well as options in Ethnomusicology, Popular Music, and History.

 Recent electives have included:
Introduction to Ethnomusicology; Soviet Music in the 1920s; Carmen in Context; Schubert’s Winterreise (including a language element); Music and Society in the Middle East; Purcell and the English Imagination; Popular Music of the Black Atlantic.


Year 3: Part II

The third year (Part II) gives you even more choice. There are no compulsory courses; it is up to you to design your own programme of study from the wide selection of options on offer, in line with your interests and also with the skills and knowledge you will need for your chosen career path. There are third-year options in all the core areas taught in the second year, together with a range of more advanced specialisms. If you wish, you can spend most of this year working with individual staff members on your own projects, whether as an advanced performer, composer, historian, analyst, ethnomusicologist, or music scientist. In this way, while our programme gives you the solid understanding of the subject which a music degree should guarantee, it also allows you to tailor the course to your particular enthusiasms, and offers the flexibility you need to prepare yourself for life after Cambridge. 

Year Three Papers at a Glance

Choose six papers from:

1. Advanced Performance  
Notation and Source Studies Portfolio
Advanced Tonal Skills (including film score)
Advanced Performance Skills (keyboard skills or choral performance)
Analysis portfolio
Dissertation on a topic of your choice
8.-17.  A wide range of courses** from a list that changes annually, but always includes options in History, Ethnomusicology, Popular music, Early Music, Music and Science, and Performance Studies.

** Recent topics offered have included: The Sequence from its Beginnings to the Carmina Burana; Beethoven: The Late String Quartets; The Music of Chopin; The Music of Miles Davis; Issues in Music and the Moving Image; Exploring Music Psychology; Music, Nationalism and Politics in Spain; North Indian Classical Music; Olivier Messiaen, 1949-64: Experiment and Regeneration.