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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 understanding of 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.

The information below gives an overview of each year of the course we will be offering from 2021.  If you would like to see a detailed description what our students are studying this year, please feel free to read through our Undergraduate Handbook


Year 1: Part IA


Options (short courses): choose two from

  • Performance
  • Composition
  • Extended Essay
  • History Workshop

To go into a little more detail, the first year (Part IA) comprises three major components covered across five interconnected courses. 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 Western music of the past; to the variety of musics in today’s world and current ways of thinking about them; and to a selection of case studies and topics that illustrate how different kinds of historical evidence and different theoretical perspectives can be brought together into a critical understanding of music, sound, listening, and music-making. Alongside the lectures, a carefully structured programme of listening and reading gives you a mental map of musics past and present, together with first-hand experience of a wide range of musical traditions and repertory. This component of the degree programme continues into the second year, fanning out into courses in Western music history, ethnomusicology, popular and media musics, performance studies and music and science.

Music Analysis

Whether you play music, write it, or write about it, you need to understand what makes it work. Analysis gives you this understanding---rather as you might strip down a car engine to understand how it works. This component of the programme covers ways of thinking musically about a range of styles and traditions, building on both the tonal skills component of your course and on 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.

Tonal Skills and General Musicianship

‘Tonal’ music encompasses not only the classics from Barbara Strozzi to Brahms but also jazz and contemporary film music: understanding its techniques opens up a huge musical repertory and also gives you a starting point for understanding other repertories. We see this as an essential foundation for more advanced studies, and again we approach it through complementary perspectives. These include musicianship skills (acquisition of basic harmonic skills at the keyboard, aural work) and writing music in a range of historical styles. This second component of the curriculum continues into the second year, where work in tonal skills culminates in a coursework portfolio including optional streams in orchestral arrangement, and film soundtrack composition.


The final component of the first-year curriculum offers four smaller-scale course options from which you choose two. Each of them allows you to pursue specialist study:

  • a 15-minute recital on your chosen instrument or voice;
  • a composition;
  • an extended essay on a subject of your choice;
  • History Workshop, a practical how-to-do-it course.

This options-based 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 2: Part IB

All students are recommended to study the following three papers, however with permission they may swap one of them for an ‘option’ course:

  • Western Music History 2
  • Music Analysis 2
  • Applied Tonal Skills (e.g. stylistic composition, fugue, orchestration, film score)

Then choose three papers from the following options:

  • Introduction to Performance Studies (including optional recital)
  • Introduction to Ethnomusicology
  • Introduction to Popular Music and Media
  • Introduction to Music and Science
  • Portfolio of Compositions
  • Dissertation on a topic of your choice
  • Keyboard Skills
  • Notation and Source Studies
  • An additional selection of topic-based courses aligned with staff research and designed to offer a diversity of choice. These change annually, with recent courses including: Music and Society in the Middle East; Purcell and the English Imagination; Popular Music of the Black Atlantic, Soviet Music in the 1920s; Carmen in Context; Schubert’s Winterreise, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Music in Jazz-Age Paris (each including a language element); Introduction to Schenkerian Analysis.

In the second year (Part IB), you take six courses of equal weight. There are core courses in historical studies, tonal skills, and music analysis. You are recommended to take all three; however, with permission you may swap one of them for an ‘option’ course. These options include: Performance Studies (where you can offer a 25-minute recital); Advanced Keyboard Skills; Notation (in which you can learn to transcribe Medieval and Renaissance notation); Introduction to Music and Science (which covers everything from acoustics to cognition); Introduction to Ethnomusicology; Introduction to Popular Music and Media; Composition Portfolio; Dissertation on a topic of your choice; an interdisciplinary course taught jointly with the Language Centre; and further advanced historical and critical options, which change from year to year in line with staff research interests and to keep them at the cutting edge of musicological understanding.

Year 3: Part II

Papers that are available every year:

  • Advanced Performance
  • Notation and Source Studies Portfolio 
  • Advanced Tonal Skills (including film score)
  • Advanced Skills (including keyboard skills or choral performance)
  • Analysis Portfolio
Portfolio of Compositions
  • Dissertation on a topic of your choice
  • Fugue  


And a wide selection of topic-based papers aligned with staff research and designed to offer a diversity of choice across the remaining core areas taught in the first and second years. These change annually with recent courses including: 

  • The Sequence from its Beginnings to the Carmina Burana;
  • Decolonizing the Ear;
  • Beethoven: the Late String Quartets;
  • The Music of Chopin;
  • The Music of Miles Davis;
  • Issues in Music and the Moving Image;
  • Exploring Music Psychology;
  • Issues in Ensemble Performance from ca. 1800 to the Present;
  • Music, Nationalism and Politics in Spain;
  • North Indian Classical Music;
  • Olivier Messiaen, 1949-64: Experiment and Regeneration.

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 by selecting six courses from a wide selection of options on offer. You will be able to align these courses with your interests and 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. Or you can choose lecture-based courses rooted in staff research; or a mixture. 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.