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Music introductory reading list


The following is intended as a guide to help you to start preparing for a degree in music – and it is just a guide; you are not expected to complete all of this reading and listening before you begin your degree! Instead, you should use these suggestions as a starting point from which to pick and choose – and I am always happy to provide further guidance.

Although I have included reading and listening suggestions, I would like to emphasize that that there are no books, scores, or recordings that you are expected to buy: the libraries in Cambridge are excellent, and you should be able to borrow anything you need once you are here.

The Cambridge degree places an emphasis on Music as a subject of intellectual enquiry: you can get a sense of the breadth of this enquiry from books such as Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2000), Timothy Rice, Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2014), and Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton (eds), The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton, 2nd edition (London, 2012). Kenneth Gloag and David Beard’s, Musicology: The Key Concepts (Abingdon, 2005) offers a helpful introduction to some of the musicological terms you will encounter during your degree.

In your first year you will study the following subjects

Music and Musicology Today

This course is concerned with the question: how do music and musical performance make meaning in society today? A wide range of contemporary musics – from jazz and pop, to hip hop, religious liturgy, ‘world musics’ and contemporary art music – are explored in relation to this question, and you will be encouraged to think about these sonic practices in terms of sound, power, context and community. In addition to the texts already listed, which provide a general introduction to contemporary musicology and the cultural study of music, you might find it helpful to explore a variety of genres, and the various critical approaches to them. Once again, the OUP Very Short Introduction series offers a good place to start, especially Elijah Wald’s The Blues: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010), and Philip Bohlman’s World Music: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd edition (Oxford, 2020). To find out more about the music of the Gamelan – which you will have a chance to play during your first year – have a look at Sumarsam’s ‘Introduction to Javanese Gamelan’ (Wesleyan University, 2002), which is available to read online here. On feminist approaches to studying music, you could read Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, 2nd edition (Minneapolis, 2002) (particularly the introduction).


Harmony and Counterpoint

The repertory you will look at for this part of your degree ranges from the later sixteenth century (sacred music by Palestrina and Victoria, for example) through the Baroque (J. S. Bach, Corelli, Handel) and Classical periods (sonatas and string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), to the beginnings of Romanticism (Schubert Lieder). If you have not previously had the chance to study harmony and counterpoint, playing through Bach chorale harmonisations is a good place to start. It’s also really helpful to listen to, and to try to play through scores (it doesn't matter how well or badly!) of Classical string quartets, such as Haydn’s Op. 17 quartets, and Schubert songs (Lieder), such as Die schöne Müllerin (The beautiful miller-maid);  these quartets, songs, and the Bach Chorales, are available to download for free here. Whatever pieces you do play through, as you play them, think about how they’re structured, and how the harmony works.

You may also find it helpful to begin to look at some guides to harmony and counterpoint, such as:


Music analysis is the attempt to answer the question ‘how does this music work?’. In your first year, your study of analysis will concentrate on music from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so getting to know music from these periods is really useful. In particular, becoming familiar with the set work, J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Vol. 2, will be very helpful preparation.

The following two books also provide a good introduction to some of the ways in which you can think about musical structure and form:


Studies of the history of music form an important part of the Cambridge course. General histories of music will provide an outline of the main trends in Western music, but remember that research in music history is continually challenging many older perceptions. In fact, whatever you read, be it music criticism in the newspapers, online blogs, or books both old and new, read it critically, and think carefully about whether you agree with it.

In your first year, you will study the history of music in the Early Modern Period (ca. 1580-1750), and the long nineteenth century (ca. 1770-1914). It would be useful to begin preparation for the course by reading a general history of Western Music, such as Paul Griffiths, A Concise History of Western Music (Cambridge University Press, 2009), or Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music (New York, multiple editions), which will give an overview of the periods that you will be studying. Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, 5 volumes (Oxford, 2001) is also excellent preparation, but it is very long; if you have access to this resource, the second and third volumes on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are particularly helpful, and worth dipping into. For an engaging introduction to the history of opera, you could have a look at Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years (Penguin, 2012).

Useful books that are focused on periods that you will study in your first year, include:


It’s important not to forget to listen – and to listen critically. The more listening to music from any period, and of any genre, that you can do, the better! Radio 3 is great for this, as are free music streaming programmes and YouTube; it’s also well worth exploring the vast range of internet radio stations now available, in order to explore different musics. For opera, Opera Vision is an amazing resource; and BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week offers an excellent guide to a wide range of composers and their works.

Whatever you do listen to, think about what it is you’re listening to: how does it relate to other music(s) you’ve heard? What is effective (or less effective) about the piece? How might you begin to understand this music in relation to the contexts of its creation and reception?

Further guidance may be found on the Faculty of Music website

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like any further reading recommendations or advice.

Dr Delphine Mordey,
Director of Studies in Music
June 2020