Music introductory reading list

The following is intended as a guide to help you start preparing for your Cambridge degree. 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.

Further guidance may be found on the Music Faculty website.

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

—Delphine Mordey, Director of Studies in Music

In your first year you will study the following subjects

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) or Kenneth Gloag and David Beard, Musicology: The Key Concepts (Abingdon, 2005).

Harmony and Counterpoint

Examining boards for ‘A’ level have very diverse requirements for the study of harmony and counterpoint, and schools have differing facilities for tuition. It may be helpful to brush up and consolidate your knowledge and skills before you come to Cambridge. 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, string quartets and symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), to the beginnings of Romanticism (Schubert Lieder). Playing through Bach chorale harmonisations is useful preparation, especially if you consider at the same time how Bach uses diatonic triads and sevenths, as well as chromatic sevenths and diminished sevenths, and how he modulates from one key to another. It’s also really useful to try to play through scores of Haydn and Mozart string quartets, and at the same time, to think about how they’re structured, and how the harmony works.

You may also find it helpful to read through a guide to harmony, such as George Pratt’s The Dynamics of Harmony: Principles and Practice (Oxford University Press, 1996).


Nicholas Cook, A Guide to Musical Analysis (Oxford, 1994) provides a good introduction to some of the ways in which you can think about musical structure and form. In your first year, analysis will concentrate on the Baroque and Classical periods, so getting to know music from that period is really useful. In particular, becoming familiar with J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, will be very helpful preparation.


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, think carefully about what it is, and whether you agree with it.

If possible, learn to find your way around The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (this is held by many large public libraries in both book form and online). The Grove articles will usually expand on any subject presented in the general histories; full bibliographies and work lists are given for individual composers, and for musical forms you will find good historical surveys. Note that you will have free access to the online version of The New Grove Dictionary when you are in Cambridge.

In your first year, you will study the history of Medieval, Renaissance, and Romantic music (aspects of Baroque and Classical music will be studied in your Analysis, and Harmony and Counterpoint classes). The following reading and listening suggestions are good starting points for getting to know these historical topics (but you are not expected to complete all this reading and listening before you come to Cambridge).

Reading suggestions for music history

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), which will give an overview of the periods that you will be studying.

It’s also worth browsing the first four volumes of Richard Taruskin’s six volume Oxford History of Western Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), which cover the history of music from the earliest notations to the end of the Romantic era. For an 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). Another useful survey book is Leo Treitler, Oliver Strunk (eds), Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History (W.W. Norton, 1998): this is an excellent history of music through primary sources.

Useful books that are focused on each of the periods that you will study, include:

Listening suggestions

The more listening to music from any period, and of any genre, that you can do, the better! But in preparing for the first year of your degree, it will be particularly helpful to familiarize yourself with music from the Medieval to Romantic periods. The list below is, of course, far from comprehensive, but includes some important composers and works that will be useful to get to know (the majority of these works will feature at some point in the first year of the degree).

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