How to Learn Music History in Ten Days
By Chloe Smith
This week, I’m starting my PhD in Music History at Yale University, and I took (and passed! woohoo!) my department entrance exam, called the “Style and Repertory” exam. This exam involved 15 audio and musical score examples, and my task was to give my best approximation for date and geographic location of each piece and argue my case using evidence like harmony, structure, instrumentation, etc. I’ve been busy preparing for the exam for the past two weeks, so didn’t have the time for a proper historical musicology blog today. Instead, I’ll give you a day by day breakdown of my music history review regimen and a peek into this part of starting a PhD program in musicology.
(I should probably tell you at this point that my blog title is clickbait. If you’re trying to learn the last 1,000 years of music history from scratch in two weeks with this study plan, results are not guaranteed. I might should have called this blog “How to Review Music History that you Really Should Already Know from Undergrad in Ten Days.”)
Day 1: Collecting your Materials
The first step is getting lost in the music library trying to find all your textbooks. Once you’ve done that, you’ll want to grab a copy of the Study & Listening Guide for Grout/Palisca A History of Western Music and Palisca Norton Anthology of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder. This is an intimidatingly large book, but don’t worry, we’re skimming. Next, you’ll grab several volumes from the Oxford University Press’s Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture series: Music in North India by George Ruckert, Music in South India by T. Viswanathan and Matthew Harp Allen, Music in Central Java by Benjamin Brinner, and Music in West Africa by Ruth M. Stone. Finally, you’ll grab Essential Jazz: The Last 100 Years by Henry Martin and Keith Waters.
You might discover while sitting in the exam that this was not, in fact, enough global music books.
At the end of Day 1, you don’t actually open the books yet. You did the hard part already by carrying your large stack of books home via the university shuttle. Congrats.
Day 2: Early Music Day
Today, you will read the first five chapters of the Burkholder Studying/Listening Guide. You’ll want the accompanying Norton Anthology of Western Music playlist as well. These chapters cover music in Ancient Greece and Rome, Gregorian Chant in the Middle Ages, the beginning of polyphony in the Notre Dame school in the 13th century, and music in France, Italy, England, and the Burgundian lands through the 15th century.
You will try desperately to recall the information that you learned in your “Musicology I” class in undergrad, where you distinctly remember thinking, “I won’t need any of this as a violin teacher in the future.” You were wrong.
As a music history scholar who focuses primarily on 20th century America, this is the day you basically just hold on for dear life, try to memorize when major changes in notation happened so you can guess the right century from a written score, and figure out what isorhythm is even though you have learned about it at least two separate times already.
A favorite piece from this time period is “O Rubor Sanguinis,” a monophonic chant by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century abbess in Germany.
Day 3: Renaissance to the Late 17th Century
Today, you’re getting into slightly more familiar territory. Chapters 6–10 of the Burkholder Guide include music from the Renaissance, church music from Protestant Reformation and Catholic counter-reformation, and the early Baroque period.
You’ll listen to composers from this era like Monteverdi and his Italian madrigals, Palestrina and his soaring phrases in Catholic church music, early instrumental music composers like Frescobaldi and Couperin, and Lutheran church musicians like Buxtehude and Telemann.
At this point, you might discover that the music of Renaissance-era French composer Josquin du Prez is way cooler than you ever gave him credit for.
Day 4: From Late Baroque to Beethoven
The next day of reading will cover chapters 11–15 in the Burkholder Guide. This includes instrumental music of the late Baroque era, the entire 18th century Classical Period, and the eminent Ludwig van Beethoven.
If you’re a violinist like me, you’re finally in your comfort zone. We’ve got all the big names: Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Hadyn, Mozart, and Beethoven. At this point, differentiating between the Baroque (with its elaborate ornamentation and emphasis on emotional affect) and the Classical (with its strict forms and gallant style) feels like a piece of cake. Then the Guide spends a whole chapter on Beethoven, which feels like a lot.
For this day, I want to point out a composer who isn’t as well known. She’s a French composer, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre. Her Sonata №2 for Violin and Continuo is a great example of late Baroque music.
Day 5: Romantic Era to the Twentieth Century
Today, you’ll cover chapters 16 to 20 in the Guide. Strap in, because you’ll hit a huge range of genres: symphonies to opera to art song to chamber music to solo concertos to ballet to piano music to .. you get the point. You’ll skim through German composers like Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner and try to remember the musical features that distinguish them. You’ll finally get a peek at what the Russian composers have been up to, like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.
You’ll remember that the Romantic era brought back an emphasis on emotion and drama, along with the elevation of instrumental virtuosos like Paganini and Liszt. Harmonies get increasingly chromatic, forms gets increasingly stretched and played with, and the range of dynamics and musical contrast get more extreme. As we get into the 20th century, music gets weirder and the bounds of traditional Western theory get pushed in all sorts of cool ways. If you can’t tell, this is my favorite day so far.
Picking just one piece to share for this day is killing me, but I’ll give you one of my all-time favorites: Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. He’s a Finnish composer from the early 20th century.
Day 6: More 20th Century
You’re halfway done with your ten day study plan, and as a treat, there’s only two chapters to finish in the Burkholder Guide today. Chapters 21 and 22 deal with Atonality/Serialism and the American 20th century respectively.
At this point, if you can’t find a tonal center in your Western classical music example, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s from the 20th century. Cage embraced randomness and chance in their aleatory music. Schoenberg and his followers used twelve-tone systems, where math guided music over aesthetic principles. Classical composers like Varese and Babbitt experimented with electronic music and sound recording equipments. Reich and Glass embraced minimalism. Penderecki and Crumb used graphic notation, where the written music was equally important to the sound produced.
The last chapter in the Guide covers American music of the 20th century, especially popular music. It feels criminally rushed and under-valued here — one of my favorite American composers, Florence B. Price, gets a measly half a sentence in this chapter (Beethoven got a full chapter, if you’ll remember).
I’ll leave you with one of the most amazingly horrifying pieces of music I’ve ever encountered — George Crumb’s “Black Angels.”
At this point, you’re finally finished with the history of Western music, and over 400 pages of the Studying and Listening Guide. I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to my study trick and new favorite party game: putting the Norton Anthology of Western Music playlist on shuffle and seeing if you can guess the century and country of origin of the music that you hear. It’s hard, and only your nerdiest music friends will think this is fun.
Day 7: Music of India
For the last four days of reading, we’re stepping out of the Western classical tradition. Today, you’ll read through Music in North India by George Ruckert and Music in South India by T. Viswanathan and Matthew Harp Allen.
Take note of major genres including Bhajans and Kriti, Raga, Vedic chants, and Tabla drumming music. You’ll read about the scales and rhythm systems in Indian music, along with the distinctive sounds of instruments like the drone-producing tanpura and the stringed sitar.
I really enjoyed the music of Lata Mangeshkar, an Indian singer known for her music from Hindi films.
Day 8: Central Java and West Africa
Today, you’ll read Music in Central Java by Benjamin Brinner and Music in West Africa by Ruth M. Stone. The book on Javanese music will bring you to the world of gamelan, a music style where the cyclical passage of time is marked by gongs and rhythmic and textural changes. This music features bronze gongs, hand drums, metallophones like the gendèr, and stringed instruments like the rebab.
The book on West Africa will include an introduction to the complex, polyrhythmic, and multilayered music of the Kpelle people in Liberia. Tight, complexly woven musical ostinatos, or repeating rhythms, create the foundation for call-and-response style vocal parts that serve functions in many parts of life, from bush clearing songs to children’s counting songs. You’ll also read about the important relationship between instruments and voice, like with the Yoruba people’s talking drums.
This example of West African drumming song is one of my particular favorites from this day of studying: “Akiwowo” by Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji.
Day 9: Jazz from 1900 to the 1940s
The last two days of reading will be from the Essential Jazz book I mentioned previously. The accompanying playlist is a great listen. You’ll read chapters 1 through 4 today. Chapter 1 covers the roots of American jazz in African music, ring shouts, spirituals and work songs; and genres of the late 19th century like minstrel shows, ragtime, and later, the blues. (You might realize at this point that this book feels seriously outdated in some of its language and the way it talks about minstrel shows. I think it provides a helpful framework for periodizing jazz history, but it’s definitely not without flaws.)
Chapter 2 covers Early Jazz in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City and the beginnings of Big Band music, like Duke Ellington’s early career. Chapter 3 covers swing, and Chapter 4 features bebop. Telling all of these eras apart can be done with a few factors: defining rhythmic characteristics or tempo, instrumentation, texture and harmonic features, and freedom of improvisation.
I’m a particular fan of bebop, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts”” really caught my ear.
Day 10: Jazz from the 1950s to Present Day
It’s the last day of studying, and by this point you’re pretty tired and ready for this whole thing to be over with. However, I intentionally saved the absolute best day for last: it’s time for jazz post-World War II. We’ll read chapters 5 through 8 of the Essential Jazz book today.
Chapter 5 covers the 1950s with cool jazz and hard bop, two wildly different splits within the genre of jazz. Cool jazz includes music like Miles Davis 1949–1950 Birth of Cool. It’s smooth, lyrical, and an intentional step away from bebop. Hard bop, on the other hand, leans further into the fast-paced tempos of bebop. It became distinctly un-danceable, and included the talents of artists like Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and later-1950s Miles Davis.
Chapter 6 covers the avant-garde or free jazz of the 1960s with the music of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and, my personal favorite, Sun Ra. These experimental approaches to jazz music pushed the bounds of harmony, form, and timbre. Chapter 7 covers 1970s Jazz Rock and Jazz Funk fusion, with artists like Herbie Hancock and more, later, Miles Davis. Chapter 8 takes you from the 1980s to the present day with smooth jazz, global jazz, and the future of jazz.
In a shocking turn of events, I’m not going to go the Sun Ra route in my listening example for this day. Instead, I’ll leave you with the jazz funk fusion of Herbie Hancock’s 1980 “Just Around the Corner.”
To conclude, I want to point out that this ten day speed-run through music history is obviously not exhaustive and has some obvious blind spots. It’s heavily weighted towards Western classical music because of the requirements of the exam, and many of the books feel pretty outdated in their language or their sidelining of women musicians or composers of color. (I’m still not over Beethoven getting a whole chapter when African American classical composers were relegated to two sentences in the last chapter of the Grout/Palisca Guide.)
I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised by the diversity on the exam — it was almost half non-classical or non-Western — and included other music traditions I didn’t cover here. I hope you’ll read this blog as a light-hearted look into a pretty small part of my PhD experience, not as any sort of definitive guide on what constitutes comprehensive music history or what’s worth studying.