Studying for Master’s and Doctoral Music History Exams
In preparing for graduate-level music history examinations (qualifying, oral, and placement exams, and so forth), equal time should be spent on

  • Developing consistent and complete data relevant to the topics
  • Organizing that data in consistent, prioritized, and articulate ways, and

  • Practicing the process of delivering that data, verbally or in prose, in response to the testing environment.

Developing Consistent Data
The history of Euro-American concert music as taught at Texas Tech tends to focus upon two complementary areas:

  • The interaction between musical content (that is, the technical mechanisms—the "SHMRG characteristics") of individual pieces, composers’ styles, or stylistic periods, and musical context (information on the times, places, and people from which individual compositions come—including biographical, political, philosophical, economic, cultural, and psychological factors).
  • The evolution of musical style, as impacted by context, and as revealed by changes in the approach of specific composers to specific musical forms. These specific musical forms will be different in different time periods; hence you need to consider each time period, and its key genres, as independent topics.
Therefore, in order to be sure that you have consistent data, covering all required topics or time periods (Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, plus "American Music" and "Music Research and Bibliography"), you need to do two things:

  • Decide upon the most significant musical genres and cultural factors shaping compositions in each of the topics or time periods, and
  • Take steps to ensure that you have a complete, consistent, succinct narrative describing stylistic change in each of that period’s genres.
So, for example, you would need to decide on the four or five key genres in each given time period. An incomplete list might include something like this:
Medieval
Renaissance
Baroque
Classical
Romantic
20th Century
Mass
Motet
Secular monody
Dance music
Etc.,…
Mass
Motet
Madrigal
Consort music
Etc.,…
Mass
Cantata
Opera (Fr & It)
Oratorio
Concerto
Chamber music
Etc.,…
And so on




You would then need to supply answers, for each genre, to each of the following:

  • What are the key musical characteristics of this particular genre?
  • What are its approximate dates of origin, highest development, and abandonment as a focus of composers?
  • Which three composers might be the best examples of the genre at its beginning, highest development, and decay?
  • Which single piece (title, date, etc) by which specific composer is the best example for beginning, development, and decay?
Answers to the above are the minimal information you need to be able to cite about each key genre in each time period. If you cannot answer each of these questions, you need to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
Note: in the case of the topics "American music" and "Music Research" you would obviously need to develop slightly different material. For "American music," you might focus on specific types of music in various time periods, or across time periods (e.g., "Protestant church music in the colonial era"; "Hymnody in the 19th century"; "Popular song in the pre-Civil War period"; "Early 20th century dance music", etc). For "Music Research", you would certainly need to know the key bibliographic sources on all major genres, at least 5 music encyclopedias and their strengths/weaknesses, and possess a good working knowledge of computer sources.

Organizing the data
The best way to organize, check, and remember the data is to put it in outline form. The content of this outline should be shaped in direct response to a specific thesis. You must come up with that thesis—your argument for the best way to think about a given genre in a given time period—and be prepared to support that thesis via main points and specific examples in outline form.
So, for example, your thesis and outline on "The Renaissance Mass" might look (in part) something like this:

The polyphonic Renaissance Mass
Thesis: "The best way to understand the evolution of style in the polyphonic Renaissance mass is as the attempt by composers to find ever-increasing degrees of cyclic musical integration in a large-scale, multi-movement sacred work."
Outline:
Roots in the medieval Mass text and plainchant repertoire (pre-1300)
Early Renaissance:

  • o
c1400: Mass movements in pairs (esp Kyries and Glorias), esp in French sources (Apt, Avignon, etc), and a few Italian (Matteo da Perugia).
Early/mid Renaissance:

  • o
c1400: a few with more than 2 grouped and musically related; best example:
    • §
Machaut 4-vv Messe de Nostre Dame (c1360); all movements unified by shared chant melodies
    • §
See also anonymous from Barcelona and Toulouse
Early 15th-century:

  • o
Continued growth of integration:
    • §
c1410: Ciconia’s Gloria-Credo pairs: alternating textures
    • §
Old Hall MS (England): grouping by types, but a number in pairs: Leonel Power principle composer
  • o
English composers important here: Power and Dunstaple
    • §
By around c1440: very important unification by shared cantus firmus tenor
  • o
English contenance anglois influence upon Dufay, Binchois
Etc.,…

Practicing the process
You then need to practice the process: in class, by reviewing/revising your outline, using flashcards, doing "mock tests" with friends or with sympathetic faculty members.
WARNING: Do not neglect this process! "Performance anxiety" can be a problem in an examination just as in a musical performance. You want to familiarize yourself with your own reactions to the testing situation, before you actually walk in on the test day. Make sure you practice
© 2006 Dr Christopher Smith