[nb: originates in email to MUHL5300 Graduate Music History Review, Fall 2014]

The basic organizing principle employed in teaching music history at Texas tech University's school of music is essentially as a history of compositional style. That is, we seek to trace changes in compositional practices as they are reflected in specific works through time. Changes in composition approaches related to changes in historical and biographical contexts this is how we link music content – notes that are sounded — musical contexts – times places and people from which specific compositions emerge. Therefore, there are certain linear narratives which it becomes essential that you understand and demonstrate. Most commonly, this has to do with the succession from one work to a later work.

Therefore, you want to derive a linear sequence of compositions, beginning with those compositions which are cited by the text in era. Place these works in linear or chronological sequence, and try to find stylistic continuities and changes from one work to the next. Relate those stylistic changes to changes in the historical and biographical contexts and you are beginning to connect musical sounds and historical phenomena.

Please do not simply read and highlight in the textbook. Highlighting is a very passive form of processing knowledge, and it does not particularly enhance retention. The more actively you process information, and the more different forms into which you process that information, the better your retention and the swifter and more precise your recall. Read the text. Take notes upon the text. Refer to those notes as you listen and score-read. Modify those notes and build them into outlines. Use mnemonics and acronyms and other memory tools.

Other tools which can help you do this are likewise to be sought. I might for example mention timelines: the organization of specific events or in this case works into a linear chronology, left to right or top to bottom. At the very least, this will help you connect one piece to the next and visualize their historical sequence. Do not get caught up in complex or time-consuming visual representations; simply recognize that organizing and reorganizing data is precisely the way that you create new mental and memory connections. Even if you do not remember the precise date of the composition, if you remember that it comes visually after one piece and before another, you have helped yourself situate the work in time and in relation to other works.

A second very useful, economical, and effective tool is index cards. Each time you encounter a new work discussed in the textbook, wite its title on one side of an index card, and on the other side write the name of the composer and the works date. The advantage here is that you can organize and reorganize the sequence of the index cards: in strict chronology, or in separate stacks of related genres, or in other organizing ways. In addition, you can employ index cards to quiz yourself: read the name of the composition on one side of the card, and seek to recall its composer and date before checking on the other side. Conversely, look at the side with composer and date, and try to recall which composition it is.

You can go further with index cards: as you listen to the recordings and follow along in the scores, make notes on the composer/date side of the card about style characteristics. These may be characteristics cited by the textbook, but it is much more useful to make note of style characteristics which you see or hear in the work. If a certain characteristic catches your attention upon one reading or listening, and you make a note of it, you are preparing yourself to recognize it when that same characteristic appears on a quiz or exam.

In addition, you can use index cards to study together, quizzing one another. You can carry the index cards with you, and each time you listen and hear new characteristics you can add additional notes to the particular card. You can study on the bus or waiting for a class.

There are other techniques for deriving and retaining information. The thing to realize is that, while we value and reward the ability to listen to an unknown piece and describe precisely what is heard, in the context of our graduate review class, it is at least as important to build and enhance our basic knowledge base: our basic understanding of the chronology and style characteristics of significant genres in all eras of Western music history

Let me suggest that you also have a look at the article linked in the following. It contains much the same information and some additional thoughts.

I hope this helps.