Second and final year - Optional modules - Music

Paper Composition

  • Prerequisite: Successful completion of Year 1 Paper Composition

Personal aesthetic convictions are respected, but a willingness to expand one’s awareness and a desire for creative investigation are expected. Presented topics, upon which fortnightly assignments are based, will develop a number of technical aspects of contemporary music. Workshop-style sessions provide the opportunity to review compositional decisions and to monitor progress. Final projects are played through during the Summer Term revision period. Additional seminars, workshops and concert attendance are an integral and quality part of the module. Attendance is required (10% of the final mark), and one mark will be subtracted for each unjustified absence.

Studio Composition

  • Prerequisite: Successful completion of Year 1 Studio Composition. 

This course builds on techniques learned in Studio Composition level 1. Starting from a group recording session to gather source sound material, classes (nominally fortnightly) focus on techniques of digital sound editing, processing and mixing, together with discussion of compositional and aesthetic issues. The learning process is significantly informed by guided reading and listening – attendance at the weekly MiniBEAST listening sessions (11.30-12.30 on Wednesdays throughout Semesters 1 & 2) and at BEAST events in Birmingham are compulsory components of the course, for which students are required to keep a diary containing critical notes on the works presented; they should therefore avoid scheduling instrumental lessons or committing to any other activities at these times. In Semester 2, attention shifts to the composition of individual pieces by each student; scheduled class times provide an opportunity for the tutor to monitor and give feedback on the progress of each student’s piece as it develops.


The module aims to provide students with facility in orchestrating Classical and Romantic music; to sharpen the ear and improve command of harmony and counterpoint, musical notation, calligraphy, and the presentation of scores and parts. The module begins with basic techniques of scoring for strings, woodwind and brass, and moves to the scoring of Classical, Romantic, Impressionist music for symphony orchestra, and 20th century music for smaller ensemble. Examples of instrumental scoring by a range of composers will be examined in class and prescribed for private study. As well as 4 main summative assessments, students will also undertake additional formative assessments.

Music in California

This module is concerned with understanding the “audible history” of California through its many musical forms. Three themes central to the module are multiculturalism (and the different forms multiculturalism takes), music in social life (how music serves as the nexus for community building and cultural identity), and cultural geography (how different musical forms articulate specific localities, whether those be neighbourhoods, towns, cities, or regions). Topics and examples may include indigenous communities and their musical forms (and the politics of indigenous territorial claims); pre- and post-statehood Spanish-language musics in relation to the changing demographics of work; the role of experimental popular musics (e.g. punk, heavy metal, surf rock) in local underground scenes; multiculturalism and the pedagogy of “world music” in California; Hollywood film music; the recording industry of Los Angeles; jazz music and community organising in Los Angeles and San Francisco; and California’s avant-garde art musics as a distinctive hybrid between classical, popular, and world musical forms.


The course will comprise a combination of theory and practice. The basics of stick technique will be studied as one of the means of communicating with performers. The importance of analysis and the issues involved in learning a score and making decisions about it will also be investigated. Students will conduct ensembles formed by the rest of the group.

Arts Management in Practice

A practical module in Arts Management focusing on the Classical Music industry delivered as a combination of seminars and practical classes. Subjects covered include marketing, stakeholder management, project management, fundraising and finance, and ‘creating a project with impact’. Classes include group tasks and students are expected to present their findings to their peers. Assessment will be report and presentation based.

An Introduction to Sound Recording Techniques

An introduction to the skills required in contemporary recording. The course covers aspects of microphone use and placement; mixing and balancing; monitoring; production and engineering techniques; track compilation and post-production and CD-R Mastering. The course is primarily practice based, and takes a musical, as opposed to a technical, approach to recording.

Eighteenth-Century Counterpoint

This course will familiarise students with 18th-century counterpoint techniques through the study of major repertoire and the writing of a variety of small forms such as canons, preludes, and inventions. The course will also include the introduction to the fugue, in form of exercises and writing of an exposition. An emphasis will be placed on practical skills. This course is suitable for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of counterpoint as well as developing their practical writing skills, and is particularly suitable for composers.


This module will focus on a number of Verdi’s major theatrical and sacred works, including Nabucco, La traviataAida, the Messa da Requiem and Falstaff. Although we will pay close attention to Verdi’s stylistic development, we will also study many of the aesthetic and political debates that have clustered around the composer. Key themes will include: Verdi’s shifting relationship with the the Italian state; interactions between Italian opera, French grand opera, and Wagnerian music drama; the impact of urbanisation, internationalisation, and imperialism on Verdi’s output; and the challenge of realism and modernism.

The Symphony: Sammartini to Sibelius

The symphony was the high-prestige mode of instrumental composition in nineteenth century Europe and it retained its status in professional orchestral concerts and in the era of recording. The symphonic repertory of this era is one of the glories of western civilisation. The module examines the symphony from its origins to World War I, exploring famous canonic compositions and lesser-known byways, and composers such as Sammartini, Dittersdorf, Vanhal, Haydn, Mozart, Kraus, Beethoven, Schubert, Gade, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Sibelius, Elgar and Mahler.

Music, Place and Identity

This module is concerned with understanding the relation of music to concepts of place and identity. In addition to a broad theoretical overview of topics related to place (including theories of locality, nationalism, transnationalism, diasporas, and indigeneity) as developed in fields as diverse as history, cultural geography, and anthropology, the module will cover seminal ethno/musicological works on how musics inscribe place-based senses of cultural belonging. Topics and examples may include occupation and cross-cultural collaborations in Palestine/Israel, transnationalism and cultural diplomacy in the Eurovision Song Contest, music and governmentality in the Caribbean, contemporary Native American and First Nations indigenous musics, European art music and colonialism, diasporic South Asian music in the UK, the role of music in the Arab Spring, and music in Birmingham.

American Experimental Music

This course will look at the history of what has become known as the American Experimental tradition (and its numerous offshoots), from its early proponents such as Ives and Cowell, through the works of Cage and the New York School, and beyond to the present day. Topics will include Americana in experimentalism, the influence of non-Western musics, minimalism and post-minimalism, Fluxus, and electronic music. The course will examine both the philosophical attitudes of the composers involved and technical aspects of the music.  Lectures will be supplemented by in-class experiments and performances.

Tonality: An Introduction

This course is intended to consolidate and enhance technical knowledge and expertise gained by students in the first-year harmony and counterpoint course. Skills relating both to the harmonic analysis of tonal music and the composition of eighteenth-century-style counterpoint will be brought together in the context of an introduction to Schenkerian analysis. A knowledge of Heinrich Schenker's (1868–1935) immensely influential theory and an ability to understand and deploy his complex notational system remain prerequisites for any student wishing to read recent analytical literature on tonal music. The repertoire to be discussed in the course will range from Monteverdi to Schubert, but the primary focus will be on work by Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) and J.S. Bach (1685–1750).

The Singer's Survival Guide

By the mid-seventeenth century the development of an opera repertoire for a certain type of paying public was well under way. Yet, while this certainly changed the cultural landscape of secular vocal music from that point forward, it did not eradicate the popular interest and development of vocal music for private chamber settings, including sacred themed music for private use and making. Studying other vocal genres and the venues in which they were performed side by side with opera at this crucial moment in operatic history presents us with a more complete picture of singing culture from 1650-1750s. In order to become a success in this climate, singers not only needed to be musically but also politically savvy. This module will explore the political and social systems which these singers needed to negotiate and exploit in order to maintain their popularity and social status. We will also focus on the social and cultural issues which shaped the musical development of the different repertories in which they were expected to participate. Musical features of these genres will be studied side by side with the patrons, singers, and composers of these repertoires and will be interpreted through issues of gender, class / social status, reception, the musical canon and the conception of the early modern body.

The Sixties

People are still talking about the legacy of the 1960s. For some, this was a golden age, the greatest decade in living memory, a time of political people-power, free expression, and free love; for others it was a pit of ill discipline and moral degradation. One thing is sure: ripples of the era’s influence continue to this day. Equally certainly, however one views the ’60s, everyone agrees that music played a major role in encoding and transmitting its cultural message. Using close readings, along with musical and video examples, this module will explore the music at the ‘sharp end’ of ’60s culture: the music that embodied its various messages and, for better or worse, immortalised them. On that account the emphasis is inevitably on folk and popular music, though we will also address concert music and jazz. By the end we will all at least have carefully considered, if not perhaps answered, the question as to whether there is such a thing as quintessentially ‘sixties music,’ and what, if anything, binds together its various manifestations.

Sound in Society

This module provides an introduction to the field of Sound Studies, including both the conceptual framework as well as practical techniques. We will begin with an overview of the field and its formation in 2004 through a consideration of the work of Trevor Pinch, Karin Bijsterveld and R Murray Schafer. Subsequent weeks will cover topics such as soundscapes, sound and the animal world, noise and silence in philosophy, the engineering of sound, sound and radio art, and synaesthesia research in cognitive psychology.

The Romantic Piano: Chopin and his Legacy

Chopin is the pivotal figure in the history of modern keyboard music: he fully exploited the new possibilities of the nineteenth-century piano in figuration and texture, whilst building on the heritage of eighteenth-century music of the highest quality with immaculate taste and technique, and in many ways standing firm against contemporary artistic currents. His performance style, especially in its rhythmic freedom, was controversial. He was an early pioneer of ‘national music’. His legacy for later pianist-composers, piano pedagogy and recital repertoire was profound. In this module we will evaluate Chopin’s own music and his distinctive style and innovations, and then assess its legacy in the work of composers such as Liszt, Balakirev, Grieg, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Albéniz, Debussy and Medtner.

Music and the Brain

Thanks to imaging techniques like fMRI, great advances have been made in our understanding of the human brain and how it functions. Very recently music has taken an increasingly prominent role in this research. Scientists have been intrigued to discover that not only does music activate the nucleus accumbens (the pleasure zone) and the amygdala (that governs emotions) but it also activates the pre-frontal cortex area (which is associated with abstract decision making). The work of Levitin and others has also evidenced an association between music and antibodies governing immunity (in particular immunoglobin A). A major focus of the course is music and health/well-being and thus it will be of interest to anyone wishing to pursue further research or professional training in this area, whether pure research, or applied research e.g. music therapy. Our study of the scientific literature will show how the neurocognitive processes involved affect intellectual, sensory and emotional processes. We will also study music cognition in the wider sense of how we grasp, conceptualize and process music in the light of past knowledge and experience. This dimension of the course will provide a fresh perspective to all students on ways of listening to and analysing music and should also be of particular interest to composers.

From Glinka to Glazunov

This module will examine the music composed when Russian musicians were becoming more conscious of their national identity and attempting to create a distinctive national style of composition.  The composers examined will include Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Borodin and Glazunov and we will attempt to find out what, if anything, made their music distinctive from that of the contemporary ‘mainstream’ Western tradition.  The relevant social, political and cultural context will also be examined.

Introduction to Jazz Styles: 1920 to 1980

This module will focus on selected jazz styles which fit approximately into the sixty years between 1920 and 1980. Taking a broadly chronological approach, six main jazz styles will be covered: early jazz, swing, bop, modal jazz, free (and avante-garde) jazz, and jazz fusion. This survey will, of course, acknowledge that these styles were influenced by historical, cultural, geographical and other factors, but the main focus of the module will be on the styles themselves. Each of these styles will therefore be investigated primarily through looking at musical parameters such as, harmony, rhythm and tempo, as well as investigating structural tendencies, improvisational approaches and instrumental roles in the repertoire. Similarly, various influential figures such as Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Chick Corea will be discussed mainly with regard to their contributions to jazz styles.

Small Ensemble Performance

Chamber music ensembles are formed by the students concerned and a ‘joint’ application to take the module is made.  The ensemble must include at least three performers of whom at least two will be taking the module for credit.  Each ensemble will receive coaching by an appropriate instrumentalist/vocalist (e.g. a member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) leading to a public performance of approved repertory.

Studies in Performance Practice

This module combines the disciplines of musicology and performance, introducing students to the main topics in performance practice of Western Music. Case studies are chosen from different periods of Western musical history: Medieval, Early Modern, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th-Century. Topics may include organology, rhythm and tempo, articulation, pitch and temperaments, notation, the history of recorded performance, manuscript and printed musical sources, issues surround existing editions and editorial practices, and debates around ‘authenticity’ in performance. These will be explored through case studies of individual works, discussions of performances and recordings, readings of contemporary treatises, critical evaluation of the secondary literature on Performance Practice, and workshops with CEMPR vocal and instrumental tutors.

Solo Performance

  • Prerequisite: Successful completion of Year 1 Performance or, for Joint Honours students, satisfactory attendance and progress at the prescribed instrumental/vocal lessons.  
  • All students must pass the Aural Test, Concert Report and Performance Journal elements of Year 1 Performance in order to gain admission to 2nd year Performance.

Students receive practical musical tuition during the teaching weeks of the year.  This total of 20 hours’ tuition may be divided between two studies (10/10) or may all be taken on one study (20 hours).  The aim is to make as much technical and musical progress as possible and to provide a basis for further specialisation in performance at Level 3.  Lessons are given by tutors at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and by tutors employed by the Department of Music, some via CEMPR. The module focuses on developing the skills and techniques needed by a solo performer (instrumentalist or singer) to perform successfully music at a performing standard approaching that of the DipABRSM (1st study) and ABRSM Grade 7/8 (2nd study). This will include developing technical skills as well as interpretive and presentational skills. For 1st study performers specific technical skills will be assessed at the end of the Spring term. Each assessment component will last 2-3 minutes each.

  • Jazz instrumentalist and vocalists will be tested on 1) improvisation over a standard chord progression and 2) scales and other exercises.
  • Western tradition instrumentalists will be tested on 1) scales and arpeggios and 2) sight reading.
  • Western tradition vocalists will be tested on 1) sight singing and 2) unaccompanied singing in a foreign language.  
  • Vocalists and instrumentalists of Early Western or non-Western traditions will be tested on two technical areas determined at the beginning of the Autumn term by the instrumental/vocal tutor and Director of Performance that are appropriate to each specific study.  
  • All instrumentalist and vocalists on all studies presentational, technical, and interpretive skills will be assessed by a performance of repertoire appropriate for their given instrument or voice.


An Introduction to Music Therapy

This module is designed to provide a basic understanding of the fundamental components of music therapy, both practical and theoretical. Audio and video clips will be used to explore the nature of this clinical intervention. At least one practical music session will enable students to gain an experiential understanding of this application of music. Assessment will include essay(s) and a 10 minute presentation to the student group on an area of music therapy chosen by each individual.


Modules and courses are constantly updated and under review. As with most academic programmes, please remember that it is possible that a module may not be offered in any particular year, for instance because a member of staff is on study leave or too few students opt for it. The University of Birmingham reserves the right to vary or withdraw any course or module.