Graduate Music History Diagnostic Guide
(revised July 2010)
The Graduate Diagnostic in Music History is designed to determine whether the incoming graduate student has the background in music history and stylistic analysis necessary to enter comfortably into graduate-level study of music history. The exam will cover basic chronology, standard repertoire, musical terms and stylistic analysis (using listening excerpts and score examples). The exam also includes a discussion question to help faculty assess writing skills.
To prepare for the Graduate Diagnostic in Music History, the entering student is urged to review any standard textbook such as Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition by Douglass Seaton and to review texts and exams used in undergraduate music courses.
The Graduate Diagnostic Exam in Music History is divided into six parts.
Part I. Chronology.
You will be asked to place items on a timeline. Items will include 1) musical genres and developments (e.g. era of basso continuo, Impressionism, beginnings of electronic music), 2) life spans of major composers (Schumann, Palestrina, Stravinsky, for example), and 3) significant dates in musical history (e.g., Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; Well-Tempered Clavier I; Pierrot lunaire). Even in cases where you are not sure of the exact dates, your ability to use logic and the process of elimination will help you.
How to prepare: Create timelines for yourself, incorporating major composers and important works of European and American concert music. Take into account what genres, styles or artistic developments characterize a given era.
Part II. Recognition of Major Composers and Works.
While a small part of the total exam, this one-page section helps us determine your exposure to repertoire. The works in question, generally speaking, are central to the concert repertory.
How to prepare: Review the names and composers of major works, particularly titled compositions: symphonies, tone poems, operas, song cycles, keyboard cycles, chamber music with specific and significant titles, titled vocal works (such as masses, cantatas, and oratorios). Be able, for example, to connect “Trout” Quintet with Franz Schubert, 4’33” with John Cage, La Traviata with Verdi, Till Eulenspiegel with Richard Strauss, etc.
Part III. Terminology.
You will be asked to define a total of sixteen terms: eight related to music before 1750, eight to music after 1750. You will have some choice of which terms you define for each section. For full credit, each definition should consist of approximately three to five solid sentences that place the term chronologically, define it, and/or explain its importance. Where appropriate, please offer a composer and/or piece that illustrates the term.
How to prepare: First, look at glossaries in the back of basic music history texts. Look for the kernel of meaning that characterizes a good definition. Then take a selection of basic terms and see how more extensive music dictionaries (e.g. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music) address these terms. Good definitions have a structure and manage succinctly to characterize a term.
Then, take a selection of terms from various eras (e.g. basso continuo, rhythmic modulation, pizzicato, parody mass, Neoclassicism) and methodically practice answering the basic questions: What is it? When was it? Used by whom? Applied how? With what importance or impact? Hint: Start each sentence with a noun—you’ll find it improves the quality of your definitions. For example: ~“A style created by . . . ” ~“A harmonic device first used by . . .” ~“An instrument developed in . . .” ~“An effort by composers in the 1880s to . . .” ~“A reaction to the technique of . . . ”
IV. Stylistic Analysis Using Score Excerpts. (Eight Score Excerpts)
The purpose of this section is not to identify individual pieces. Instead, you will be shown excerpts from both vocal and instrumental scores in different styles and from different periods. You will be asked to place these excerpts historically and/or stylistically, to suggest one or more possible composers, and, most importantly, to explain the musical reasons for your answer. Your “reasons” should reference musical parameters: harmony, melody, rhythm, texture, timbre, and, if applicable, the connection of any of these to text.
Should you recognize the piece (and you may recognize some of them), you must make certain you frame your answer in the requested manner. Saying “This is the opening of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony” does not demonstrate sufficiently your grasp of stylistic features and chronological placement. Such an answer will not receive full credit.
How to prepare: Take excerpts from very familiar pieces and answer the following questions about them: “What would I write to describe and date this music if I had never seen it before? What aspects of the melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre, or text would stand out?” Then, ask someone to present a few lines of score from varying pieces across the historical periods. What could you say about each excerpt? What features of the score set it apart from other styles? Given these stylistic features, who might have been its composer? When might such a piece have been written?
V. Stylistic Analysis Using Listening Excerpts. (Eight Listening Excerpts)
This section follows the same format as Section IV. Automatically recognizing the piece does not in itself answer the question and will not give you full credit. You need to identify musical and stylistic aspects, describe them briefly, suggest possible composers, and thereby justify your answers.
VI. Discussion Question.
You will have several choices of general essay questions from which to select. The questions will cover broad topics. Your answer will be expected to run approximately three to four handwritten pages.
There are two purposes for this section of the exam. First, it provides an opportunity for us to gain some idea of how you approach and express the synthesis of information. And secondly, your answer provides an initial writing sample that, while not produced under ideal conditions, nonetheless helps us in assessing your background and skills.
How to prepare: You may wish simply to practice answering broad questions, for example:~“Discuss the origins of opera.” ~“Discuss the significance and development of the tone poem.” ~“Discuss significant developments in chamber music in the 19th century.” ~“Discuss the developments in vocal music from the late Renaissance into the early Baroque.”
You may also be well-served by referring back to your undergraduate exams in music history (or other courses) where you have answered similar questions. Assess your own answers: what are their strengths and weaknesses? Do you tend to make a brief outline before you answer such a question (to keep you on track)? If so, does that help? Or do you tend to spend so much time making the outline that you never answer the question? Do you get “stuck” in one decade and never get your topic past its initial development? Do you write three or four paragraphs just trying to begin your answer, only to find yourself too tired or too rushed ever to develop your answer?
The time allotted for this exam is three hours.