Thanks for coming to Part 2 – Entrance Exams! The following is a list of study strategies for the graduate music entrance examinations. As you read, keep in mind that this guide is based on my personal experience. Other schools’ may have slight alterations, but for the most part, the material will be similar, and the strategies suggested will still be applicable. Despite some undergrad experiences where facts are emphasized, graduate exams are (generally) based on concepts, and this requires a different style of study than fact memorization. Think critical reading, score study, and listening examples.
The first exam I had was Graduate Sight-Singing. Expect to encounter a few melodies with moderate chromaticism, probably at least one in major and one in minor. In this and all graduate exams, it’s probably safer to assume the test is really difficult. That way, you might be pleasantly surprised if it’s easier!
The best practice for sight-singing is just doing it. Grab a textbook, Bach score, online melody sheet, or anything that you can sing from. It’s important to start simple though. I know it may be difficult, but you should make sure you can sing your diatonic intervals in context almost perfectly before you jump into a melody based on a synthetic scale. Gradually work your way up the ladder of difficulty. Textbooks are good for this, since they should already be organized this way.
When you actually receive the melodies in the exam (it’s usually one-on-one by the way), I recommend taking a few seconds to skim through it, taking note of the foundational scale used, accidentals, rhythms, general musicality, and tempo. You don’t necessarily need to take the tempo marking literally. It’s better to sing well and slowly than to take it at tempo and embarrass yourself!
Music History & Research
This is definitely the most rigorous entrance exam you’ll take. Mine was 3 hours long and split into two sections: Music History and Music Research. The historical portion was totally based on listening examples and score samples. The questions will probably be concept-based, so you should prepare accordingly. I suggest constructing a timeline that includes musical time periods, notable composers, stylistic tendencies, and types of pieces. Using this, if you see a 5-voice motet with quite a bit of imitation, you can think, I know roughly when 5 voices became more common in motets. I know which prominent composers were writing at that time, and ____ tends to use a lot of imitation in his works, so there’s a good chance he wrote this motet. Also, don’t skimp on studying Antiquity through the Renaissance and 20th Century techniques. Most young musicians tend to know more about the Classical and Romantic than anything else.
The Music Research portion was a little bit harder to study for. The questions on this part will probably ask you how to find certain information about a composer’s works collection or the value of journals vs. books. At the suggestion of a mentor, I familiarized myself with prominent music journals, musicologists, and online resources. Many university music library websites have a series of “help guides” that can point you in the right direction.
This exam includes everything aural that wasn’t in your sight-singing exam. Expect to see a mixture of interval recognition and various forms of dictation. The best way to study for this starts early in your undergraduate career. DON’T take your ear training classes for granted! Yes, they’re important for entrance exams, but aural skills (along with piano skills *hint*) will have the biggest effect on your future as a musician. They help in auditions, score reading, and your listening experience overall.
In addition to those classes, I suggest practicing your dictation skills whenever you can. This should include harmonic, melodic, and 2-voice melodic dictation. For harmonic dictation, make sure you know your special chords (neapolitan, augmented sixth, secondary dominants) and where they typically lead. For melodic dictation, start slowly like sight-singing, and work up the difficulty level. Listening to recordings of easy piano pieces is helpful, as is studying with a friend who can play the melodies or chords for you while you write them down.
I took the written theory exam right after the aural exam. For this, base your studying on score excerpts. Many of the questions on the exam will ask you about the contextual application of a certain concept in a piece, so it’s helpful to already be familiar with it. Be sure to review voice leading, since you probably have not thought about that in years! Also, be able to transpose any orchestral or vocal part to sounding pitch with ease.
Luckily, much of this studying overlaps with your Music History studying. For example, it would be helpful to understand the evolution of the motet and other forms of sacred music. You should know many different 20th Century techniques and –isms (spectralism, minimalism, etc.), as well as the advent and development of electronic music. Also helpful would be practicing chord analysis of score excerpts. Get used to how the scores of certain time periods look, and you may be able to come up with the answer from that.
Hopefully, this helps some of you interested in Graduate Music School! Please comment your thoughts below, and good luck!