For those of you that aren’t versed in the splendor of a listening exam, I’ll lay it out for you. You’re given a list of pieces by various composers to study. On test day, after hearing a random 30sec-1min excerpt, you need to identify the title and composer and sometimes additional information like the year/genre/movement. Just by listening.

By itself, one listening exam isn’t too bad, but I had three exams in three days, all on different material. The first was a variety of significant electronic music pieces throughout the 20th Century. The second was contemporary music from 1960-on, and the last was all Chopin music. Here’s how I did it.

1) I Planned Ahead

I knew (for the most part) when these exams were coming. Right away, I knew that because all excerpts would involve piano and be by the same composer, the Chopin exam would be the toughest. So I planned accordingly and started listening a month beforehand.

2) I Made a Playlist

For the Chopin, I made a listening exam playlist on my old iPod and kept shuffling through, day after day. I pretty much restricted my music listening to just that playlist. As it shuffled, I practiced identifying all of the necessary information about each piece, but to start, I just kept listening to familiarize with the forms and tunes of each work.

3) I Memorized Information in Order of Appearance

As the deadline approached, I memorized the total information list of the first exam. To do this, I put all of the pieces in chronological order with the composers’ names first. Then, I memorized the string of first letters (Pierre Schaeffer-John Cage-Karlheinz Stockhausen becomes P-J-K, etc.). Then, I would go through and recall the information in chronological order after listing those first letters. By ordering them chronologically, I made the relative progression of dates easier to remember.

4) I Practiced Recalling the Information

In an open word document on the computer, I had the list information on the first page. Then, I would cut to the next page, type the column of first letters down the side, and fill in as much information as I could from there. I would then check it against the complete listing to see what I had missed. Then, I would do it again. And again.

5) On the Day Before, I Trusted Myself

It’s difficult to do, but I trusted myself to remember the other exams later and ONLY thought about the first exam. I did a lot of listening, writing down descriptions and instrumentations of each work, and recalled the exact list. When I receive the test papers, I always write out the entire list from memory as fast as I can before the exam starts, so being able to recall the list quickly was important.

Only after taking the first exam did I begin thinking about the next one. I studied using the same process.

6) I Tried to Relax (and Sleep!)

A little nervousness is healthy, by try to keep calm. Also, I slept. I always sleep, because it pays off! Your brain categorizes and solidifies information while you sleep, making the connections stronger and increasing the probability of remembering things. So cramming and staying up studying isn’t really that beneficial. Take care of your body and you’ll get through it!