Thursday, 13 June 2013

A224 Inside Music Review

Of course the other thing that has been going on in my OU life has been the study of A224 Inside Music. I would say on the whole this is a great course. However I do have my reservations but I'm not sure they could be resolved given the nature of the course.

The course covers a lot of a ground in a very short space of time. In terms of theory you are taken up to about ABRSM grade 6 with a mention of a bit more. It assumes as a pre-requisite that you have a basic ability to read music up to about ABRSM grade three.  There is an introduction to basic music theory available on Open learn for those who don't have the basics

But there is a lot in this course that is not even mentioned in the ABRSM grade exams, such as the discussion of Sonata form and you are taught the  basics of analysis of quite complicated pieces.such as Mozart's piano concerto in C minor  and Brahm's third symphony.

The core of the course is a crash course in the composition of songs and it really is a crash course. These days any one with a laptop and access to a music notation software such as Sibelius can compose. One no longer needs access to a piano or the ability to hear music in ones head before it's written down  or play a musical instrument, something this course takes advantage of. Unfortunately in my opinion Sibelius is really hard to use fluently and to write pieces of music. You have to search through various menus which I never did get the hang of how to use  properly. Yes it can be simplified by use of key-board short cuts, but the keyboard short cuts only take you so far.  Unfortunately Sibelius has rapidly become the industry standard,  so if you aspire to take composing further as I do then it's a necessary evil just like Microsoft Office.

The course material is very interesting, but the composition material is only accessible on-line I guess the OU feel that they have something unique here and don't want outsiders to access it via second hand copies. Even so I would have thought that for those who want to refer to the material once the course is finished it would have only been fair to give the students a hard copy of the material. Especially if they have paid £2500 for it as those in England have to it seems a bit mean to say the least. Ok you can download pdfs of the material but as the material would be quite bulky if printed out, it's hardly the most convenient. However each online unit tried to cover far too much material in the short space of a week. However  that is probably true of most OU courses in general, if one were to diligently do all the suggested exercises it would take about two - three weeks per unit. In my case I only managed to seriously look at the first four composition units out of 6 and I was able to draw on my previous knowledge of music.

In terms of other content the course is an odd mix of pop, classical (Art music) and world (Ethnic music) I guess it's trying to be all things to all people. One minute you will be analysing a song by Oasis, then a keyboard  piece by Bach, then some jazz and then some world music. All of this is not treated very systematically and most of it to be quite frank just wont be read or listened to by most students as they will be desparately trying to just complete the assignments which are just relentless. Thus although the set piece was nominally Mozarts piano concerto in C minor I more or less ignored it as it wasn't assessed in the assignments.

Also the assignments seem to go from fairly basic ones to really advanced ones in the short space of time. I realise that by only completing 8 assignments you can't cover everything. However I think a real shortcoming was the serious lack of drill exercises as part of the formal assessment. No where were we asked to harmonise a melody, apart from in our songs. As a consequence I have for example a vague idea of what an Augmented 6th is but I lack confidence in how to introduce into my compositions. The course material really did not help here.  In this the course is quite different from the ABRSM grade theory exams which start from the basics and build up step by step. I feel the need to do these to actually learn the theory rather than just retain a vague idea of it. 

So overall as an introduction to music this course is really quite good, but I doubt I have really learnt the basics in a way that will stick. It does need to be complemented by a detailed study of the mechanics of music in a way similar to that of the ABRSM exams. If done in conjunction with such rigour then this course nicely complements them but byiteslf it is only part of the whole jigsaw. Perhaps it was trying too much, certainly if one were to compare this course with what happens at the first year of a degree level music course at a conventional university this would be sadly lacking. Where is the systematic introduction to harmony and counterpoint?  Where is the systematic historic introduction to classical music and the various classical styles? Absolutely nowhere, the older course A214, whilst not so exciting was more systematic in teaching the basics of music and there were drill exercises (although probably not enough). Also a basic overview of the the three main styles of classical music, Baroque, classical and Romantic was given. A214 was more focused than this course and probably better than A224 for it.

As part of a general humanities degree this course fits quite well and it is good that such a course is available but anyone thinking they have studied music at degree level or even A level or higher by doing this course would be kidding themselves. On the whole I enjoyed this course as it helped get me thinking about music again and the composition part was something new to me. However I will certainly need to do a lot more. I will put myself forward for the Grade 5 ABRSM exam in November then all the way up to grade 8 and hopefully start piano lessons so I can consolidate the material here before embarking on the OCA composition courses which seems the next logical step.


  1. Thanks for the review, very interesting. I'm currently looking to teach myself music theory and was interested in this course, but frankly I'm not prepared to pay the fees! I don't need the formal qualification. I guess I will do the ABRSM exams but haven't decided on suitable self study materials yet.

  2. I suggest just getting the ABRSM theory books as they have answers and the exam papers.
    Also for harmony there is Anna Butterworth's books
    Her harmony book Harmony in Practice which has an answer book this will take you to Grade 8 and then her more advanced book Stylistic Harmony which also has an answer book which would take you upto about 1st year university level.

    For counterpoint probably the best book is Fux's Gradus Ad Parnassum which despite it's quaint language was the book which formed the basis of teaching for the Great composers from Haydn right through to Bruckner.

    After that you are in advanced territory and the standard composition manuals such as those by Prout or Hindeminth should be accessible.

    For composition I think the OCA courses are worthwhile there fees although high are cheaper than the OU and it would be useful to get feedback on your work. When I get to grade 8 theory that will be the next step for me.

  3. Very useful review, thanks. I had been tempted by this course although put off by the high cost, now £2,864. I previously got to AB grade 5 theory, so I think it's probably better to pick that up again and try to get to grade 8.