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Understanding music

This introduction to the fundamentals of music will allow you to understand and use music notation. You’ll study the elements of music and how these are assembled into larger musical structures, focusing on music encountered in Western traditions (popular and classical). You’ll learn to make sense of a wide variety of notated music, and you’ll be encouraged to make meaningful connections between the topics you study and your own experiences and tastes through independent study. You’ll develop practical musicianship skills, using professional music-notation software, that will provide you with a grounding for arranging and composing. You don't need any prior knowledge of musical notation in order to study this module, but some basic preparation in advance will be helpful. You'll be directed to websites where you can gain relevant information.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code




  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.

Study level

Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
Level of Study
2 8 5

Study method

Module cost

Entry requirements

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What you will study

You'll learn about concepts in music theory and notation in order to help you understand various music examples from a number of different Western music traditions (including classical, pop and rock, film music, musicals, and folk/traditional). You’ll be encouraged to select your own examples of music you wish to understand better through independent study tasks. In the final assessment, you’ll be able to choose from three options to suit your strengths.

The core teaching material is grouped into four blocks. The first two blocks introduce you to the fundamentals of music theory and notation, an awareness of which will help you to understand a wide variety of music. The third block examines how music is structured, and the final block develops your skills in harmonisation. Throughout the module, there are various activity types that will help you to engage with the teaching materials. These include:

  • listening tasks
  • practical notation exercises using software and worksheets
  • simple performance tasks using a MIDI keyboard
  • watching videos

Your understanding of music-theory concepts will be enriched through practical exercises. These are designed to improve your aural skills and musicianship, and to develop your proficiency with handling notation. You'll use specialist music-notation software which is supplied as part of the module materials, and you'll need to download and install this before you begin. You'll also need to buy a MIDI keyboard controller to use with the software.

You don't need any prior knowledge of musical notation in order to study this module, but some basic preparation in advance will be helpful. You'll be directed to websites where you can gain relevant information. The module is presented online, with two accompanying printed scores booklets, and the text is interspersed with musical recordings and guidance videos.

There will be a series of online tutorials run by your tutor. You'll also be able to interact with other students as you undertake tasks on the module’s online forum.

Vocational relevance

As well as developing your understanding of music theory, you'll be introduced to industry-standard music-notation software, helping you to gain skills that can be used in many different music-related careers.

Professional recognition

This module is considered to be an acceptable alternative for Grade 6 Theory by the Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM).

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will provide guidance and help with the study material to prepare you for the module’s assessments. Your tutor will mark and give you feedback on your assessments. Your tutor will interact with you in online rooms and forums, where you will also be able to discuss your ideas with other students.

There will be three day-schools that you are strongly encouraged to attend. Some may have options for both face-to-face and online participation, and some will only be online. Student numbers, the distribution of students and where tutors are based will affect the locations of where any face-to-face day schools are held.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

Future availability

Understanding music starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2031.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
2 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
End-of-module assessment

Entry requirements

There are no entry requirements for this module, but you are advised to study one or more OU level 1 Arts modules, such as Discovering the arts and humanities (A111) or Revolutions (A113), which will provide you with relevant study, writing, and listening skills.

If you are studying this module as part of either our music degree or diploma, you should be guided by your prior experience and existing skills in deciding whether to study this module or Music, sound and technology (A232) first, as there is no recommended order in which you study them.

In addition, the following free courses on OpenLearn are recommended as preparation:

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


Start End England fee Register
05 Oct 2024 Jun 2025 £3636.00

Registration closes 05/09/24 (places subject to availability)

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2031.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as set books, a computer and internet access.

If your income is not more than £25,000 or you receive a qualifying benefit, you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Joint loan applications

If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU courses are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to complete. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the module you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your module.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and, therefore, the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fee information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2025. Fees typically increase annually. For further information about the University's fee policy, visit our Fee Rules

This information was provided on 19/07/2024.

Can you study an Access module for free?

Depending on eligibility and availability of places, you could apply to study your Access module for free.

To qualify, you must:

  1. be resident in England
  2. have a household income of not more than £25,000 (or be in receipt of a qualifying benefit)
  3. have not completed one year or more on any full-time undergraduate programme at FHEQ level 4 or above or successfully completed 30 credits or more of OU study within the last 10 years

How to apply to study an Access module for free

Once you've started the registration process, either online or over the phone, we'll contact you about your payment options. This will include instructions on how you can apply to study for free if you are eligible and funded places are still available.

If you're unsure if you meet the criteria to study for free, you can check with one of our friendly advisers on +44 (0)300 303 0069, or you can request a call back.

Not eligible to study for free?

Don't worry! We offer a choice of flexible ways to help spread the cost of your Access module. The most popular options include:

  • monthly payments through OUSBA
  • part-time tuition fee loan (you'll need to be registered on a qualification for this option)

To explore all the options available to you, visit Fees and Funding.

What's included

You'll be provided with two printed scores booklets and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials (with instructions about downloading the commercially available Dorico software)
  • audio-visual materials
  • interactive content
  • an assessment guide
  • access to online tutorials and forums.

You will need

A MIDI keyboard controller (recommended 49 full-size keys, but smaller or larger is acceptable, with USB-MIDI connection).

You'll need a listening setup with which you can listen to audio at a reasonably high quality. Ideally, you'll be able to plug your computer into good quality studio monitors, a stereo hi-fi system, or at least some kind of external loudspeakers. Good-quality headphones are a suitable alternative. Internal laptop speakers or mobile phone speakers are unsuitable as they are too limited in terms of sound quality, frequency response, and volume. 

Computing requirements

You'll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS Ventura or higher.

The Dorico Elements software, that you will be able to download, requires 4GB of RAM, and 6GB of free hard disk space. This software is not compatible with Chrome OS or other operating systems.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A234 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our disability support pages.