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Understanding music

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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.

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.

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).

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Course work includes:

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