Cropped image of the painting the orchestra by Degas

"Where words fail, music speaks." - Hans Christian Andersen

At a Glance

  • Classroom course
  • 2 hours a week
  • Thursdays 18:30 - 20:30
  • 20 weeks: October to March
  • Tutor: Dr Bruno Bower
  • Fees from £230 to £420
  • Imperial College attendance certificate (T&Cs apply)
  • Also available as a live online morning class
  • Book from 2 August
Booking link

Are you baffled by Brahms? Perplexed by Prokofiev? Stumped by Strauss? On this course Bruno Bower invites you to join him on a journey to discover new ways to understand classical music, without any of the obscure jargon.

The focus on the course is on the stories music tells:

  • What kinds of stories do composers tell through music?
  • What methods do they use to tell them?
  • What kind of historical stories can we discover through music?
  • And how has historical music been shaped by the social and cultural context of the time?

Knowing who, how, and why people created, played, and listened to music makes it much easier to relate to the deeper levels of texture and structure that lie behind the sounds we hear.

The course is suitable for people with or without previous knowledge of classical music. On the course you will gain fresh perspectives on some famous works of classical music, and you will have opportunities to discover some less well-known pieces along the way.

All classes will be supported by a PowerPoint presentation and plenty of audio and video examples, and there will opportunities for discussion around the material too, with all opinions welcome.

This course is also available, separately, as a live online morning class on Tuesdays from 09:00-11.00 (UK time).

Attendance certificate

Those who attend at least 80% of the course sessions will receive an attendance certificate from Imperial College London upon completion of the course.

Course Information

Course Programme


1. Introduction

The course begins with Holst’s The Planets, one of the most famous pieces of classical music, as a way of easing into thinking about classical music in general. We will use this piece as a way of introducing a lot of the other topics that the course will cover.

2. Concepts 1: Colours

This class introduces a particularly important metaphor for thinking about orchestral sound, talking about how different instruments and combinations of instruments can be compared to different types of colour. Debussy’s La Mer will serve as a case study for how these different colours can be subtly blended and shaded.

3. Concepts 2: Pictures

We then move on to thinking about how composers use ideas of colour to put together visual images for their music, showing how the sound can invoke more concrete ideas. Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition serves as the main example from a practical perspective, but also Ravel’s own music shows how colour can be turned to more national purposes, in particular his Spanish-influenced pieces.

4. Concepts 3: Stories

Here we expand the idea of pictures further to explore the ways in which pieces of music might outline a plot over the course of them, with particular reference to the genre of ‘tone poems’. We will work through Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), showing how the music depicts the activities of the main character.

5. Concepts 4: Dialogue and conflict

This class then turns to another metaphor for thinking about how instruments in an ensemble interact with each other, covering both ideas of conversation between different lines or sections and the idea that composers might also be in dialogue with other composers or pieces from the past. Both of these will come up as part of a detailed examination of Britten’s Violin Concerto.

6. Structures 1: Dances

The next four classes will start to introduce the more abstract ways in which composers divide their music up into sections, and how those sections relate to each other. We start with music for dance, looking at the way that the sections help both social and professional dancers navigate their way through the steps. We’ll also talk about pieces that use dance forms but were never meant to actually be danced to, and how the music shows this.

7. Structures 2: Variations

Composers across all times and places have always used techniques to change and transform their material in ways that we refer to as ‘variation’, but there are also particular pieces which foreground this approach by taking a tune and making changes to it as the entire content of the work. We’ll discuss both the general techniques and the specific pieces, with reference to Paganini’s Caprice No.24 and all the pieces which have varied its main melody across history.

8. Structures 3: Rondo

Here we start getting into the more abstract kinds of structure, and look at pieces that are defined by the idea of some material regularly returning. Covering both the Baroque ‘ritornello’ form and the later ‘rondo’ form itself, we’ll then look at how composers took up this structure and used it for narrative and (in the case of Smetana’s ‘Vltava’) national purposes.

9. Structures 4: Sonata form

The last class in the term covers a tricky but extremely important structure that underpins a huge amount of the music you will be most likely to encounter in classical concerts. Building on the structures we’ve already outlined, we will show how this form is created, but also how its two contrasting themes embody the binary ideas of society that were emerging in the nineteenth century.

*** Christmas break ***


10. Genres 1: Symphony

With a general sense of the structures of music in place, this term starts to outline how they form the basis of various genres of classical music. This class starts with the symphony, showing how it emerged from a simple opener for an evening of dancing into the main event in its own right, especially once composers had latched onto its potential for personal expression.

11. Genres 2: Concerto

Building on the class on Dialogue and Conflict in particular, this class looks at the emergence of a form that puts a single instrumentalist against an ensemble, and how the social contexts in which this happens changed over time. In particular we’ll discuss the emergence of concertos for unusual instruments such as tuba, accordion, or percussion.

12. Genres 3: Choral Music

As an important component of many large-scale concerts, especially in this country, this class offers a very general survey of music for choir, starting with the basics of who is singing and where and moving through to the more historical issues of religious versus secular performances. We’ll see how the latter became particularly important for a narrative of music history, but how the former never stopped either.

13. Genres 4: Chamber Music

This class offers a general overview of another large division of music, showing the different ways in which chamber groups are categorised, and the different ways in which they have been played across time. In particular we’ll talk about the move from private music-making by amateurs at home to professionals in public concert halls, and how the music changed accordingly.

14. Genres 5: Art Song

Forming a subset of chamber music, Art Song has been separated out because of the special range of issues that come up for how composers write them and how people listen. These include topics such as poetry and how its interpreted, as well as ideas of narrative groups (or ‘cycles’) or songs and the social and national implications behind songs in different languages.

15. Genres 6: Fugue

Here we will discuss a particularly specialised way of constructing music, demonstrating how the structure of a fugue is intended to show off a composer’s virtuosic skill in handling material. Again, we will also discuss how these ideas changed over time as the rules around composition shifted and relaxed, thinking about how this way of putting music together got used as part of other pieces and how the meaning of it changed in the process.

16. Genres 7: Opera

As one of the biggest and most important forms of music across history, this class will offer a general overview of the ideas that govern how it works and the changing ways in which it has been presented and understood over time. The role of lighting in particular will be flagged as a key transformative element in how the audience interact with a work, changing all of the visual and sonic aspects of a production as audiences start to actually pay attention to it.

17. Periods 1: Renaissance and Baroque (16th and 17th century)

This last group of classes will turn to the more chronological understanding of music history that you will be most likely to encounter elsewhere, bringing together the various threads that previous classes have outlined. Here we will talk about the start of music printing and publishing, and how this interacted with people making music in the home in both religious and secular ways.

18. Periods 2: Classical (18th century)

Here we will explore some of the ideas that were starting to gain traction at this point in history, especially to do with ‘progress’ and the importance of the ancient past as a model. We will see the ways in which composers responded to the idea of a new ‘simplicity’ in musical form and style, contrasting with the ‘baroque’ of previous generations, and how they drew on the latest archaeological findings to justify their approach. 

19. Periods 3: Romantic (19th century)

Many of the ideas from the previous class start to take on a special importance here, especially the notion of progress. We’ll see how many of the ideas traditionally associated with Romanticism showed themselves in the music, but also see how they interacted with wider changes in technology and society, affecting who was able to engage with music and what they were expecting to hear.

20. Periods 4: Modern/Postmodern (20th/21st centuries)

The final class in the course looks at the last century of musical activity, picking out some of the threads that run through it. The discussion will particularly focus on the idea of ‘atonality’, but also on the new kinds of technology that emerged across the period and how they changed what composers did with music. We’ll finish with some of the material that is only now starting to suggest a move away from ideas of progress that started several centuries ago.

Additional Reading

There is no compulsory reading required for this course, and there is no set course text.

Your Tutor

Photograph of Bruno BowerDr Bruno Bower is a lively and enthusiastic tutor whose love of music is infectious. He is a musicologist, performer, composer, and music editor, as well as a highly experienced teacher. He has taught at Cambridge University, University of Surrey, Brunel University, and the Royal College of Music, and his innovative teaching methods have been recognised by Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Alongside his courses at Imperial, he currently teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 

He has written and presented on subjects as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan, John Cage, and Victorian polymaths, and he is the General Editor for critical editions of music by Peter Gellhorn and Norman O’Neill, as well as editorial consultant on the AHRC-funded ‘Music, Migration and Mobility’ project at the RCM. He is also the principal oboist of West London Sinfonia and the cor anglais player for Chelsea Opera Group.

Course Delivery: Classroom Taught Courses

Courses delivered in-person in a classroom

All courses lasting two hours have a 10-minute break in the middle. For one hour courses there is no break.

Covid-19 and Safe Distancing for Classroom-based Courses

Please be aware of covid-19 safe-distancing requirements and adhere to them. We ask if possible that participants on this course take a home swab test (lateral flow test) before joining each session of the class. Swab tests can be ordered free of charge prior to the start of the course from or obtained free of charge from many pharmacists.

In the event of the government or Public Health England requiring further lockdown measures the class will transfer online and any remaining sessions will be taught entirely online.

Course Fees and Rate Categories

HoursWeeksStandard RateInternal RateAssociate Rate
 40  20  £420    (Early Bird Rate: £380*)
£250    (Early Bird Rate: £230*) £330    (Early Bird Rate: £300*) 
* The Early Bird rate is available for enrolments made before the end of 30 September for courses starting in October only  |   All fee rates quoted are for the whole 2-term course.

Rate Categories and Discounts

Standard Rate

  • Applicable to all except those who fall under the Internal Rate or Associate Rate category, respectively.

Internal Rate

  • Current Imperial College students and staff (incl. Imperial NHS Trust, Imperial Innovations, ancillary & service staff employed on long-term contracts at Imperial College by third-party contractors)
  • Individuals enrolling under our Friends & Family scheme
  • Staff of the English Chamber Orchestra
  • Current Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC) staff, current CLCC PhD students, Science Communication (Sci Comm) postgraduate students, and students enrolled on an Imperial College 'Language for Science' degree programme should contact before completing the online enrolment form

Associate Rate

  • Alumni of Imperial College and predecessor colleges and institutes
  • Austrian Cultural Forum staff
  • City & Guilds College Association members
  • Francis Crick Institute staff, researchers and students
  • Friends and Patrons of the English Chamber Orchestra
  • Harrods staff
  • Historic Royal Palaces staff
  • Lycee Charles de Gaulle staff
  • Members of the Friends of Imperial College
  • Members of the Kennel Club
  • Members of the London Zoological Society
  • Members of the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI)
  • Members of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
  • Natural History Museum staff
  • National Health Service (NHS) employees
  • Residents of postcodes SW3, SW5, SW7, SW10 and W8
  • Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council staff
  • Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music tutors and other staff
  • Royal Geographical Society staff
  • Science Museum staff
  • Staff of Exhibition Road Cultural Group (Discover South Kensington) organisations
  • Students (non-Imperial College)
  • Teachers and other staff of UK schools
  • Tutors and other staff of institution members of the Association of Colleges
  • Tutors and other staff of other universities and higher education institutions
  • Victoria and Albert Museum staff

Late enrolment

It is possible to enrol on many CLCC Evening Class and Lunchtime Learning programmes after the course has started. For non-language courses this is subject entirely to agreement by the tutor. For language courses it is subject to agreement by the language Coordinator conducting level assessment. If you want to join a course late do bear in mind there might be work you will need to catch up on, particularly in language courses.

Applicable terms & conditions

Please read the Terms and Conditions [pdf] before enrolling on any course.

Term Dates

HoursWeeksAutumn termSpring termSummer termSummer School
 40  20 18 Oct - 18 Dec 2021 (9 weeks)*  PLUS 10 Jan - 26 Mar 2022 (11 weeks) n/a n/a
* Followed by the Christmas break

Enrolment Process

Web enrolment starts 2nd August 2021

Enrolment and payment run through the Imperial College eStore. Please click on the blue booking link on the relevant course page noting below instructions:

  • Our rate categories are explained on the course page and your applicable rate category must be selected on the eStore
  • First-time eStore users please create an account by entering an email address and password. These credentials should also be used for future bookings. Imperial College users please note the eStore is not a single-signon College system
  • The booking process involves entering payment details after your course choice and applicant details are collected via an in-built questionnnaire
  • The following email notifications are sent:
What is sentWhen is it sentWhat does it contain
1. Payment confirmation Is sent instantaneously following submission of your online application
  • This is a receipt for your payment and includes payment date, order number and course title
  • Confirmation of your place on your chosen course will follow later
2. Enrolment confirmation Is sent within 10 working daysPlease treat your payment confirmation as confirmation that your applicant details and payment have been received
  • Re-confirms your course choice
  • Shows your course's term dates
  • Confirms the day and time of your course
3. Programme information Is usually sent on Friday late afternoon the week before term starts
  • Contains joining instructions for your course, incl. tutor contact details
If you need further help with the above information please ring 020 7594 8756

Any Questions?

If you have enjoyed this course, why not look at other arts and humanities evening class courses at Imperial College. This includes courses on the history of western art from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century, Understanding Modern and Design, the history of film and cinema and Greek and Roman mythology in art. We also run practical courses in art and photography and creative writing classes, and a growing programme of science based evening classes.