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Sound and revision

Tunes to go with hard work – or blind panic

Matthew Sweet | May/June 2012

Sweat, toil, anxiety, a clifftop struggle between you and the question-setter: taking exams is the stuff of grand opera. But could “Tosca” help you absorb details of the phosphorylation of glucose? I doubt it. Revision music must remain background music. Read Hardy’s “Tess” to the accompaniment of Manilow’s “Copacabana”, and two three-act tragedies will collide, resulting in an essay arguing that Flintcomb Ash is the hottest spot north of Havana. Is this due to the bicameral structure of the brain? I’d be able to tell you if I hadn’t got a C in biology, caused by overexposure to Joy Division.

All tracks at iTunes unless stated

MICHAEL NYMAN MGV— MUSIQUE A GRANDE VITESSE
This is just the ticket: Nyman’s serialist salute to the smooth progress of the French railway system, in which a cow on the line at Clermont-Ferrand seems quite impossible. Its relentless forward movement will aid any attempt to memorise Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.
 
TOM LEHRER THE ELEMENTS
What could be more useful to a revising chemist than the periodic table (c.1960) set to a dazzlingly acrobatic Gilbert & Sullivan tune? Nothing—unless you recall the TV special on which Mary Archer, wife of the disgraced Tory lord, performed it in a low-cut dress, atop a grand piano. Still, she got a PhD in heterogeneous catalysis, and so might you.
 
DELIA DERBYSHIRE BLUE VEILS AND GOLDEN SANDS (YouTube)

Revision can feel like a trek across a pitiless stretch of the Sahara. Time for a shimmering evocation of Tuareg life conjured with a green lampshade and a bank of valve oscillators by the queen of the Radiophonic Workshop. The journey is tough. Let Delia be your dromedary.

LULU TO SIR WITH LOVE
When you sit down with a ring-binder of notes about alluvial rills, there’s one kind of thought that’s bound to muscle into the revising mind. Listening to a gloriously dirty-voiced Glaswegian enumerate her romantic torments may address this problem.
 
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN WRAPPED UP IN BOOKS
A winsome address to those hunkered over textbooks: the day will come, it says, when your personal life will exist unmediated by the subject of an imminent exam, and it will be possible to cop off with someone without seeing it in terms of magnetism, Sonnet 18 or cell meiosis. A necessary interlude of hope and charm.

SERGEI PROKOFIEV THE BATTLE ON THE ICE (Amazon)
The fifth movement of the cantata adapted from the score of Eisenstein’s film “Alexander Nevsky” is an exhilarating account of the Russian army’s slaughter of the Teutonic knights on a frozen lake—so it’s one for the bus on the way to the exam hall. The Yuri Termikanov recording is the most pleasingly violent.
 
VANGELIS CHARIOTS OF FIRE

An earworm of a piano theme, echoey drum-thuds, 80s synth-bugles: these stirring sounds sent Ian Charleson and Ben Cross to victory in the 1924 Olympics. The sentiment is Triumph Over Adversity: you may have flunked the unseen paper, but so what? They took on anti-semitism—and won.
 
ALICE COOPER SCHOOL’S OUT

The immortal cap-throwing post-exam anthem. Such is Alice’s enthusiasm that you even applaud his refusal to finish the lyric: “We can’t even think of a word that rhymes,” he roars. Word of warning, though. Wearing clown make-up and shouting may not help if you get straight Ds.

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