The First Two Years


Sixteen four-credit courses are required, and at least fourteen are usually taken during the first two years. Musicology students must take two courses in ethnomusicology and two courses in either theory or composition. Ethnomusicology students are required to take at least two courses each in musicology and in offerings outside the department. Ethnomusicology students must also take at least two courses in music theory. It is recommended that at least one theory seminar be in cross-cultural music theory. Theory students are required to take two courses in analysis and techniques (typically course numbers MUS 151–159), ideally during their first year. Composition students do not have a set curriculum and should plan their course of study with their advisor. As a general rule, requirements should be met by taking courses with faculty in the relevant programs (i.e., history, ethnomusicology, or theory). There are exceptions, however, when seminars cross disciplinary boundaries. In those cases, students need to consult with both the seminar professor and their area advisor during the first week of classes

Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry (CPCI) students survey multiple fields of intellectual inquiry while nurturing and refining their creative work. Students in the program may take any of the graduate courses offered by the Department of Music, and occasional courses in other departments and programs with approval from the graduate advisor, as well as practice-based music-making courses (composition, improvisation, creative music, and interdisciplinary collaborations). 

All students may be allowed academic credit (normally no more than two courses) for work done in other graduate schools in the United States or abroad, subject to the evaluation by the department and acceptance by the Graduate School. Petitions may be submitted after the completion of one full year of graduate work in the department. Normally students may petition to transfer credit for up to two courses in their major field.

In general, for all students, 100-level courses should be taken as supplemental to the graduate program, and should not be the major portion of the student’s coursework. In order to receive graduate credit, permission to take any courses at the 100 level must be granted by the graduate advisor before taking the course.

Competence and fluency in traditional techniques (such as harmony, counterpoint, and analysis) are prerequisites for taking the general examination. Entering students will be given a placement test to assess skills. Music B will address these musicianship skills but does not count as one of the required 16 courses. Work must be undertaken in the first year of study.

Graduate students who have one or more incompletes will not be considered for department summer grants.


Written language exams are given at three specified times throughout the year. Reading knowledge must be proved before taking the general examination:

Musicology, Ethnomusicology, and Theory

Two languages are required. The languages will be chosen in consultation with the graduate advisor, and should reflect, wherever possible, languages that will be relevant to future research. We strongly encourage students to pass both languages before taking the general exam. In the event this is not possible, both languages need to be passed by the end of the fall semester of the third year.*

*While this revision is being implemented to give students more time, we also want to be sure that no one gets caught short. Students should consult with area advisors about their overall plan and be cautious not to cut the deadline too close; they cannot apply for their master’s degree until the language requirement is fulfilled.


German, Italian or French unless an alternative language is approved in writing by the graduate advisor. Students must complete this requirement by spring of their second year.

Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry

Once enrolled, CPCI students must pass a language exam in a language relevant to their research interests, to be approved in writing by the graduate advisor. Students must complete this requirement by spring of their second year.

Requirements for languages not tested regularly within the department may be satisfied through special examination or through presentation of other documentation at the discretion of the graduate advisor.

See the Music Department website for more details.


Advising in the department during the pre-generals period is primarily handled by the appropriate graduate advisors and faculty members in the various programs, with the director of graduate studies available for further advice. After successful completion of the general examinations, students consult with individual faculty members on their proposed fields of concentration, and when a dissertation proposal has been completed, it is presented to the faculty in that field of study. When the dissertation proposal has been approved by the faculty in the program, it is brought to the entire department for final approval, and a dissertation committee is set up for each student. The dissertation committee consists of an advisor and two readers. Any questions or concerns about advising in the department can be brought to the attention of the director of graduate studies or the chair.


The progress of all graduate students is reviewed at the end of each year. In addition to adequate coursework, there are special requirements for first- and second-year students. Every student must submit at least one paper written for a graduate course as part of the first-year review. In Musicology, every first- and second-year student must write a least one seminar paper per term.

General Examinations

The General Examination consists of two parts: written and oral. The orals are taken soon after passing the written portions. The exam dates differ by program but are usually between May and August of the student’s second year of study. Both the written and the oral parts can be repeated, but no more than once. The format, which is significantly different for each program, is as follows:


Analysis examination (summer after your G2 year):

Written analysis of two pieces of music. The analysis exam will take place in May (most likely during the period of final exams), and it will be followed by a brief oral exam of approximately 30 minutes. You will be provided with scores for three pieces, and you will choose two to work on: one piece written before 1700, one from the 18th or 19th centuries, and one from the 20th century or later. If relevant to your research interests, an alternate genre can also be chosen (e.g. jazz). The deadline for requesting an alternate genre is March 1st of your G1 year.

The goal of this examination is to demonstrate that you have a command of technical music analysis. There are no requirements for implementing a specific theoretical system or approach; successful analysis exams are often eclectic and imaginative.

General Exams in Musicology (summer after your G2 year):

General exams in historical musicology are given in August, immediately prior to your G3 year. The exam has two parts: a written component and an oral exam of 1.5 hours, which is usually scheduled within a week after completion of the written exam. Be alert to dates for the exam (both written and oral) when making travel plans.


By March 1st in your G2 spring semester and after consulting with faculty, submit in final form six proposed fields of examination (see “Designing Fields” for specific guidelines and due dates, below).  The rules for the fields are as follows:

  • At least one field among the six should deal with musical repertory and/or issues of historiography in the periods before 1600, and at least one in the periods after 1600.  Beyond this rule, distribution among the fields is left to you, and you should strive for variety.
  • You are encouraged to align one field (and not more) with your anticipated dissertation work.
  • At least one field (more than one if desired) should focus on a cross-disciplinary and/or critical-theoretical issue; wide latitude is given to your design for the field or fields in this category. Examples include: notation as global phenomenon; media theory/media archeology and musicology; popular music studies and race; critical improvisation studies. One aim of this/these field(s) is to bring insights and methodologies from outside musicology to bear on musicological work. Another is to encourage students to explore terrain outside of Western art music.
  • Each field should have both breadth and depth, and it should invest in a critical response to recent secondary literature. Do not be surprised if you are advised that a field is too focused and needs to be broadened. “Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory vis à vis musicology” is too narrow. “Technological determinism vis à vis musicology” (including Latour) is not. “C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard works” is too narrow. “18th century keyboard works: performance, sensibility, and theatricality” (including C.P.E. Bach) is not. “Ernst Bloch’s aesthetics of music” is too narrow. “Cultural hermeneutics in twentieth-century music philosophy” (including Ernst Bloch) is not. “Duke Ellington’s arrangements of classical repertory” is too narrow. “Encounters: jazz and classical-music aesthetics in the 20th-century” (including Ellington) is not.
  • When designing your fields, include both a bibliography and, if relevant, lists of repertory or material artifacts. When writing exam essays in August, you can use printouts of these lists as an aide-mémoire. We are not interested in having you memorize titles of academic articles or Köchel numbers for pieces.

Intellectual Process

As you prepare for the exams, we encourage you to reflect on your topics and think synthetically. Aim to consider questions such as: In which topics did you encounter the liveliest debates? Which topics, if any, seemed less vibrant than you perhaps expected? What methodologies did you encounter that seemed the most illuminating, revelatory, or useful? What did you read that felt like it could serve as a model for the kind of scholarship you want to carry out? What fundamentally changed your way of thinking about a particular repertory, historical period, composer, or context (e.g., geographic, political, cultural)?

Format for the Written Exams

In the spring term leading up to the exams, organize your fields into three formats.

  • Format 1: Designate one field that will be written up as a syllabus for a course taught to advanced undergraduate students. The syllabus is due June 1.
  • Format 2: The syllabus will form the basis of a viva voce presentation of 10 minutes, which will begin your oral exam in August. The goal is to teach a segment of your syllabus, choosing one of the following options: (1) introduce the class as a whole, essentially teaching the opening segment of the first session, or (2) select a component from a midpoint in the course, introducing a new topic. This exercise offers an opportunity to demonstrate your skills in the classroom. We want to see how you organize and deliver information in a format that is less formal than a scripted talk. To that end, you may use an outline and brief notes (as well as handouts and a slideshow), but you should not read verbatim from a written script. 
  • Format 3: The remaining five fields will be the subject of the written examination. In mid-August, two days are set aside for the written exam, with two hours for each field. Three fields will be covered on the first day, and two on the second. You are given essay prompts based on the fields you submitted during the spring semester. For each field, there will either be two prompts (choose one essay, 2 hours) or three prompts (choose two essays, 2 hours total). We cannot declare in advance which fields will be one-essay exercises and which two-essay, but you can expect a mix of the two options over your five fields.

In written essays, you should move beyond providing standard information, and – given the realities of a time limit – realize that it is impossible to be comprehensive. The goal is coherence, ingenious speculation, and providing your own insights on the subject. Bring printouts of your repertory lists and annotated bibliographies to the written exams.  Otherwise, no notes, Internet resources, or computer files can be consulted.

The Oral Exam

Oral exams are 1.5 hours. Faculty sitting in on the exam include the musicologists, and (depending on individual students’ fields), a faculty member from music theory, ethnomusicology, creative practice and critical inquiry, and/or an outside department. We make every attempt to let you know who will examine you, but it is not always possible to determine this well in advance.

The oral exam begins with the opening segment of the class lecture based on your syllabus (10 minutes), and discussion follows (roughly 10 minutes). We then move to talking about the written essays in order, for an hour-plus. At the end of the exam, you will be asked to step out of the room while faculty confer. Upon being invited back, you are congratulated for completing the exercise. What are the possible outcomes? “Passing” is most typical. Occasionally, we issue a provisional pass and ask students to rework one or more of their written essays. These reworked essays are submitted in October (or another designated deadline), at which point a final determination is made. In extremely rare cases, the faculty will determine at the conclusion of the orals that the student will not be asked to continue in the PhD program, and a Master’s degree will be granted in November. In this case, both faculty and staff work with the student to moderate a transition out of the graduate program.

Bring your bibliographies, repertory lists, and annotated copies of your written exams. The oral exam should be thought of as a conversation, and you are evaluated both on your knowledge and (more importantly) on your ability to think on your feet, improvise, and respond creatively to challenge. We have no interest in calling you out on trivial facts that can be discovered through a quick Google search. We will, however, often encourage you to talk about aspects of your fields that were not covered in the written essays and about the essay prompts you did not choose. Use the time between the written and oral exams to think about your essays and your fields: this is your chance for intervention and revision.

Designing Fields in the Spring Semester before Generals:


You are responsible for choosing, developing, and preparing your fields, and it is essential to do so in consultation with the faculty.

  • By February 1, submit a preliminary proposal for fields to the advisor in Historical Musicology. Provide a title for each field, then a short paragraph description of what you consider interesting or intriguing about it. Also include a one-page bibliography. If your field is oriented towards a body of works, list the repertories/pieces you want to discuss.
  • Preface your proposal with a statement (c. 500 words) describing an overarching rationale for your field choices, which will give the faculty a sense of your intellectual formation and any nascent ideas you may have about dissertation work.
  • During February, you will have ongoing conversations with faculty, in order to revise, expand, and rebalance the fields. During this time, you will be asked to prepare a more expansive document. This stage of the process involves designating a range of subtopics for each field.
  • On March 1, submit a final version for approval (generally pro forma). Start thinking about which field will be explored in the syllabus, which is due June 1.
  • On June 1, submit your syllabus. We will evaluate it for content, for pedagogical feasibility, and for its potential to inspire undergraduates in thinking about and experiencing music. Consider how your course could fit into a real-world undergraduate curriculum and what prior knowledge and interests your students are likely to bring to the experience.
    • Template: catalogue copy, 100-word course description.
    • Course rational: précis of aims and purposes.
    • Course schedule: list of meetings with brief description of what is covered, and list of requirements and (possible) optional assignments.
    • House rules: student obligations for the seminar, rules and regulations, criteria for grades/evaluations.
    • Instructions for written assignments: assignment suggestions, research tips, online resources, links.
    • Size limit: 10 pages in 12-point type.

Final tips

If you have questions about exam logistics, please speak with Nancy Shafman and Eva Kim in the department office. Nancy Shafman keeps a file of exams from previous years, which you are welcome to consult.

* see music department website for more details.


General exams in ethnomusicology will usually be given in August preceding the G3 year (prior to the first semester of teaching), provided students have completed the necessary requirements. Written exams will be given first. The ethnomusicology faculty will evaluate the written exams and decide whether the student is equipped to proceed to the oral exams.

Preparation for the exams:

In the spring of G2, students should provide short paragraphs outlining their primary and secondary areas as well as either 2 syllabi from coursework taken outside of the department or reading list(s) that, along with description(s), define interdisciplinary area(s). There are normally 2 interdisciplinary areas in total. The syllabus for an ethnomusicology course in the department may not alone form the basis for an interdisciplinary area for the purposes of the exam.

Primary and secondary areas are determined by primarily by geography and secondarily by genre and areas of theoretical interest; exceptions could arise, for example, where “jazz” or “music and neuroscience” could be the main rubric, and a region or period a secondary one. This is your first opportunity to define yourself as an “X”-ist in a certain field—a definition that has implications for representing yourself on the job market later. As such, you don’t want your area to be too narrow. At the same time you need to identify a cohesive unit of study, the literature for which you can reasonably master in time for the exams. We are not interested in calling you out on obscure facts; you in turn need not closely protect the boundaries of your areas out of fear that we will be searching for your weak spots.

Written exams

Part I World Music (3 hours)
This section targets the student’s primary and secondary areas. There will be a choice of 2 out of 3 essay questions, normally 2 in the primary and 1 in the secondary area. One hour is given for each question. Normally students answer one question in each of their areas but are not required to do so. This is followed by a list of six terms or phrases from which four are to be chosen for short answers in one hour. That means roughly 15 minutes per question. Normally there are more short-answer questions related to the primary area.

Part II General Ethnomusicology (3 hours)
This section focuses on the field of ethnomusicology at large. The format is exactly like part I otherwise. Normally there will be questions related to the history of ethnomusicology, methodology, key ethnographies and theories, genres, and substantive questions regarding musical sound (e.g. timbre, rhythm, harmony). The short-answer questions usually include the names of key figures, genres, musical instruments, musical concepts, and style descriptors in wide circulation. In studying for this part of the exam, be sure to keep abreast of current trends in ethnomusicology as well as historical roots.

Part III Interdisciplinary Approaches (3 hours)
This section will draw from the student’s two interdisciplinary areas: 2 questions from one area and 1 question from the other. The ethnomusicology faculty choose which area will be given two questions at the time of writing the exam. There are no “primary” or “secondary” interdisciplinary areas. Here you have 90 minutes to answer 2 questions of your choice. There are no short-answer questions. The questions adhere closely to assigned work from your syllabi or reading lists. Since the point is to bring work from outside the field of ethnomusicology to bear on ethnomusicological work, the format of the questions is often some variation of, “Consider the concept(s) X from the work(s) of Y for research on music.” We try to make the questions more interesting than this, but for the purpose of studying, this is a good starting point.

Part IV Analysis (2 x 8 hours)
Ordinarily, students will be given a choice of two pieces out of three to analyze from their primary and secondary areas.

Oral Exams

In the oral exams students are evaluated both on their knowledge and on their ability to “think on their feet.” Students will have a chance to review their answers and revise or comment on what they wrote before being asked specific questions expanding upon existing answers, or addressing questions not written about. Hence, in the two weeks’ interval separating the writtens and the orals, students should think about responding to all parts of the exam.*

The orals proceed as follows:

  1. You enter, are given water, paper and pencil, a moment to adjust, and are reminded that we are here to have a conversation.
  2. You present your primary area and dissertation ideas for about 15 minutes.
  3. We discuss the analyses in your primary and secondary areas (unless you have already done a Western example instead, in which case we only consider the primary area). This discussion is 30 minutes.
  4. We proceed through each of the other sections in order, about 15 minutes each.
  5. You step out of the room and the faculty confer for about 5-10 minutes.
  6. You are congratulated for completing this rite of passage. Occasionally there is extra work to be done and occasionally students will be recognized with “distinction.” These are decided on a case-by-case basis.

* see music department website for more details.


1. Analysis Portfolio

The analysis portfolio consists of three written analyses. You will be given a choice of pieces from different repertoires (typically modal, tonal, post-tonal) from which you’re asked to select two. The third piece is entirely your own choice. This is an opportunity to tackle non-standard repertories, if you wish, especially those that you might want to specialize in for your dissertation work.

Each essay should be about 4,000 words long (not counting analytical graphs). Some of the pieces may have been analyzed before. We are not interested in a literature review; it is not necessary to consult existing analyses. We are most interested in your our own analytical insights. (That said, obviously you should reference any sources you consult.)

Your portfolio should show an engagement with at least two established theories in your analytical essays. These may be the well-known bodies of theory (pc-set, Schenker, neo-Riemannian, sonata theories, etc.) that make up the theorist’s toolkit. Or they may be an adaptation of a theorist’s special insight, maneuver, tool, or approach that you transfer to the music you are analyzing. In the latter case, you should explain carefully what the theoretical insight is (using references and footnotes as appropriate) and how you are applying it.

The list of pieces will be announced around the end of the Fall semester. That way you have the winter break, the spring semester, and even part of the summer of your generals, to work on your portfolio. We generally recommend writing at least a rough draft of the essays at the earliest time possible so that you get the work for this exam out of the way before it takes away time from other things that may become urgent later on. After the pieces are announced, you cannot discuss the individual pieces with faculty members, but you may consult them if you have general questions about analytical approaches or theoretical issues.

You should choose your third piece carefully. Make sure the piece is not too long and sustains analytical interest. If you are choosing a piece from a nonstandard repertory you may need to reserve some part of your argument for an introduction to some of the issues of the repertoire that the general reader may not be familiar with. Here, too, you are allowed to consult faculty about general questions, but the ultimate choice of a piece is yours.

2. Written Exams

There are three written exams. Ideally they will be spaced out so that there is no more than one exam per day during the exam period, but there may be situations in which two exams on the same day cannot be avoided. Each exam is three hours long. Typically you will be asked to choose two questions from a longer list. Be sure to allocate an appropriate amount of time to each question, bearing in mind that the selection process may also take some time. Prepare for this exam by writing timed essays in the weeks before the generals.

The three written exams will be as follows:

(1) Critical Issues in Music Theory

This exam will ask you to comment critically on a range of recent issues and debates in music theory. The topics will be covered in the bibliography of the recurring graduate seminar 221, Current Issues in Music Theory.

(2) History of Music Theory

This exam will focus on the works of a small range of central figures in the history of music theory (currently Boethius, Zarlino, Rameau, Helmholtz, Schoenberg). These figures may be changed and adapted from time to time. The recurring graduate seminar 220 History of Music Theory will help prepare you for this exam. You will be expected to be familiar with the work of two of these figures, their intellectual context, and the issues that arose from their work.

(3) Special Field

This is an opportunity to prepare a field that may lead to a dissertation topic. The specifics of the topic and the appropriate bibliography are determined by the end of the Spring semester at the latest in consultation with the faculty.

3. Syllabus or Media Project

Here you have a choice between two kinds of exams: either a syllabus of no more than 20pp. or a substantial creative or scholarly project using sound or digital media. The products of this exam will often become useful for application purposes later on in your career: either as a sample syllabus for a teaching portfolio, or as a demonstration of your experience in the digital humanities. You should pin down the specifics of your project by the start of the Spring semester.

(a) Syllabus The syllabus is no longer than 20pp and contains all the requisite parts. Explanatory text, at the beginning of the document, or in the week-to-week components, is particularly important here. It should cover a topic of analytical interest, broadly conceived. The course should be appropriate for upper-level undergraduates, with weekly meetings over the course of a semester of ca. 13 weeks. Each week should have specific materials listed, and a substantial part of the meetings should discuss a musical repertoire or repertoires, which should be identified in the syllabus. The topic and scope of the syllabus is determined in consultation with the faculty. The bibliography leading to the syllabus can be discussed with the faculty, but not the syllabus itself.

(b) Creative or scholarly media project For this exam you will produce a substantial media project of scholarly or creative merit commenting on music-theoretical questions (broadly conceived). This can take a number of forms or creative expressions, usually involving some form of recording technology and/or digital media. (Where appropriate, for instance in the case of a creative project of an artistic nature, you can supply additional written explanatory text, especially to explain its significance for music theory.) The nature and scope of this project are determined in consultation with the faculty. You can discuss bibliography and general questions with the faculty, but not the project itself. For technical and media-related questions you may consult the appropriate staff member.

4. Oral exam

About a week or so after the written exams you will be asked to take an oral exam that will focus on all the work that you have generated for your generals, as outlined above under points 1–3. This oral exam is typically 90 minutes long and will usually take the form of a conversation. It is an opportunity to revise, clarify, or refine your answers, if necessary, and to talk about any points that you didn’t have time to mention in the timed exams. It is also an opportunity to expand the conversation into future dissertations topics, especially as concerns the parts of the exam that allow you to specialize (third analysis, special field, etc.). Students often report that they found the oral exam to be much more enjoyable than they anticipated.


For composers, a written analysis is to be completed in three days at the end of the spring term of the second year of graduate study. It consists of a piece or set of pieces that should be analyzed by the student in the allotted time period. The oral examination is based on an in-depth discussion of two to three major works that are assigned in the late spring of the second year of graduate study. The students are asked to create their own analytical approaches to these pieces and to discuss them over an hour for each piece. The oral exam is held during the week prior to the start of fall term classes.

Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry

During the summer after the second year of study, candidates will take three to four exams, to be determined in close consultation with the faculty. These include a preliminary portfolio of creative work, written exams on theoretical/analytical and historical/cultural topics relevant to the candidate’s individual research goals, and an oral exam encompassing all of the above. The dissertation should offer original research and creative work that strikes a balance within this unique combination of interests.

See the Music Department website for details on Satisfactory Progress.


Since teaching is an integral part of graduate training, most graduate students are teaching fellows during part of the time they are at Harvard. Teaching fellows are also eligible to apply for a resident or nonresident tutorship in one of the 12 undergraduate houses, or in the Dudley Community. In addition to financial benefits, teaching fellowships and tutorships provide excellent professional experience.

Beginning in the third year, graduate students in good standing are eligible for teaching fellowships. Most teaching fellows devote two "term fifths" to teaching. Following successful completion of the general exam, students are required to take M250ht (Teaching Practicum). This course does not count towards the 16 courses required for the PhD.


Within the academic year in which the general examination is passed, the PhD candidate is expected to develop a proposal for a dissertation, which should be a major original contribution to the field. The proposal must be submitted for approval to the program, which is responsible for assigning the student a committee consisting of a dissertation advisor and two other faculty members. Normally, the complete dissertation must be submitted within five years after passing the general examination, and satisfactory progress must be demonstrated every year so that the student remains in good standing. If the dissertation is submitted thereafter the department is not obligated to accept it. The formal requirements for the dissertation are set forth in the dissertation policies of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The department requires one bound copy for the Music Library, in addition to the two copies (one bound, one original) required for the Registrar.

Doctoral Colloquium

All departmental doctoral candidates who are about to submit or have submitted their dissertation are required to make a final presentation of their work.

See music department website for more details on the dissertation process and final requirements for graduation.

Secondary Field in Musicology

Please see the description of a secondary field in Musicology/Ethnomusicology.