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Questions about these requirements? See the contact info at the bottom of the page. 

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 term 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:


The general exam (“generals”) in our department is a capstone of two years of coursework, allowing you to demonstrate competency in musicology’s methods and approaches and qualify you to move on to the research and teaching phase of the PhD program.

The exams provide an opportunity for you to both broaden your interests and to deepen your knowledge in preparation for dissertation work. You will propose five fields in consultation with the faculty, fields that reflect your interests but also range widely in terms of methodology and content. In designing your fields, you can also explore possibilities for a dissertation.

Preparation for the exams provides an immersive experience, one in which you study with intensity and wide-ranging curiosity. Broad knowledge of both past and current musical practices is crucial to your future success as scholars, teachers, and productive members of the profession of musicology, so keep in mind that your fields should touch on diverse historical eras as well as various critical theories and methodological approaches. In writing your proposal, you should demonstrate a grasp of scholarly literature and ways and means of researching.

The exams are not meant to test your memory or recall of random facts; rather, they provide an opportunity for you to show your intellectual strengths, as well as your skills in writing, critical thinking, and oral expression.

The exams take place in the summer after your G2 year. They have four main parts:

  • Syllabus for a 13-week undergraduate course on one of your four fields. Due June 1.
  • Analysis (written) of two pieces of music. Take-home exam given out on a Friday in early or mid-July and returned the following Monday. We will supply pieces in each of the following four categories and you will write analytic essays on two of them: one piece written before 1700, one from the 18th or 19th century, one from the 20th century or later, or one improvised or electronic piece (with recording).
  • Written exams on four of your five fields (i.e., all except the one used for the syllabus). Written exams are a timed, in-person exam. They take place two or three weeks before the beginning of the fall term of your third year. There will be essays and/or short answer questions; the format may vary from topic to topic. On the first day of the written exams, you will have two two-hour segments (covering two topics); after a day of rest, on the second day of the written exams, there will be two two-hour segments (covering two topics). You may bring a print-out of your bibliography and repertory list into the exam. It may be annotated, but must fit on a single sheet of paper (double-sided is okay).
  • Oral exam (either on Zoom or in person) on all five fields, 1.5 hours. The exam will cover the syllabus (oral presentation), the analysis exam, plus the four fields you wrote about (the whole fields—not just the prompts for the essays). (Date TBA in the third or fourth week of August.)


By March 1 of your G2 spring term and after consulting with faculty, you will submit in final form five proposed fields of examination (at the end of this document, see “Designing Fields” for specific guidelines and due dates). When choosing your fields, please consider the following guidelines:

  • At least one field should deal with musical repertory and/or issues of historiography in the periods before 1800 and at least one after 1800. A transhistorical field would also fulfill this requirement.
  • One field (and not more) may be aligned with your anticipated dissertation work.

Other possibilities for your fields include:

  • A repertory, genre, or institution from a particular time and place, from any musical tradition or practice. Your field may focus on musical, analytical, ideological, historiographical issues related to this repertory.
  • 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: ecomusicology, sound studies, 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.
  • A field involving repertories and musical practices from global musics (outside of Western traditions of art and popular music).
  • A transhistorical field, as noted above (such as performance practice, music publishing, the role of women composers and musicians, or tracing a genre over time and across geographic borders).

Beyond these guidelines, the choice of fields is left to you, and you should strive for variety.

Each field should have both breadth and depth and it should invest in a critical response to 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.

The field you choose for the syllabus should be one that you can envisage teaching in the future. Please try to balance pedagogical effectiveness and content, and remember that this is a plan for an undergraduate course (which means accommodating students with varying levels of preparation, prior knowledge, and previous experience), not a graduate seminar. Linking this field to the oral presentation is designed to allow you to demonstrate your communication skills and creativity.

Intellectual Process

As you prepare for the exams, we encourage you to reflect on your fields and think synthetically. Aim to consider questions such as: In which fields did you encounter the liveliest debates? Which fields, 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)?

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, cross-disciplinary music studies, and/or faculty outside the 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. During the oral exam, you may consult your bibliographies, repertory lists, and annotated copies of your written exams. At the end, you are asked to step out of the room while faculty confer. Upon being invited back, you will discuss with the faculty your overall performance in the exam.

What are the possible outcomes? “Passing” is typical. ("Pass" is also the highest possible grade.) Occasionally, we issue a provisional or partial 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, we adjudge at the conclusion of the orals that, rather than being approved to go on to writing a PhD dissertation, a student will instead be awarded a master’s degree in November.

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 Term 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 Musicology Program Advisor. Provide a title for each field, along with 500-word description, which could cover what you find intriguing about it and addresses your rationale for coverage and content. Also include a one-page bibliography; if a particular field is oriented towards a repertory of musical works, list the pieces you consider important to know, and to analyze.
  • Preface your proposal with a statement (about 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.
  • In 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.
  • 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 and musical culture. 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. (Please note that you will not receive feedback on the syllabus until the oral exam.)
Syllabus Template (what to include):
  • catalog copy: 100-word course description
  • course rationale: 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. Please include details about weekly listening and reading 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. Also, Eva keeps a file of exams from previous years, which you are welcome to consult.

Libraries and resources. Please remember that our librarian Kerry Masteller ( is more than happy to help you track down online and digital materials.

Finally, please feel free to consult the advisor in historical musicology (Kate van Orden, or any members of the musicology faculty if you have questions along the way.


General exams in ethnomusicology will usually be given in August preceding the G3 year (prior to the first term 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 two syllabi from coursework taken outside of the department or reading list(s) that, along with description(s), define interdisciplinary area(s). There are normally two 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 two out of three essay questions, normally two in the primary and one 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: two questions from one area and one 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 two 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.


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 term. That way you have the winter break, the spring term, 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 term 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 20 pages 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 term.

(a) Syllabus The syllabus is no longer than 20 pages 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 term of about 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 the topics of which should 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. Students who are not making satisfactory academic progress towards degree are at risk of being placed in grace status or being withdrawn from the program. The formal requirements for the dissertation are set forth in the dissertation policies of the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin 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 the 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. 

Contact Info 

Music Website

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