Music Theory and Cognition

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Degrees Available

  • Bachelor of Music in Music Theory
  • Bachelor of Music in Music Cognition
  • Bachelor of Arts in Music
  • Bachelor of Science in Music
  • Master of Music in Theory
  • PhD in Music Theory and Cognition

About the Music Theory and Cognition Program 

The music theory and cognition program at Northwestern is unique among music-research institutions in the way in which it treats the study of musical structure as a fundamentally interdisciplinary pursuit. Northwestern has long been a world leader in connecting music theory and cognition, and its internationally known faculty bring historical, cultural, anthropological, and psychological vantage points to bear on the study of musical structure in relation to listening, composition, performance, and analysis. It shares with the musicology program a humanistic view of music shaped by culture. The added resources of Northwestern's many distinguished programs in related disciplines create unique opportunities for research.

At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, students receive first-class training and experience in the ever expanding and diversifying discipline of music theory. Our faculty are leaders in evolving subdisciplines such as systematic music theory, popular music studies, historical music theory, and situated cognition. Northwestern students have the further advantage of studying with renowned scholars in the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science, both within and beyond the walls of the Bienen School of Music.

The program's interdisciplinary approach to the theoretical dimensions of musical inquiry is balanced by a practical perspective informed by the larger school of music setting. Undergraduates develop facility in traditional areas such as counterpoint, harmony, ear-training, melody, rhythm, and form, while also studying music history and culture. The undergraduate programs of study address questions involving musical construction, listener response, the features of musical style, and the basis for common metaphors used in describing music. They offer excellent preparation for continued graduate study in music research—be it in theory, musicology, or cognition—or for careers in other sectors where a solid foundation in music will be useful.

Graduate students are encouraged to pursue research in areas among the faculty's expertise. These include topics such as the following:

  • Schema theory, categorization, and style
  • Music and memory
  • Tonality
  • Rhythm and meter
  • Eighteenth-century music
  • Popular music
  • Musical design in relation to gender and sexuality
  • Technologically mediated performance; expressive performance
  • Music and communication
  • Historically informed theory and cognition

Beyond these specializations, the faculty may supervise a broad range of topics, from traditional areas of music theory such as Formenlehre and the history of music theory to specialized topics in the cognitive sciences, including music and neuroscience.

Students pursuing the PhD receive full tuition and a living stipend so that they may fully devote themselves to research and study.

Music Theory & Cognition PhD FAQ

Read the answers to the frequently asked questions regarding this degree program.

Special Opportunities

Many opportunities exist for exchange between the program in Music Theory and Cognition and other areas at Northwestern. Some of these include the departments of linguistics, psychology, communication sciences and disorders, and the program in cognitive science.

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