Degree Requirements

PhD in Music: Composition and Music Technology

Diagnostic evaluation and initial advisement

There will be an initial interview with the Composition and Music Technology faculty to review the student’s background to determine the best course of study, based on the student’s interests and previous coursework. Students should regard all members of the faculty as advisors throughout the period of their degree studies.

Academic Advisement

It is typical that the faculty member with whom the student is currently taking MUS_COMP 512 shall be considered as their primary advisor. By the beginning of a student’s third year, the chair of their Doctoral Committee will serve as primary advisor for the remainder of their degree.

Program of Study

(18 units for those who matriculate with a Master’s degree and 27 units for those entering with a Bachelor’s degree only)

Applied Composition (6-9 units)

All students will take Applied Composition (MUS_COMP 512) per quarter of their coursework.

Core Coursework

MUSIC 540: Doctoral Music Research
MUSICOL 400: Graduate Review of Music History
MUS_COMP 439: Materials of Music 1900-1947
MUS_COMP 439: Materials of Music Since 1945
MUS_TECH 300-level or above (2 units)
MUS_COMP 437 or 439 or 440 (2 units total, in addition to the two required 439 courses)

Cognate Area (3 units)

Students will take three courses in a non-music field relevant to their main interest. For example, a student might take three courses in Screen Cultures, or Environmental Sciences. It is also possible to take courses within one of the many existing interdisciplinary Clusters (such as African Studies, or Critical Theory) organized by The Graduate School. Additionally, a student may devise their own interdisciplinary cognate area under the supervision of their primary advisor, if their non-musical interests direct them towards research in an area without a preexisting Cluster. (See TGS website: Clusters and Certificates)

Electives (0-6 units)

Courses in Music Theory and Cognition, Musicology, Music Education, Conducting (contingent upon approval of Conducting faculty), other Humanities and Social Sciences, or Science and Engineering if pertinent to the student’s qualifications and interests.

Students who wish to register for elective classes at other universities may do so via two programs:

  • BTAA (formerly known as the CIC) Traveling Scholar Program (a consortium of the Big Ten Academic Alliance and the University of Chicago)
  • Chicago Metropolitan Exchange Program (currently only in collaboration with the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago)

Questions about these programs should be directed to the Coordinator of Student Services in The Graduate School with prior consent of the student’s primary advisor.

Composition Colloquium

All students are required to register for and attend the weekly Composer’s Colloquium each quarter during residency. Each student is expected to regularly pursue additional performances on the Student Composers’ Concerts, Performance Studies student recitals, local/national conferences, etc. Student composers are expected to demonstrate active involvement in the above-mentioned activities and to maintain a productive composition level throughout the program. A high level of achievement must be present in the following areas: composition, 20th/21st-century music, use of music technology tools, theory, orchestration, harmony, counterpoint, analysis, aural skills, and keyboard skills.


PhD students are expected to teach a variety of courses; typically this will include one quarter of MUS_COMP 111/311 Class Composition during the student’s fourth year. Students who desire to gain experience in Aural Skills will be assigned to teach all three consecutive quarters of the academic year, as this course is a structured sequential offering for undergraduate music majors. Teaching assignments should be made in consultation with a student’s primary advisor. 

Doctoral Committee

No later than the end of the Spring Quarter of the second year, each candidate must assemble a doctoral committee comprised of three current faculty of Northwestern University, at least two of whom must be members of the Composition and Music Technology program. The Doctoral Committee Chair must be a member of The Graduate School faculty. This committee will be chaired by the candidate’s proposed dissertation advisor. The Doctoral Committee Chair serves as primary advisor from that point onwards in the candidate’s work towards the degree, and as first reader of the dissertation.

The Doctoral Committee has four functions:

  • To administer the Comprehensive PhD Qualifying Exams; 
  • To approve the Dissertation Prospectus; 
  • To supervise and approve both parts of the Dissertation—the doctoral composition as well as the scholarly written essay when both have been completed to the satisfaction of the committee. 
  • To supervise and attend the Doctoral Recital.

Qualifying Examinations

The Comprehensive PhD Qualifying Exams are taken during the 3rd year of studies, and have to be completed before the end of the student’s 11th quarter in the program (usually the end of Spring quarter of the third year). They are administered by the Doctoral Committee, as constituted above. These Qualifying Exams consist of a written and an oral portion. For the written part each member of the doctoral committee discusses with the student a specific research/analysis topic for which the student can chose to a) write an article length essay (ca. 20-30 pages) submitted to the faculty member by an agreed upon date, or b) take an exam given by the faculty member during an agreed upon three-day period. The oral portion of the composition qualifying exam can address topics including, but not limited to, those items covered in the written exams.

Dissertation Prospectus

The prospectus in Composition and Music Technology is to be completed as soon as possible after passing the qualifying examination. According to The Graduate School, doctoral students who have not passed the prospectus by the end of the fourth year are not making satisfactory progress toward the degree. It consists of a proposal for the dissertation which outlines the topic, its significance, its methodologies, and includes a survey of the current scholarly literature and primary sources necessary for successful completion of the dissertation as well as a comprehensive bibliography. The prospectus will be evaluated by the student's dissertation committee, and will be formally accepted after a brief defense. Following the successful defense, the student and their committee must complete the Prospectus Form via TGS on CAESAR.

Dissertation Requirement

The requirements comprise:

  1. a composition (the Doctoral Composition) of substantially ambitious scope (to be determined with the approval of the members of the Doctoral Committee) and
  2. a scholarly analytical essay on a topic agreed upon by the candidate and their committee. 

The two documents represent the culmination of intensive and original research that will make a meaningful contribution to knowledge in the student’s field. Students must consult with their dissertation advisor and committee before undertaking any writing. Both portions must be completed and approved by the student’s dissertation committee before the dissertation requirement can be considered to have been actually fulfilled.

The scholarly essay should be aimed at the same readership as that of an established professional journal (e.g., Contemporary Music Review, Perspectives of New Music, Tempo, inter al.), with a target length of 5,000 words.

Dissertation Completion

The student is encouraged to apply for external funding of dissertation research through TGS and the Office of Fellowships. Dissertations must be formatted according to TGS Dissertation Formatting Guidelines. The student and committee must complete and submit the PhD Final Form via CAESAR.

Doctoral Recital

One full recital of works (approximately sixty minutes of music) is required. Students are responsible for arranging all aspects of the recital. The recital program may consist of any combination of works written after the initial registration in the doctoral program. All music to be presented on the recital, approximate date/alternate dates, location and program information must be approved by the Doctoral Committee Chair prior to the recital.


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