Degree Requirements

PhD in Music: Music Theory and Cognition

Program of Study – 18 units

Music Theory Foundations – 8 units 

  • MUS THRY 505 Methods of Music Theory 
  • MUS THRY 510 Music Theory Pedagogy, second year 
  • MUS THRY 515 History of Western Music Theory 
  • MUS THRY 520 Readings in Music Theory and Cognition 
  • MUS THRY 550 Research Seminar, 4 units 


Survey of the Field – 5 units 

A selection of Music Theory and Cognition courses depending on prior experience and to be determined in advising with the program coordinator.

  • MUS THRY 313/413 Analytical Approaches to World Music 
  • MUS THRY 321/421 Classical Form 
  • MUS THRY 325/425 Style and Phrase 
  • MUS THRY 335/435 Theory of Melody 
  • MUS THRY 336/436 Selected Topics in Music Cognition to include: 
    • Music and Emotion 
    • Memory, and Attention 
    • Music, Thought, and Language 
  • MUS THRY 340/440 Analysis of Recorded Performance 
  • MUS THRY 345/445 Experimental and Empirical Methods in Music Theory 
  • MUS THRY 348/448 Corpus Studies 
  • MUS THRY 355 Analysis of Post-Tonal Music 
  • MUS THRY 422 Rhythm and Meter 
  • MUS THRY 530 Music Semiotics 
  • MUS THRY 551 Seminar in Music Cognition


Cognate – 3 units 

Three courses to be taken in a related department outside of music relevant to the student’s research interest(s). 


General Electives – 2 units 

General Electives are courses at the 300 level or above within or outside of the Bienen School of Music, and may include Music Studies courses (Composition, Music Education, Music Technology, Music Theory and Cognition, Musicology), or courses in non-music fields relevant to the student’s research interest(s). All general electives may be courses outside Music Studies.

Students should take as many electives as needed to complete the required number of units. Students who are exempt from one or more core courses (pending transcript review and faculty approval) need to take more electives to complete the required number of units.


Colloquium – 0 units, 6 registrations 

  • MUS THRY 490 Music Theory Colloquium

Qualifying Exam and Candidacy

The qualifying examination consists of two parts:

Part One – An analytic paper on one or more musical works selected by the student and using methodologies also determined and deemed relevant and essential by the student in consultation with their advisor. The paper should be 4,000 to 5,000 words, not including the bibliography, captions, tables and figures, or appendix, if any. It must include annotated music examples with captions, and may include supplementary materials in the form of tables, figures or graphs.

Part Two – Two papers on two agreed-upon topics. Each topic must be approved by the student’s dissertation advisor, and one other member of the Music Theory and Cognition faculty, usually another member of the student’s dissertation committee. The papers should be 6,000 to 8,000 words, and involve literature review and critical assessment of the research on the topic. The papers’ focus may relate to the student’s emerging dissertation topic in some way, but should have breadth in relation to the concerns of music theory and cognition as fields. 

Students must complete Part One by the end of fall quarter of their third year. The examination is graded pass/fail. Students who fail are required to re-take the exam at the beginning of winter quarter. 

Students must pass Part Two by the end of the third academic year. To pass, each paper must be approved by the student’s advisor and at least one other member of the Music Theory and Cognition faculty, usually another member of the student’s dissertation committee. 

The Graduate School requires all PhD students to achieve candidacy by the end of the 12th quarter of study. Students who fail to achieve candidacy by this deadline may be placed on academic probation.

Dissertation Prospectus

Students must identify a primary advisor by the end of their second year. Identification of an advisor should begin with a verbal agreement between the student and prospective advisor. 

The Graduate School requires the dissertation prospectus to be completed and approved by the end of the fourth year. However, the Music Theory and Cognition faculty encourage students to complete the prospectus sooner when possible, ideally by the end of fall quarter of the fourth year. 

Students must submit committee names in GSTS prior to the prospectus defense.

Prospectus Guidelines

The prospectus consists of 25-30-pages, and outlines the topic, significance, and methodologies of the dissertation, and surveys the relevant scholarly literature and primary sources to be considered. A comprehensive bibliography, chapter outline, and a timeline for completion of the project should also be included.

Students should work with their advisor on the prospectus until the document is deemed ready for defense. The prospectus is then distributed to the remaining committee members to read. The student presents the prospectus in a private defense with the committee members. Revisions may be required before the document is approved.

Dissertation and Oral Defense

Students complete the dissertation under the direction of a committee comprised of three or four faculty, at least two of whom, including the chair, must be members of the Northwestern University Graduate School faculty.

Students are encouraged to apply for funding for dissertation research through TGS and the Office of Fellowships. Dissertations must be formatted according to TGS Dissertation Formatting Guidelines. Students should submit the PhD Final Exam form in GSTS following a successful defense.


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