Degree Requirements

PhD in Music: Music Theory and Cognition

Program of Study

27 units are required for students entering directly from a bachelor’s degree program. Students entering with a master’s degree in music theory may choose to pursue an 18-unit course of study pending faculty approval.

Core Courses (9 units)


Course Number




Theory and analysis of pitch, time and other parameters



16th-Century Counterpoint

Select at least one


18th-Century Counterpoint

Select from a menu of MUS_THRY analysis topics.


Tonal Analysis I (18th-c. topics courses)

Select at least two

Tonal Analysis II (19th-c. topics courses)


Analysis of Post-Tonal Music


Analysis of Popular Music

MUS_THRY 422-1

MUS_THRY 422-2


Rhythm and Meter I

Select at least one

Rhythm and Meter II


Sound to Structure

Survey of the field



Readings in Music Theory

All five mandatory



Methods of Music Theory



Seminar in Music Cognition



History of Music Theory



Music Theory Pedagogy

Seminar in Music Theory and Cognition (6 units/4 units)


Each academic year the Music Theory and Cognition faculty will offer 2 seminars on a significant and current topic within music theory and/or music cognition. All students currently in coursework must take these courses. Students on a 3-year plan will be required to take 6 units in all; students on a 2-year plan will be required to take 4.

Cognate Discipline (3 units)

Three courses to be taken in a related department outside of music; typical departments to choose are linguistics, communication sciences and disorders (auditory neuroscience), psychology, and anthropology.

Graduate-level electives (remaining units)

The remainder of courses taken will be electives. Students should take as many electives as are needed to complete the required number of units (as noted above, 27 units for students on a 3-year plan, and 18 for students on a 2-year plan). Students who have been exempted from one or more core courses (pending transcript review and faculty approval) will need to take more electives to complete the required number of units. In addition, the following stipulations apply:

At least one elective must be a “Methods Course.” This will be a graduate-level Music Studies course that will enable the acquisition of professional skills needed for the student’s research. Courses such as Computational Methods or Empirical Methods will count toward this requirement. Other courses may satisfy this requirement pending faculty approval.

Extra-curricular language requirement

Language proficiency in a select foreign language as appropriate for the individual student’s scholarly research interests and background. Proficiency is to be demonstrated through a timed translation exam of representative scholarly research sources and graded by two faculty members of the program. Exceptions or substitutions to this requirement will be considered on a case-by-case basis and documented by the Director of Graduate Studies and the program coordinator. Students may apply for funding for summer study through TGS (SLG) Summer Language Grant, the Traveling Scholar Program, or the Chicago Metropolitan Exchange Program.

Qualifying Exam - Candidacy

The qualifying examination will consist of the following components:

  1. An analysis exam involving an advanced tonal work. The identity of the work will not be revealed until the time of the exam.
  2. Two papers. Two agreed-upon topics. Each topic must be approved by the student’s dissertation advisor and at least one other member of the Music Theory and Cognition faculty (normally, another member of the student’s dissertation committee). The papers should involve literature review and critical assessment of the research on the topic. It is likely that their focus will relate to the student’s emerging dissertation topic in some way, but they should also have some breadth in relation to the concerns of music theory and cognition as fields.

Part 1 will be taken at the beginning of the student’s third academic year. This examination will be graded pass/fail, with a failing score leading to a required retake at the beginning of the winter quarter. 

Part 2 of the qualifying examination must be passed by the end of the third academic year. To pass, each paper must have been approved by the student’s advisor and at least one other member of the Music Theory and Cognition faculty (normally, another member of the student’s dissertation committee).

The Graduate School requires all PhD students to have achieved candidacy by the end of the 12th quarter in residence. Failure to achieve candidacy by this time may result in the student being placed on academic probation.

Dissertation Prospectus

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

The Graduate School requires that the dissertation prospectus be completed and approved by the end of the fourth academic year in order to maintain good academic standing. The Music Theory and Cognition faculty, however, encourage students to complete the prospectus sooner if possible. By the end of the fall quarter during the fourth academic year is an ideal time.

In order to specify the members of the committee, the student should submit their names via the TGS Prospectus Form. This should be completed by the time of the prospectus defense at the very latest. The program will approve this form after the prospectus has been approved as described below.


  • The prospectus should be a 25-30-page document that outlines the topic, significance, and methodologies of the dissertation and surveys the relevant scholarly literature and primary sources to be considered.
  • A comprehensive bibliography and a timeline for completion of the project should also be included.
  • The student should work with his or her advisor on the prospectus until it is deemed ready for defense. At this time, the prospectus will be distributed to the remaining committee members.
  • Committee members will read the document, and the student will present it in a private defense with the members of the committee.
  • Revisions may be required before the document will be approved.

Dissertation and Oral Defense

The student will complete the dissertation under the direction of a committee comprised of 3-4 members, at least two of whom (including the advisor) must be members of the Northwestern University Graduate Faculty. The student is encouraged to apply for external funding of dissertation research through TGS and the Office of Fellowships.

Near the end of the dissertation process, students must present their work in an oral defense in front of the committee and (if the student wishes) graduate students in Music Theory and Cognition. The defense is to be scheduled through consultation with the advisor and committee members.

Dissertations must be formatted according to TGS Dissertation Formatting Guidelines, and, following a successful defense, the student and committee must complete and submit the PhD Final Form via TGS or CAESAR. 


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