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)

MUS THRY 316 16th-Century Counterpoint (1 unit)
MUS THRY 317 Figured Bass (1 unit)
MUS THRY 318 18th-Century Counterpoint (1 unit)
        *choose 2 units from the 3 courses above
MUS THRY 332/432 Rhythm and Meter (1 unit) 
MUS THRY 335/435 Advanced Tonal Analysis (1 unit)
MUS THRY 355 Post-Tonal Analysis (1 unit)
MUS THRY 405 Intro to Research in Music Theory and Cognition (1 unit)
MUS THRY 415 & 416 History of Music Theory 1 & 2 (2 units)
MUS THRY 451 Music Cognition (1 unit)

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 Analysis of Popular Music, Computational Methods, or Empirical Methods will count toward this requirement. Other courses may satisfy this requirement pending faculty approval.
  • Second-year students are strongly encouraged to take MUS THRY 410, Teaching of Theory, as one of their electives. This course will help them prepare for student teaching in the Core beginning in year 3, and the teaching demonstration component of the qualifying examination.
  • If an even number of electives is taken, at least half must be Music Theory and Cognition courses. If an odd number is taken, the majority must be Music Theory and Cognition courses. 

Qualifying Exam - Candidacy

The qualifying examination will consist of the following four components:

  1. A repertoire exam based on a list of 25 compositions from the years 1600–2000. Students will prepare the list in advance and submit it to the faculty for approval. At the time of the examination, four compositions from the list will be selected, of which the student must discuss three. The discussion should address the style, structure, and treatment of each work in the music-theoretical literature.
  2. A teaching demonstration. The faculty will observe and evaluate a schedule Core course session taught by the student.
  3. An analysis exam involving an advanced tonal work. The identity of the work will not be revealed until the time of the exam.
  4. Two papers. One should be an agreed-upon topic in music theory, and the other an agreed-upon topic in music cognition. 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.

Normally, Part 1 will occur at the beginning of the student’s second academic year, Part 2 during the spring quarter of the second academic year, and Part 3 at the beginning of the student’s third academic year. These examinations will be graded pass/fail, with a failing score leading to a required retake at the beginning of the winter quarter. 

For Part 1, students will be asked to submit a list of compositions to the faculty for approval by no later than May 15 of the preceding academic year. For Part 2, the topics of the potential classes will be given by the end of the preceding academic year. 

Part 4 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 should have identified 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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