Graduate Study in Music Theory


Columbia's graduate theory program strives to expose students to the wide range of current and past scholarship, including but not limited to analysis of Western music from all periods, Schenkerian theory, set theory, generative theory, rhythm and meter theory, popular music analysis, music cognition and perception, structuralism and poststructuralism, philosophy of music, history of theory, transformational theories, postmodernism, and feminist theory and gender and sexuality studies.

These and other areas of study are presented in a series of proseminars and seminars, during which students write papers, some of which are held to publishable standards (and, indeed, several seminar papers have been reshaped to appear in leading journals). Students are expected to read current periodicals and books and hence to become well-rounded theorists, able to speak and write coherently and in an informed manner about ideas in all these areas (not only those covered in course work). Students are also trained to think logically, read critically and in a penetrating fashion, and think for themselves. Students are expected to be (or become) sophisticated musicians, with acute powers to hear music intelligently.

Degree Requirements

General information on degree requirements and a full list of courses can be found in the GSAS Bulletin.

Students normally take the Proseminar in Music Theory in their first two years of graduate study. The Proseminar is an overview and sampling of current concerns in the field. Students also take the Proseminars in Ethnomusicology or Historical Musicology. Further coursework (chosen in consultation with the advisor) involves seminars in music theory, analysis, computer music, historical musicology, philosophy of music, music cognition, composition, and/or ethnomusicology depending on the student's interests and needs. Many graduate students take courses in other departments, such as Psychology, Computer Science, Art History, and Philosophy.

Topics of recent theory seminars include: postmodernism, generative theories, computer modeling of music cognition, rhythm and meter theory, compositional theory, gender and sexuality, and other interdisciplinary approaches to music theory. Topics of recent analysis seminars include music since 1945, music of the early twentieth century, tonal and pretonal music, popular music, the works of Ruth Crawford Seeger, string quartets of Beethoven, string quartets of Bartok, and music that challenges traditional analytic methods.

In the third or fourth year of graduate study (or the second year, if the student has arrived with a Master's Degree and been granted Advanced Standing), a student will normally work with a faculty member in an MPhil Seminar, essentially a tutorial in which a dissertation topic is developed through guided reading and weekly discussions. At the end of the Seminar a dissertation prospectus is prepared and then orally examined by a faculty committee of at least three.

The PhD dissertation is a document representing original research and thought. Most dissertations in music theory take about two years to complete. The dissertation process is supervised by the faculty sponsor (normally the faculty member with whom the student has taken the MPhil Seminar). In addition to the sponsor, two other faculty members from the Department serve as readers. When the dissertation is deemed ready for defense, two additional readers from outside the Department are appointed (for a total of five).

For the MA:

6 seminars (18 points) in the first year (3 in fall term, 3 in spring), including:

2 proseminars: Theory Proseminar plus Proseminar in Historical Musicology or Proseminar in Ethnomusicology [sometimes the non-Theory proseminar may be taken in the second year]
1 analysis course
3 other seminars, chosen in consultation with the student’s advisor

1 Foreign-Language Exam (normally in German), taken in September, January, or May

MA Paper: due on 15 October in the 2nd year. (Choose topic and advisor in the spring of  the 1st year. Typically students will develop a seminar paper written during their 1st year of study.)

For the MPhil.:

8 more seminars (24 points), 4 per year in years 2 and 3, chosen in consultation with the student’s advisor

(Total seminars in years 1-3: minimum of 14 seminars = 42 points)

N.B. – Certain seminars may be repeated for credit, e.g., Theory Proseminar, Analysis, History of Theory (different period) (at least one semester of History of Theory is strongly recommended, since Part 3C of the theory general exams always includes a History of Theory question)

2nd Foreign-Language Exam, taken in September, January, or May of 2nd year

General Examination, in 4 parts:

Part 1A: Repertory of Western Art Music (April or May of 2nd year)
Part 2A: Oral Analysis of Western Art Music (April or May of 2nd year)
Part 3B: Written Analysis of Western Music (January of 3rd year)
Part 3C:  Theoretical Systems, Past and Present (September of 4th year)

N.B. – In the case of failure of any part of the General Exam, the student is permitted to re-take that part of the exam once; a second failure in any part of the exam requires termination of the student’s enrollment in the program.

Begin work on Dissertation Proposal

For the Ph.D.:

Dissertation Proposal (to be submitted to theory-area faculty committee by mid-term date of fall term, 4th year): complete & successfully defend

Formation of Dissertation Committee (upon acceptance of the dissertation proposal)

Dissertation: complete & successfully defend by May of 6th year.


Students entering the graduate program in music theory at Columbia with a Master’s degree in music theory (or any Master’s degree in music with a concentration in theory) from another institution normally receive, upon petition, advanced standing. Advanced standing has the following consequences:

  1. The student receives up to 18 points of course credit, i.e., the equivalent of 6 seminars, as well as 1 or 2 “residence points,” fulfilling 1 or 2 semesters of Columbia’s residence requirement.
  2. The student therefore, in effect, enters the program in what would normally be the second year, and is expected to complete some of the degree requirements sooner after his or her arrival at Columbia than would normally be the case, as detailed below in points 5 and 6.
  3. The specifically required courses among the first-year seminars listed above are still required; these, again are:
    • 2 proseminars: Theory Proseminar plus Proseminar in Historical Musicology or Proseminar in Ethnomusicology [sometimes the non-Theory proseminar may be taken in the second year]
    • 1 analysis course
  4. The student is not exempted from either of the foreign-language examinations. Ideally the student will pass both of these exams in his or her first year at Columbia, but in any case the first exam should be passed in the student’s first year here, and both exams must be passed by the end of the student’s second year.
  5. The student is required to complete and submit a paper equivalent to the MA paper, developed from work done in one of the seminars taken during the student’s first year at Columbia, by the end of the student’s third semester here, i.e., by the end of the fall term of the second year.
  6. The student must take and pass the four parts of the General Examination, on the following schedule (years are numbered starting from the student’s entrance into the program at Columbia):
    • Part 1A: Repertory of Western Art Music (April or May of 1st year)
    • Part 2A: Oral Analysis of Western Art Music (April or May of 1st year)
    • Part 3B: Written Analysis of Western Music (January of 2nd year)
    • Part 3C:  Theoretical Systems, Past and Present (September of 3rd year)
  7. Work on a dissertation proposal should begin by the fall of the third year at Columbia.
  8. All remaining degree requirements are unaffected by advanced standing.