Graduate Study in Music Theory

Overview

Columbia’s graduate Music Theory program immerses students in a wide range of current and past scholarship, including analytical approaches to Western concert music and popular music, music cognition and philosophy of music, the history of music theory, and feminist theory and gender and sexuality studies. Topics of recent Music Theory seminars include “Introduction to Cognitive Musicology,” “Music and the Body,” “Techniques of the Listener,” “Knowing, Doing, Making,” “Analysis, Description, Interpretation,” “Interdisciplinary and Humanistic Approaches to Music Theory,” and “Debussy and Modernism.” 

Students in our program come from a wide range of backgrounds. Drawing on their own strengths as musicians and scholars, members of the program become well-rounded theorists, able to communicate coherently and in an informed manner about the contemporary landscape of music theory, as well as about areas not covered in our coursework. Students are encouraged and guided in the development of independent logical thinking and critical reading skills. They are expected to be (or become) sophisticated musicians, with acute powers to hear music intelligently.

Columbia’s Music Theory program prides itself on a strong record of preparing PhD recipients to take up full-time academic positions in higher education. Its recent doctoral graduates currently hold professorships at Eastman School of Music, New York University, Indiana University, Smith College, University of Durham, University of Michigan, Washington University, Wesleyan University, Wheaton College, and others. We consider the wide intellectual range and ecumenicism of our students and faculty to be a strength. Our graduates may be found on faculties of not only music theory, but also performance and composition, as well as computer science and media studies. Columbia’s Music Theory PhDs have also pursued successful careers in digital humanities, academic publishing, graduate pedagogy, and youth performing arts education.

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 Proseminar in either Ethnomusicology or Historical Musicology. Further coursework (chosen in consultation with the advisor) involves seminars in music theory and analysis, as well as other courses in the Music Department, 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.

In the third or fourth year of graduate study, 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 defended, with 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), along with a committee including other members of the Department, and in some cases beyond. When the dissertation is deemed ready to distribute, a committee of five members (including at least from outside the Department) is convened for a final defense.

For the MA:

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

2 proseminars: Proseminar in Music Theory, plus either Proseminar in Historical Musicology or Proseminar in Ethnomusicology

1 analysis course

3 other seminars, chosen in consultation with the student’s advisor

1st language exam, taken in September or March

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)

2nd foreign language exam, taken in September or March of 2nd year

General Examination, in 3 parts:

Part 1: Repertory of Western Art Music (April or May of 2nd year)
Part 2: Oral Analysis of Western Art Music (April or May of 2nd year)
Part 3:  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.