Graduate Study in Music Theory


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 Advisor, 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 detailed information on Degree Requirements & Timetable of Study, please refer to the Graduate Handbook: