Doctor of Philosophy in Music Theory

Department of Music Theory

Designed for students seeking the highest degree in the field, the PhD is a rigorous five-year course of study culminating in a doctoral dissertation.

Program Requirements


The doctoral program provides specialized training in scholarly method, music theory, and musicology. Students should normally achieve candidacy by the end of the sixth term.

Program of Study for the First Two Years

Thirty semester hours beyond the bachelor’s degree are required during the first two years of graduate study. Of the thirty hours, at least fifteen hours must be taken in music theory and at least nine in other fields of music.

The following courses are required:

  • MHM 501: Introduction to Graduate Study or THEORY 503: Bibliography of Music
  • THEORY 531: Schenkerian Theory and Analysis I
  • THEORY 532: Schenkerian Theory and Analysis II
  • THEORY 590: Teaching Tonal Theory
  • THEORY 721: Readings in Music Theory

One course selected from:

  • THEORY 534: 20th-Century Music: Theory and Analysis II
  • THEORY 560: Special Studies
  • THEORY 805: Seminar in Music Theory

Additional requirements:

  • Two courses in musicology, selected from the history of music theory and graduate period survey courses
  • A cognate consisting of six hours of study (eight when in performance) that is related to the student’s principal research topic either in a music field other than theory or in a field outside of music
  • THEORY 590 must be taken prior to or concurrent with a student’s first semester as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI)
Qualifying Exam

During the fall term of the second year (third semester) of graduate study the student will be expected to pass the qualifying exam. The exam is intended to help students synthesize what they have gained through their coursework. The qualifying exam includes two parts: an oral presentation and an analytical paper. The repertoire for the exam includes one tonal and one 20th-century or 21st-century work.

If a student has not successfully fulfilled the requirements of the third semester review, but has performed adequately in other respects, they will be awarded a terminal master’s degree.

Year Three and Beyond

Musicology & Music Theory

  • Two terms of Music Theory 805: Seminar in Music Theory (one or two of which may be applied from earlier study at U-M)
  • Music Theory 990: Dissertation/Pre-candidate
  •  Two music theory electives
  • Two courses in musicology, restricted to period courses at or above 500 or Special Topics courses at or above 500. One must be at the 600 level. These courses may have been taken during coursework in years one and two.


The requirements also include two approved cognate programs, one of which is normally completed during the first two years of study. Each cognate consists of six hours of study (eight when in performance) that is related to a student’s principal research topic either in a music field other than music theory or in a field outside music. The two cognates may be in the same field or in different fields.

Foreign Language

Each student must acquire advanced reading competence in German or, with the permission of the Graduate Committee, basic reading competence in German and another appropriate language.

Requirements for Candidacy

Two preliminary examinations must be satisfied in addition to the language requirement and coursework.

Preliminary Examinations Prior to Candidacy
  • Music History General Preliminary Examination (or the coursework alternative)
  • Music Theory General Preliminary Examination

Candidacy will be conferred upon completion of these requirements and examinations.

Dissertation Requirements

Each student’s dissertation research is supervised by a Dissertation Committee. A dissertation proposal must be developed immediately after achieving candidacy and must be completed and successfully defended by the end of the first semester of candidacy.

On completion of the dissertation proposal, the Dissertation Committee will hold an oral defense of the proposal. On successful completion of the oral defense, the student may begin to write the dissertation.

A  student who has made regular progress during their course of study is expected to complete and submit the dissertation within ten terms from their enrollment in the PhD program.

Theory Preliminary Exam Information

This is a closed-book examination testing knowledge and skills in music theory and analysis. The theory department gives the exam once in October and once in March. It lasts from 12:30 to 5:00 with a 30- minute lunch break. The second week of each semester Annie Wagner will send an email to precandidates providing the exam date and forms to be completed for sign-up. Eligible students should sign up for the exam several weeks in advance with Annie Wagner.

The exam consists of two parts:

Part One (12:30-2:30) requires the student to analyze and write about a single piece or movement of music. Typical works chosen in the past have been movements from classical piano or chamber works, 19th- century Lieder and 19th-century character pieces for piano, but the piece can be in any style or idiom. Annie  Wagner will e-mail a score and an mp3 recording of this piece by noon of the day before the exam so that students can familiarize themselves with the piece and study it. At the exam, students will get a new copy of the score (you cannot use the score from the previous day) and a set of questions to answer.

Part Two (3:00-5:00) has three shorter problems. The pieces are handed out at the exam and there are no recordings provided.

  1. A craft problem involving such skills as realizing a figured or unfigured bass, chorale

harmonization, motivic manipulation, completing a section of a piece in a particular style, and the like. 2. A short tonal piece or excerpt to analyze. 3. A post-tonal piece or excerpt to analyze.

The exam is written and evaluated by a committee of three members of the Music Theory faculty. The committee does not know anyone’s identity when evaluating the tests because a number will identify each exam. Possible grades are High Pass, Pass, Low Pass, and Fail. The evaluation is based on the committee’s consensus on the student’s performance on the exam as a whole. After the committee decides the grades, they are reported to the Associate Dean, who reports them to the student. Results are usually reported in two to three weeks.

Students who feel less than fully prepared for this exam have often benefited from working through past exams with the help of a tutor. Other resources that some students have found helpful are listed below, but it should be stressed that the evaluation committee is aware of, and accepts a diversity of theoretical systems. It often is sufficient to review what you have already learned as well as review the online exams, rather than adapting to the theory and labels of a book you have not yet encountered.

Douglass Green’s Form in Tonal Music
Steven Laitz and Christopher Bartlette’s Graduate Review of Tonal Theory (includes chapters on form)
Wayne Petty’s Basic Tonal Analysis
Joseph Straus’s lntroduction to Post-Tonal Theory

There is no course in the Music Theory curriculum specifically designed to help students prepare for the exam, although some have found the following courses beneficial: MT 334 (sophomore theory review); MT 461 (tonal analysis review); MT 533 (analysis of 20th-century music), MT 537 (proseminar in the analysis of music).

WCP and AG 9/13

Download practice exams (PDF)

Final Oral Examination

When completed, the dissertation will be evaluated by each member of the Dissertation Committee and a final oral examination on the dissertation and related material will be conducted.

For requirement details, please see the Degree Requirements and Term-by-Term Layout for Current Students.


Nearly all PhD students receive full-tuition fellowships. Most also receive health benefits and a stipend attached to a Graduate Student Assistantship, which can vary in proportion to the appointment fraction and the duties associated with it. In addition to the funding packages offered by the SMTD, Rackham students are also eligible to apply for a wide range of fellowships to fund research, travel, and performance.

How To Apply

Academic Eligibility

Applicants to the Doctor of Philosophy in Music Theory must have completed a bachelor’s of music degree or equivalent to be eligible for admission.

A Master of Arts degree may be awarded after two years to those students not continuing in the Ph.D. program.

Applicants must:

  • Apply to U-M via the Rackham Graduate School Application by January 5
  • Submit an SMTD Artistic Profile by January 5
  • Send official transcripts from all previous schools to the Rackham Graduate School

Click “Apply Now” below to read more detailed information about the application requirements and procedures.

Apply Now

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