Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive exams are taken in May or November.

They involve four components:

  1. Teaching Practicum (normally scheduled 4–6 weeks prior to the written exam)
  2. Music Analysis Essays (three, to be submitted one month prior to the written exam)
  3. Written Exams (taken over two days)
  4. Oral Exam (scheduled at least seven days after the end of the written exam)



Two semesters before comprehensive exams:

  • Together with your supervisor, make an initial selection of ten topics and begin a preliminary bibliography review (see Written Exam Part A: Music Theory Essays).
  • In consultation with your supervisor, determine the membership of your comprehensive exam committee.  

Semester before comprehensive exams:

  • Submit proposed ten topics to your supervisor, who will obtain your committee’s approval, by:
    • April 1 for November exams
    • October 1 for May exams
  • In consultation with your supervisor, select three proposed pieces for the music analysis essays (see Music Analysis Essays, for details). Compile your bibliographies in consultation with your committee. Each bibliography should include 10–12 items per topic: articles/book chapters, plus 1–2 books that interest you and reflect the topic’s broad issues. The proposed selection of pieces for music analysis and the bibliographies should be submitted to your supervisor, who will obtain your committee’s approval, by:
    • May 1 for November exams
    • November 1 for May exams
  • Notify [at] (Graduate Studies) of your intent to take the exams during the next semester, indicating (1) the membership of your comprehensive exam committee, (2) whether you prefer to use a Mac or PC, and (3) whether you prefer to use an English or French keyboard, by:
    • May 1 for November exams
    • November 1 for May exams

Semester of comprehensive exam:

  • By the beginning of the semester in which the comprehensive exam will be taken, your supervisor should submit the proposed date for teaching practicum (normally scheduled about 4–6 weeks before written exams) to [at] (Graduate Studies)

One month before written exams:

  • Submit three analytical essays (see below, Part IV) to [at] (Graduate Studies). The deadline is one month before the start of the written exam (i.e., if the written exam commences on November 15, then the deadline is October 15). If that date falls on a weekend or holiday, the deadline is postponed until the next date when classes are in session.

Written Exams

1. Music Analysis Essays

Learning Outcomes: In this exercise students will have the opportunity to put into practice their accumulated knowledge of music-analytical methodologies and their skill in implementing them in relatively long-form essays written for a readership similar to that of a professional journal. The stylistic variety of repertoire selected and the close musical readings required for the task will ensure that the candidate gains, and demonstrates, a broad experience with principal analytic methodologies of the discipline.

Procedure and Requirements: The student and supervisor agree together on three pieces to be analyzed, in significantly different styles. The committee agrees to the choice of pieces, or proposes modifications to the list. Pieces do not have to be entire musical works. (For example, a single movement of a larger work may be selected). A good balance of genres and instrumental forces among the chosen works is desirable. It is not required that the pieces be never previously analyzed in print; however, pieces that have received a lot of analytic attention should not be chosen unless the student is sure he or she has a compelling new insight. Each of the three pieces is addressed in an analytic essay of 4,000–5,000 words, plus musical examples, figures and bibliography. These are take-home essays, and the student may consult any notes, published literature, or other materials that may be useful.

Evaluation Criteria: The successful music analytic essay will meet disciplinary standards of rigour, plausibility, understanding of musical style and compositional practice, awareness and critical evaluation of existing work, and creativity in the crafting of an analytic narrative. The essay will be written carefully and clearly, with helpful figures, examples, and/or annotations. While not all musical parameters will necessarily feature on equal footing in the three analyses, over the entire task the candidate should demonstrate familiarity with some of the standard disciplinary approaches to form, harmony, voice-leading and counterpoint, rhythm, motive, etc. There is a spectrum of possible approaches involving various mixes of pure theory and applied analysis; if the student decides to concentrate on analysis, using existing methodologies unmodified, then it would be appropriate to include some closing reflection on how useful and successful those methodologies proved to be. If the student uses elements of the piece as a leaping-off point for a more purely theoretical exploration of related issues, and/or the development of new or modified analytic tools, then he or she should at least circle back to the piece to demonstrate the analytic payoff.

Preparation: The student could prepare by reading and working through published analyses either that deal with similar repertoire, or that use similar analytic tools to those he or she expects to use. It will also be useful to review notes from any and all previous course work involving analysis.

Oral Exam: At the oral exam, students should be prepared to summarise verbally some of the points of their analysis if requested; to mention other analytic avenues not pursued, if applicable; to demonstrate familiarity with the relevant literature; and to be able to defend their interpretations and/or spontaneously to assess the ways in which any oral suggestions from the committee could be incorporated in a hypothetical revision.

2. Written Exam Part A: Music Theory Essays

Learning Outcomes: Students will gain an in-depth knowledge and critical understanding of ten areas of music-theoretical research. Some topics may be general in approach; others may be relatively narrow or specific. Topics will include current research concerns associated with a variety of music-historical styles as well as one or more issues drawn from the history of music theory.

Procedure and Requirements: The exam will be given in two parts, each part lasting three hours. For each part, the student will answer three out of four questions related to the ten prepared topics. Each answer will take the form of a short essay (ca. one hour). The essay should refer as much as possible to specific primary sources, secondary literature, and musical works. The essay can be handwritten or typed on a computer with no internet access. This is a closed-book exam. In order to present a coherent and organized essay, the student is encouraged to take time to prepare an outline of the answer prior to writing the essay proper.

Evaluation Criteria: A successful essay will reveal that the student has fully assimilated the prepared readings associated with the topic of the question. The essay will address and answer the specific intent of the question in a manner that reveals that the student has synthesized the contents of the prepared readings. Original insights provided by the student, though not required, will greatly enhance the quality of the essay. The essay will also be evaluated on both the quantity and quality of references to the secondary literature as well as references to specific musical works (if appropriate).

Preparation: Most of the preparation for this exam will consist of reading and assimilating the items listed on the bibliography assembled by the student and approved by the area (for details, see Part II above). Students are advised to meet at least once with each with member of their committee in order to discuss the topics and associated readings. Students should consider formulating their own questions and attempting to answer them in “mock” essays, which might then be reviewed and discussed with an appropriate member of the committee. Students should memorize the authors, titles, and dates of the bibliographical items so that these can be cited correctly in the essays. Where appropriate, students should prepare in advance specific musical passages that might help to answer questions posed on the exam.

Oral Exam: Prior to the oral exam, the student should self-critique the short essays and be prepared to correct any mistakes and misunderstandings in the answers as well as providing any new information that would clarify or supplement the essays. Students should be prepared to answer any new questions posed by the committee on any of the prepared topics.

3. Written Exam Part B: Music History, Score Identification

Learning Outcomes: Students will learn to recognize the characteristics of historical periods, styles, genres, and specific composers. They will be able to spot significant or unusual traits of each excerpt and use these as justification for a well-reasoned identification supported by internal evidence from the score excerpt, using appropriate analytical tools (harmonic analysis, pitch-class set theory, rhythmic/metrical analysis, etc.).

Procedure and Requirements: Ten one- or two-paragraph answers, identifying historical style, genre, possible composer(s), and approximate date of composition for ten of twelve one-page score excerpts drawn from Western Music from the Middle Ages to the present. Up to two examples may be given in the form of recordings and/or transcriptions (rather than composed scores) drawn from electronic music or popular styles (such as blues, jazz, rock, pop, and rap).

This part of the exam lasts four hours, and can be handwritten or typed on a computer with no internet access. This is a closed-book exam. The candidate will have access to a keyboard.

Evaluation Criteria: Correct identification of the specific piece or composer is not necessary for a successful response, as long as the response demonstrates a knowledge of the relevant historical styles/genres and justifies its conclusions by presenting specific features of the excerpt as evidence.

A successful score ID response will list all kinds of features of the piece that might lead to an identification of the excerpt (including style, genre, composer(s), and approximate date). These features might include: orchestration, text source and language, figured bass, invertible counterpoint, non-standard dissonance treatment, rhythmic devices, serial techniques, etc.). When the excerpt presents enough information to identify its location in a larger form, this should be mentioned and justified in the response (a fugue exposition, a sonata recapitulation, etc.). Identification of mode or key (both in the excerpt itself and the likely mode/key of the piece as a whole) should be included where applicable.

Preparation: Study of score anthologies is recommended as a first step, followed by browsing a wide variety of complete scores and creating/taking practice exams with classmates. This score study should be supplemented by readings in music history, including general surveys (Grout/Palisca, Taruskin, etc.) and books on specific periods. Developing familiarity with characteristic style/genre/composer traits will be particularly useful, as these are essential in justifying each response. Comparisons are particularly useful in studying for this exam: what makes Schumann's piano music different from Brahms’s? how does a mass by Palestrina differ from one by Josquin? Sample responses can be discussed with faculty supervisors to ensure that the format, length, and argumentation is appropriate.

Oral Exam: At the start of this section of the oral exam, the student will have the opportunity to elaborate on and/or correct one or two score IDs of their choice. These elaborations should either expand on the written justification of the response or else provide a new interpretation of the excerpt, identifying specific score features as evidence. After this presentation (less than five minutes for each response), the committee may ask the student questions about other responses in this part of the written exam or end discussion of the score ID section.

The committee has no expectation that the student will identify the composer or the title of any score ID question.

Oral Exam


Learning Outcomes: Through the teaching practicum, candidates will gain experience compiling materials for a class on a particular topic, organizing and hierarchizing the information, designing class activities and preparing a lesson plan, presenting information clearly and concisely, and answering students’ questions and otherwise interacting with the class. This serves as valuable practice for the teaching demonstration that is typically part of a job interview. The committee will evaluate the teaching demonstration and offer the candidate specific advice regarding any aspects that could be improved upon.
Procedure and Requirements: The teaching practicum should be 50 minutes long and will take place during a regularly scheduled undergraduate class in the core music theory sequence. It is normally scheduled during the semester of the comprehensive exam, approximately 4–6 weeks in advance of the written portion. The class topic will be assigned to the candidate one week in advance. At the beginning of the demonstration, the regular course instructor will briefly introduce the candidate, who will then teach the class for 50 minutes. The format of the class is up to the candidate, but one successful approach begins with an explanation of the context for the lesson, includes a visual component (such as handouts with annotated scores or other information and/or projected slides), an aural component (playing recordings or live performance), and an interactive component (questions, general discussion or debate, practice exercises, error detection, etc.) as well as verbal explanations. The candidate is responsible for bringing copies of scores or handouts for the students and members of your committee.
Evaluation Criteria: A successful teaching practicum will show the candidate’s preparation and mastery of the material, and their ability to present materials clearly in multiple modalities (verbal, visual, and aural), in a logical sequence of concepts and activities, at a level appropriate to the class. Candidates will also be assessed on the interactivity of their teaching and their responsiveness to student questions.
Preparation: The candidate is encouraged to discuss principles of lesson planning with their supervisor and/or committee (but not during the week of preparation immediately prior to the Teaching Practicum). For a theoretical topic, study the treatment of the topic in multiple textbooks, and plan to teach it in 4 steps: explain it, demonstrate it, have the class practice applying it, and evaluate their application. For an analytical topic, do your own analysis, but also check Google Scholar and ProQuest Dissertations for published analyses, and decide on the best way to approach the work (for example, would it be more engaging to begin with a formal overview, a bar-by-bar walkthrough, or an examination of one particular parameter?).
Decide on an approximate window of time for each activity (20 minutes maximum is a good rule of thumb), and practice the teaching demonstration in advance. During the class, remember to project your voice, make eye contact with the class, move around the room (avoid getting stuck behind the piano or desk), and most importantly, periodically ask the students questions to check for comprehension. Have a watch or your phone where you can see it, to make sure that you begin and end on time.
ORAL: Members of the committee may pose questions about the Teaching Practicum at the Oral Exam. Committee members may provide constructive comments and suggestions about the Teaching Practicum.
Learning Outcomes: A successful candidate will be able to elaborate, correct and enhance written exam answers, answer additional questions, including questions of a synthesizing nature, on any of the exam topics, and to address the field's larger issues.
Procedure and Requirements: The oral exam is scheduled for two hours. The student will be provided with a clean copy of the exam answers but will speak without notes.
Evaluation Criteria: A successful oral exam will show high competency in terms of knowledge, alertness, and precision in each of the four components outlined above. Each component is graded Pass/Fail.
Preparation: See above (Sections III–VI) for advice about how to prepare for each section of the oral exam.


Meet regularly with your supervisor(s) to understand the process and fully explore bibliographic readings.

Preparation should include:
  • Writing sample questions and answers
  • Preparing a mock presentation
  • Preparing sample listening quizzes
  • Defending a mock question provided by your supervisor
  • Collaborating with other Area students who have completed, or are preparing for, their comprehensives.


  • Your supervisor plus two other full-time staff members from the Music Theory Area
  • One member from a different area within the Department
  • The Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in Music, or an appointed representative, who serves as Chair of the oral exam.



Keys to Success"Listen to music from as many different periods and styles as you can...Listening is one of the best ways to get to know music...[and it makes] the preparation more enjoyable.  Make summaries of summaries of summaries."
-Cecilia Taher, Ph.D. student