Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensives are taken in May or November.


  • End of your first year: Develop a schedule with your supervisor, including a strategy for selecting topics.
  • Semester before comprehensives: 
  • Submit chosen topics to the Area Chair and choose the focus of what will be the Take-Home Analysis (Pre-tonal, tonal, post-tonal), after consultation with your supervisor, by:
    • April 1 for November examinations
    • October 1 for May examinations
    • Notify [at] of your intent to take the exams next semester by:
      • May 1 for November exams  
      • November 1 for May exams
    • Meet with the Area to discuss specifics and confirm committee membership.  Area approves topics and confirms final decisions in writing at the latest by the dates below. Supervisors submit committee membership list to [at] by:
      • May 15 for November examinations
      • November 15 for May examinations
    • In consultation with your committee, compile a comprehensive bibliography of a least 15-25 items. Submit bibliography for final approval to the committee by:
      • July 1 for November examinations
      • December 1 for May examinations

Written Exams

Exams 1 and 2 (normally Monday and Wednesday): Two three-hour sessions

  • Eight fairly broad topics pertaining to the history of music, chosen by the student in collaboration with the Area. At least one topic will be a broader critical or theoretical issue, not necessarily specific to a certain period. 4 topics are covered in Exam 1; 4 in Exam 2.  Answer 3 out of 4 questions in each exam.
  • Questions are based on student bibliographies. Demonstrate thorough knowledge and critical evaluation of the selected literature, familiarity with the relevant repertoire, and awareness of the discipline's scholarly tradition, current debates and research trends.
  • The goal is to synthesize ideas about and approaches to the repertoire, making connections or highlighting disagreements within the scholarly literature, and displaying appreciation of how the music works. Go beyond merely reviewing what others have said. Take a stand or make an authoritative statement of your own, drawing on the knowledge you have acquired.
  • Be sure that your answer responds directly to the question asked. Do not simply plug in information on the topic that you decided was important in advance of the exam.

Exam 3: Score Identifications (normally Thursday afternoon). One four-hour session (effective Fall 2018)

  • Discussion of the distinguishing stylistic, formal, and genre characteristics suggesting composer and approximate date of composition for 10 of 12 score extracts spanning many periods, genres and styles.
  • No more than two of the excerpts will be taken from popular music and jazz repertories: a recorded excerpt may substitute for the score extract for these examples. A piano is available during this exam.
  • The goal is to suggest an identification, as precise as you can, indicating key features that support your decision. (Exact composer identification is not required.) Zero in on the most significant clues. It’s appropriate to mention ambiguities or signs that complicate identification. 

Exam 4: Take-Home Analysis (typically emailed Friday, 10am - returned Monday, 9am)

  • An analytical essay discussing the significant structural features (pitch relations, motivic/thematic content, texture, overall formal and phrase-structural organization) of 1 of 3 given compositions.  Demonstrate original insight and focus primarily on the piece's unique style features. Choose whether the 3 given works are pre-tonal, tonal or post-tonal.

Oral Exam

  • When: Effective Fall 2018, the oral exam must take place no earlier than seven calendar days after the last in-house component (score ID).
  • Duration: Two to three hours.
  • Scope: Opportunity to elaborate upon, correct and enhance written exam answers and address the field's larger, problematic issues. Speak without notes.  A clean copy of the exam answers is provided.


Meet on a regular basis with your supervisor(s) and other members of the area 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 the supervisor
  • Collaborating with other Area students who have completed, or are preparing for, their comprehensives.
How to study for score IDs:
  • Group study can be very helpful. Make use of the archive of sample score IDs.
  • Don’t treat the score as dead matter; use it to reanimate living sound, whether at the keyboard or in your head.
  • There is no substitute for listening fluency that gives you familiarity with the feel of a specific repertoire. But you also need to be able to recognize and articulate which features create that feel.
  • Develop classifying axes or “trees” that allow you to sort at high levels before getting down to detail. For example, in the parameter of HARMONY, your treetrunk might separate into large branches (e.g., modal, tonal, atonal), each of which will ramify further according to additional features (e.g., sonority type/voicing, harmonic progression, dissonance treatment). Use the high-level distinctions to situate you in a broad historical or stylistic region, before narrowing your lens. With practice the sorting will become second nature.
  • Review textbook score anthologies with succinct style-historical annotations. Then pull volumes from the M2 and M3 sections in the library shelves to test your knowledge.


  • Three full-time staff members from the candidate's area of specialization
  • One member from a different area within the Department
  • The Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in Music, or an appointed representative, serves as Chair.


Keys to Success "Be confident in what you know, but honest with yourself about what you don't know...Strategize to overcome obstacles,...get creative, [and] avail yourself of all available help clarify ideas and issues..."
-Jessica Holmes, Ph.D. student