Comprehensive Exams


  • Beginning of the year of study in PhD 3: Register for the comprehensive exam course number, MUGS 701, in the Winter term
  • By October 1 of PhD 3: In consultation with your supervisor, determine the membership of your comprehensive exam committee.
  • By November 1 of PhD 3: Email [at] (Music Graduate Studies) and provide them with the membership of your committee.
  • In consultation with your supervisor, select two proposed pieces for the music analysis essays. The selected pieces should afford the opportunity to use contrasting methods or analytical approaches; you should not have previously analyzed the same pieces in your coursework at McGill University or any other institution. Communicate your selection to your supervisor, who will obtain your committee’s approval.
  • By May 1 of PhD 3: Submit two analytical essays to the [at] (Music Graduate Studies Office), who will distribute them to your committee. Your Oral Examination will be scheduled within 30 days of your submission. Once you have successfully passed the Oral Examination, a grade will be submitted and you will have satisfied the Comprehensive Exam degree milestone.

Learning Outcomes

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 of moderate length 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 two pieces to be analyzed, in significantly different styles, genres, and instrumental forces. 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). 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 they have a compelling new insight. Each of the two 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 above all be your personal response to each of the pieces you have chosen. It 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 should be written carefully and clearly, with supporting figures, examples, and/or annotations. While not all musical parameters will necessarily feature on equal footing in both 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 they should at least circle back to the piece to demonstrate the analytic payoff.


The student could prepare by reading and working through published analyses that either deal with similar repertoire, or employ similar analytic tools to those they expect 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, the student should be prepared to summarize 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. The student may bring a copy of their paper annotated with their notes, as well as a copy of the scores they have analyzed annotated with their notes.

Other Policies and Procedures

These guidelines are subject to the McGill University Ph.D. Comprehensives Policy. In the event of any conflict or inconsistency, the University policies will apply

The overall aim of the comprehensive exam is for the candidate to synthesize a wide body of information about music and musical scholarship. A successful comprehensive exam has the character of a conversation among colleagues. It affords an opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate preparedness to undertake original research in the dissertation and to enter the field as an independent scholar.

Students with questions about comprehensive exam procedures or expectations are encouraged to speak to their supervisor, to members of their committee, to the Music Theory Area Coordinator, or any music theory faculty member

Students are also encouraged to work collaboratively with other students who are preparing for, or who have recently completed, their comprehensive exams.

Students who require accommodations to the exam procedure due to a documented disability should speak to the Music Theory Area Coordinator, the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in Music, and/or the Office for Students with Disabilities.

In accord with McGill University’s Charter of Students’ Rights, students in this course have the right to submit in English or in French any written work that is to be graded.

It is the responsibility of both the student and supervisor that the exam procedure be followed as described above. If students have concerns that the proper procedures were not observed during the comprehensive exam, the student is encouraged to discuss their grievance with the Area Coordinator and/or with the Music Graduate Studies Office.

Whenever these policies and procedures are revised, it is the responsibility of the Area Coordinator to email all current PhD students who have not yet taken their comprehensive exams to provide detailed information about the revision.


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