General Examinations – MUTH 711

The General Examinations consist of two components:

  1. Written Exams (taken over two non-consecutive days during a single week)
  2. Oral Exam (scheduled at least seven days after the end of the written exam)


  • Beginning of the year in PhD 3: Register for the exam course number, MUTH 711, in the Winter term.
  • By November 1 of PhD 3: Together with your supervisor, make an initial selection of eight topics and begin a preliminary bibliography review (see Written Exam Part A: Music Theory Essays).
  • By April 1 of PhD 3: Submit proposed eight topics and preliminary bibliography for each of them to your supervisor, who will obtain your committee’s approval of the eight topics.
  • By May 1 of PhD 3: Email Graduate Studies ( [at] to provide (1) a list of the membership of your General Examinations committee which is typically identical to the membership of your Comprehensive Exam committee. The Associate Dean is not required to be on the committee for these exams. (2) your finalized bibliographies, (3) whether you prefer to use a Mac or PC, and (4) whether you prefer to use an English, French (France), or French (Québec) keyboard.
  • November of PhD 4: Graduate Studies will schedule your written exam on two non-consecutive days during the same week. Your Oral Exam will be scheduled at least seven days after the end of the written exam. Once you have successfully completed the Oral Exam, your supervisor will inform Graduate Studies that you have satisfied the General Examinations degree milestone.

Written Exams

Part 1. Written Exam Part A: Music Theory Essays

Learning Outcomes: Students will gain an in-depth knowledge and critical understanding of eight 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 eight 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 comprehensive exam committee. Students are advised to meet at least once with each 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’ names, 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.

Part 2. 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, such as harmony, counterpoint, dissonance treatment, formal context, pitch-class sets, serial techniques, meter and rhythm, texture and instrumentation, expressive markings, figured bass, text source and language, and any other relevant features.

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 piano or electronic 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 make use of many or all kinds of features of the piece (see list above) that might lead to an identification of the excerpt. 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 committee will provide the student with a copy of the exam and their responses, and 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.

While students may spend time between their written Score ID exam and the oral exam refining their responses and their justifications, there is no expectation that any pieces must be precisely identified by composer and title in order to succeed in the Oral. A well-reasoned and thoroughly supported answer that demonstrates historical understanding will be considered a success even if the correct composer and piece are not given.

Oral Exam

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, and the student is permitted to bring a copy of their exam annotated with their notes.

Evaluation Criteria: A successful oral exam will show high competency in terms of knowledge, alertness, and precision in each of the components outlined above. Each component is graded Pass/Fail.


See above 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


• Sample exams questions and score IDs (with answer keys) are available here -> PDF icon Music Theory PhD General Examinations Study Materials (September 2019)

Other Policies and Procedures

The overall aim of the general examinations is for candidates to synthesize a wide body of information about music and musical scholarship. A successful general 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 general examinations 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 general 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. Students who wish to take the written exam in French should make arrangements with Graduate Studies to arrange for a computer with French-language keyboard.

It is the responsibility of both the student and supervisor that the exam procedure be followed as described above. All score ID materials shall consist of legible, high-quality reproductions. No less than seven days shall elapse between the end of the written exam and the oral exam. 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 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.

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