Music Theory and Cognition PhD at Northwestern FAQ

I know what music theory is, but what is music cognition?
What would I study and learn in the program?
Who are the faculty, graduate students, and others I'd be working with?
Can I get a master's degree in music theory and cognition at Northwestern?
Why focus on the PhD and not the master's?
Should I apply for the Master's or the PhD?
What will I do with a PhD when I'm done?
What's the placement record of your graduates?
May I visit your campus, and when should I do so?
What should I do to prepare?
How do I apply?
Who can I contact if I have further questions?

 

I know what music theory is, but what is music cognition?

Music cognition is the research field that studies the mental processes underlying musical activities such as listening and comprehending, performing, and composing. Researchers in the field include music theorists, experimental psychologists, and neuroscientists, as well as ethnomusicologists, music educators, music therapists, and physicians.

What would I study and learn in the program?

NU's PhD program is rooted in the discipline of music theory. Students receive thorough training in the analysis of musical structure, systematic and historical aspects of music theory, and psychological aspects of musical structure. Areas of research in the program deal with style analysis in historically informed ways, the intersection of theory and culture, expressive performance in music, the psychological nature of musical styles and structure, and the psychophysiology of musical experience. The curriculum is shown below. There is a three-course cognate requirement, to be taken in a related department outside of music; typical departments to choose are linguistics, communication sciences and disorders (auditory neuroscience), psychology, and anthropology. Music cognition has a strong empirical dimension; most students run experiments or do fieldwork, and we expect that students will learn the appropriate methods for their own research interests.

PhD in Music Theory and Cognition 

27 units are required for students entering directly from a bachelor’s degree program. Students entering with a master’s degree in music theory may choose to pursue an 18-unit course of study, pending faculty approval.

Core Courses (9 units)

  • MUS THRY 316 16th-Century Counterpoint
  • MUS THRY 317 Figured Bass
  • MUS THRY 318 18th-Century Counterpoint

*choose 2 units from the 3 courses above

  • MUS THRY 332/432 Rhythm and Meter (1 unit)
  • MUS THRY 335/435 Advanced Tonal Analysis (1 unit)
  • MUS THRY 355 Post-Tonal Analysis (1 unit)
  • MUS THRY 405 Introduction to Research in Music Theory and Cognition (1 unit)
  • MUS THRY 415 & 416 History of Music Theory 1 & 2 (2 units)
  • MUS THRY 451 Music Cognition (1 unit)

Seminar in Music Theory and Cognition (6 units/4 units)

  • MUS THRY 450
    Each academic year the music theory and cognition faculty will offer two seminars on a significant and current topic within music theory and/or music cognition. All students currently in coursework must take these courses. Students on a three-year plan will be required to take six units in all; students on a two-year plan will be required to take four units.

Cognate Discipline (3 units)

Three courses to be taken in a related department outside of music, typical departments to choose are linguistics, communication sciences and disorders (auditory neuroscience), psychology, and anthropology.

Graduate-level electives (remaining units)

The remainder of courses taken will be electives. Students should take as many electives as are needed to complete the required number of units (as noted above, 27 units for students on a three-year plan, and 18 for students on a two-year plan). Students who have been exempted from one or more core courses (pending transcript review and faculty approval) will need to take more electives to complete the required number of units.

Recent seminars have included topics such as Form in Popular Music; Music and the Body; Eighteenth-Century Analysis; Miles Davis; Music and Meaning; Tonal Spaces; Situated Cognition; Groove, Microtiming, and Swing; Topoi; and Schema Theory.

Who are the faculty, graduate students, and others I'd be working with?

The core faculty are those in the program in music theory and cognition. The current research faculty are Richard Ashley, Mark J. Butler, Vasili Byros, and Robert Gjerdingen. Susan Piagentini and Robert Reinhart supervise the undergraduate core curriculum and work with graduate teaching assistants. Students and faculty in the theory and cognition program additionally collaborate regularly with Inna Narodistkaya (ethnomusicology); and Linda Austern and Tom Bauman (musicology).

Faculty from departments outside of the Bienen School of Music with whom our students frequently work include Bryan Pardo (computer science); Ann Bradlow, Matt Goldrick, and Janet Pierrehumbert (linguistics); Nina Kraus, Patrick Wong, and Beverly Wright (communication sciences and disorders/auditory neuroscience); and Andrew Ortony, Kenneth Paller, and Satoru Suzuki (psychology).

We admit up to two PhD students per year. Each student receives five years of full tuition and a living stipend so that they may fully devote themselves to research and study. We have an outstanding and mutually supportive group of current PhD students. For more information on each student, visit our Current Students page.

Can I get a master's degree in music theory and cognition at Northwestern?

Yes. Our department offers a year-long Master of Music (MM) degree program for those who are interested. See below for further information.

Should I apply for the Master's or the PhD?

Students whose ultimate goal is to pursue a PhD in music theory should apply directly to the PhD program. It is possible to apply directly to the PhD with a bachelor's degree; a master's degree is not required. Our MM degree functions more as a one-year course of study than an entry point in the PhD. The MM program is more appropriate for students who wish to explore or strengthen their knowledge of music theory before embarking on further graduate study.

Why focus on the PhD and not the Master's?

While a Master's degree is a beneficial step towards a career in academia, Northwestern's Music Theory and Cognition department chooses to emphasize our streamlined 5-year PhD program. This program of study allows students to acquire the equivalent of a Master's degree in the process of obtaining their PhD.  It is beneficial to the student because it provides full funding for the entire 5-year course of study. In addition, the end degree has a higher likelihood of job placement for our exiting students.

What will I do with a PhD when I'm done?

Students with a PhD in Music Theory and Cognition will be qualified for a career as a professor in a college or university music department. Our program is not intended for students seeking positions in psychology or neuroscience departments. Within the field of music theory, more and more job descriptions are listing cognition as a desired area of research emphasis, and our graduates will be strong contenders thereby.

What's the placement record of your graduates?

Since the cognitive emphasis of our graduate program began, a number of graduates have received faculty positions and postdoctoral fellowships. Stacey Davis (PhD 2003) is associate professor at University of Texas-San Antonio, where she directs the Institute for Music Research. Caroline R. Davis (PhD 2010) is a lecturer at DePaul University. Ji-Chul Kim (PhD 2011) holds a postdoctoral fellowship at Florida Atlantic University. Kyung-Myun Kim is a faculty member at Seoul National University and Ehwa Women's University in South Korea. In addition, Ives Chor (PhD 2010) is using his degree as a Senior Research Engineer at the music technology firm Zenph Sound Innovations in Durham, North Carolina. Ten PhD students are currently completing their degrees, and we are confident they will thrive on the job market. Ben Duane (PhD 2011) received a Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship at Columbia University (2012-2013) and is currently a tenure-track assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

May I visit campus, and when should I do so?

While prospective students may Visit Us at any time, we encourage applicants to defer their visit until winter quarter of the admissions cycle. During this time we host a PhD Visitors Weekend in which top candidates are invited for an expenses-paid visit including activities such as meeting with students and faculty and attending classes.

What should I do to prepare?

You should have as strong an undergraduate background in music theory, music history, and music performance as possible. Courses in form, atonal analysis, and advanced harmonic analysis are advisable. A semester of statistics is helpful, as well as an introductory course in experimental methods. Our accepted students usually have a broad background, and many have publications or conference presentations on their record before admission.

It would be helpful to read journals such as the Journal of Music TheoryMusic Theory Spectrum, and Music Perception, and to attend conferences such as the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory. There is also burgeoning literature in music cognition that you can read as you prepare. If your interests are cognitive you should also join the Society for Music Perception and Cognition.

How do I apply?

Application requirements include two transcripts, letters of reference, the general GRE, TOEFL (for international students), and writing samples.

MM applicants apply through the Bienen School of Music through this link to the the Graduate Application Process. PhD applicants apply online via The Graduate School at Northwestern; start by reading the PhD Application Process

Further questions regarding application processes can be directed to the Office of Music Admission and Financial Aid at musiclife@northwestern.edu or 847-491-3141.

Who can I contact if I have further questions?

While you are certainly always welcome to direct questions to our program coordinator, Richard Ashley, you are also encouraged to contact our graduate students for other information.

Request information from the Bienen School of Music.