Course Descriptions

The graduate curriculum in music theory offers students room to customize their professional paths while also building a rock-solid foundation in four equally important core competencies: (1) research, (2) pedagogy, (3) analysis, and (4) musicianship skills.

View a complete listing of degree requirements.

The amount and variety of coursework I completed during my time in the MM Theory program really helped set me up for success in my current doctoral program. These classes gave me a well-rounded foundation in current trends in the field, which helped me pass my (extensive) Ph.D. entrance exams and figure out what area I wanted to explore further during my doctoral research.

Alexandrea Jonker '18 (MM Theory), now a Ph.D. student in music theory at McGill University
MSU music building

Research Courses

  • MUS 973: Readings in Music Theory

    MUS 973, Readings in Music Theory, is a seminar in which students engage closely with published scholarship within a particular sub-discipline of the music theory discipline, and conduct and present their own research project within that sub-discipline. The topic changes each time the course is offered, depending on the expertise of the faculty member who is assigned to teach it.

    By the end of this course, students (1) can read critically, relate, and synthesize articles in music theory; (2) have a strong command of the published research in the target sub-discipline, including seminal and recent publications, central debates, terminology, and names of significant scholars; (3) create a research project that articulates research questions, draws connections to existing research, and contributes something new to the sub-discipline; and (4) present the findings of this research both in written form via a paper and in a conference-style presentation in front of peers.

  • MUS 974: Proseminar in Post-Tonal Music Theory and Analysis


    MUS 974 is an introduction to the sub-discipline of post-tonal music theory. We will examine several discipline-defining texts, as well as recent scholarship. Topics involve advanced treatment of those found in Joseph Straus’s Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory and include: prolongation and ornamentation, set theory, segmentation and form, serialism, transformation theory, and rhythm and meter. Repertoire for analysis will vary, including a range of 20th- and 21st-century post-tonal music. Students will choose repertoire for analysis assignments, to be tailored toward the development of a pedagogy portfolio.

  • MUS 979: Proseminar in Music Theory

    MUS 979 is an introduction to the broad discipline of music theory. We will examine recent trends in music theory scholarship, beginning with a focus on the role of analysis within theoretical discourse. We will then explore a wide variety of subdisciplines that fall under music theory, including transformational theory, schema theory, popular music studies, analysis of film and video game music, rhythm and meter, analysis and performance practice, and gender and disability. Our goals are to gain familiarity with current trends in music theoretic research, to gain fluency with the range and types of articles being published in major music theory journals, and to develop as a group a set of annotated bibliographies on a variety of topics.

Pedagogy Courses

  • MUS 970: Pedagogy of Music Theory I

    MUS 970 is designed to prepare students to teach music theory courses at the university level by discussing pedagogical philosophy and techniques and by providing teaching experience with extensive feedback. The goal of the course is to reinforce theory skills, to develop teaching skills, and to familiarize students with current textbooks, materials and philosophical issues in the discipline of music theory. A secondary goal of the course is to address theoretical and analytical skills that are critical to successful theory teaching.

    By the end of the course, students will have developed fluency with materials and terminology from the four-semester undergraduate core curriculum. We will familiarize ourselves with current music theory textbooks, and will consider elements of course design, creation of homework assignments, handouts, exams, and computer-assisted instruction. In addition, we will also get teaching experience through teaching demonstrations (formal and informal) throughout the semester.

  • MUS 971: Pedagogy of Music Theory II

    MUS 971, Pedagogy of Music Theory II, follows two interrelated tracks. It is an advanced workshop on evidence-based practices for teaching undergraduate music theory, and also a readings seminar on music theory pedagogy and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Building upon MUS 970, which deals with the essential ideas of the undergraduate theory core and approaches to teaching them, MUS 971 is designed to broaden students’ exposure to published literature, to sharpen their skills in the classroom and as course designers, and to launch individual research projects in music theory pedagogy.

Analysis Courses

  • MUS 874: Schenkerian Analysis I
    MUS 874 introduces students to the analytical insights of Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). The goals of this course include a mastery of basic analytical and notational techniques that define Schenker’s approach, and an ability to “read” and understand a Schenkerian analytical sketch. These goals can only be achieved through analysis, by struggling with the music itself. Our approach to the subject, then, is analytical, and comprises regular written assignments, in-class work, and some analytical study of completed Schenkerian analyses.

    Upon successful completion of the course, students can expect to have: demonstrated a grasp of essential Schenkerian analytical concepts such as melodic fluency, prolongation, structural levels, and motive; developed a notational facility that communicates these ideas to a competent reader; evaluated and recognized mutually exclusive interpretations of a musical passage; constructed arguments that explain illogic or weakness in an interpretation and propose a preferable reading; and, produced analytical graphs of short works or self-contained sections of larger works.
  • MUS 977: Schenkerian Analysis II

    MUS 977 assumes a grasp of the content of MUS 874: Schenkerian Analysis. That course covers basic contrapuntal relationships, melodic and bass patterns, tonal structures, and techniques of prolongation. It also introduces the fundamental structure and its common elaborations, and develops basic notational techniques. MUS 977 builds upon the analytical work of the earlier course, introducing broader musical spans and exploring various musical forms. We also delve into the expansive secondary literature, a body of writings that both explains and develops Schenker’s theories, and analytical studies that use his approach. Much of this work focuses on expanding important aspects or implications of Schenker’s work that he himself was unable to carry to completion. Musical motive, rhythm, and form are the central topics here.

    The course is organized into three streams: 1) Readings from the secondary literature; 2) Analysis and reading assignments from the textbook; and, 3) Analytical work led by individual students on music chosen by them, and special topics work that we decide on collectively.

  • MUS 875: Analysis of Musical Scores

    The focus of MUS 875 is analysis—its processes, goals, assumptions, implications, and obligations. Musicians often confuse the acquisition and application of analytical tools for analysis. They are not at all the same thing: command of an analytical tool no more makes you an accomplished analyst than does command of a hammer make you an accomplished carpenter. An analysis is an argument that follows a coherent path through a piece of music. It requires a clearly defined point of view that must be logically consistent and musically compelling. Analysis, then, involves developing these points of view, gathering and organizing evidence that supports them, and communicating this completed argument to an audience.

    The music that is the focus of analytical work in the course does not belong to any particular time, style, or genre. Works composed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, texted music, music for larger ensembles, and multi-movement or cyclic works—all of these figure prominently, though none is a requirement of the pieces students choose for their own analytical work.

    Upon successful completion of the course, students can expect to have: evaluated critically the analytical workshops and presentations given by the instructor; designed a clear and effective plan to shape and direct an analysis workshop; conducted a class workshop whose aim is to formulate an analytical point of view on a piece they have selected; assessed critically workshops conducted by themselves and by their classmates; created an analytical presentation that incorporates and synchronizes a prose outline, Keynote (or similar), notational or form-diagramming software, and recorded audio illustrations; and, presented an analysis on a piece they have selected.

  • MUS 976: Performance and Analysis


    MUS 976 is different each time it is offered. Here are three recent samples:

    Taught by Dr. James Sullivan:

    This graduate course explores a selection of analytical topics that have strong relevance for performance. Topics include rhythm and meter, formal manipulation, listener expectation and surprise, topic theory, agency, and energetics, with a focus on performance implications. Repertoire will be student-driven and will include both tonal and post-tonal music. Students will perform regularly in class and will complete both a short lightning demonstration and a longer final project geared toward one of two major degree requirements: the oral exam for master's students or the lecture recital for doctoral students.


    Taught by Dr. Patrick Johnson:

    This class explores the intersection of music theory and performance, and the many topics to be found at this intersection. Traditionally, a class entitled “Performance and Analysis” would be concerned with how analysis can inform a performer's interpretative decisions and expressive choices. Our scope will include this question, but will also be widened to include other topics, including the analysis of performance (study of audio/video recordings), formal models of relations between analysis and performance, narrative and semiotic approaches (including topic theory), and issues of performance practice. Our path toward the following learning objectives will include reading, listening, analysis, writing, and discussion. As a lens to help focus our efforts, we will primarily (but not exclusively) be concerned with solo piano repertoire. As such, this course is designed with the DMA pianist in mind, but that is not to say that other musicians would not find it valuable.

    By the end of the semester, you will be able to do the following:

    • After exploring a broad sampling of analytical research/writings within, and related to, the sub-discipline of Performance and Analysis, summarize it, critique it, and apply it to the analysis of musical repertoire;
    • Identify methods of analysis that are most helpful to you as a performer, in whichever way performance manifests itself in your musical life;
    • Articulate analytical observations clearly, both verbally and in writing
    • Apply the insights gained through close study of pieces to the interpretations and decisions you make as performers, listeners, and students of piano music;
    • Recognize the performative aspects of analysis;
    • Recognize and identify prescriptive approaches to the relationship between performance and analysis;
    • Recognize and distinguish among stylistic performance trends between the early 20th century, late 20th century, and now.


    Taught by Dr. Cara Stroud:

    In this course, we will investigate methodologies developed for the study of musical meaning and explore their application in how we perform classical music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 
    At the end of the course, you will present a formal lecture-recital. In order to develop the skills necessary to reach this goal, we will fulfill the following objectives:
    • One analytical skills for interpreting nineteenth- and twentieth-century art music.
    • Develop strategies and vocabulary for identifying and discussing text-music relationships, topics, agency, intertextuality, and narrativity.
    • Write short summaries, reactions, and outlines in response to reading assignments.
    • Participate in class discussions about analysis and musical meaning.
    • Present one short, informal lecture-recital during the semester in preparation for your final lecture-recital.
  • MUS 978: Analysis of Contemporary Music

    This course offers a glimpse of analytical techniques relevant to music composed after 1945 and the repertoire from this time period. Analytical approaches used for art music composed after World War II range widely, from traditional methodologies used for tonal music to methodologies seeking to understand music from a broad perspective informed by a variety of sources. To that end, it would be impossibly ambitious to cover every influential methodology or repertoire since 1945. Instead, our selected repertoire and readings are intended to assist in your developing the basis for your own approach to recent music. In addition, you will develop your skills in the process of music analysis, analytical writing, and critical listening while increasing your familiarity with music composed after 1945.

    In order to develop the skills necessary to reach these goals, we will fulfill the following objectives:

    1. Demonstrate analytical fluency with pitch and pitch class interval.
    2. Develop strategies for identifying, comparing, and specifically describing rhythms, harmonies, and formal processes encountered in music of this time.
    3. Encounter creative methodologies for conveying analysis outside of traditionally written media.
    4. Summarize, evaluate, and discuss current writing about music of this time.
    5. Evaluate and critically consider the implications of analytical approaches music after 1945, especially as they relate to our experience as music performers, listeners, and composers.

Musicianship Skills Courses

  • MUS 870: Advanced Modal Counterpoint

    MUS 870 is designed to strengthen students' musicianship. More specifically, they will learn to compose, listen to, sing, and improvise music. Our repertoire focus is the vocal music of the sixteenth-century Renaissance, but a central aim of the course is to build skills in musical creativity and fluency that transfer well beyond this repertoire as well. Nonetheless, we will spend a great deal of time attending to detailed features of Renaissance music, in order to assimilate them and create music modeled after them.

    Through written homework, performance homework, in-class workshops, reading, and repertoire study, still will acquire techniques of writing idiomatic counterpoint and assemble a small portfolio of model compositions. They also will become fluent with terminology used to discuss the idioms of Renaissance counterpoint, and learn to apply this toward a richer understanding of the music of sixteenth-century composers and beyond.

  • MUS 871: Advanced Tonal Counterpoint

    MUS 871 has an ambitious goal: to forever enrich how students hear, make, and understand tonal music. Students pursue this objective via a compositional path. All work for the course will take the form of music making, either in written form (via composition) or in played form (via keyboard improvisation). In particular, the course adopts a modified version of a historical teaching method that originated in seventeenth-century Italy and eventually spread. This method uses partimenti, or unfigured basses, as springboards for fully realized pieces. Implicated in this method are the skills of seeing the harmonic and contrapuntal implications of a bass voice (even without any figures or analytical symbols), of realizing those implications in the upper voices through simple consonances, and of applying diminution, compound melody, motivic coherence, and imitation to create more florid musical surfaces.

    In this course, students will never start with a blank page. Instead, they will start with a partimento: decoding the patterns that it suggests, harvesting the rhythmic and melodic motives that it embeds, taking full advantage of the contrapuntal opportunities that it presents, and ending with a miniature, but fully fledged and satisfying piece. Through written and keyboard-based homework, in-class workshops, reading, and repertoire study, students will learn to write music idiomatic of the eighteenth century and assemble a portfolio of short model compositions.

  • MUS 876: Keyboard Skills and Improvisation

    MUS 876 is designed to equip students with keyboard-related skills that can be applied toward a variety of musical endeavors, including music theory pedagogy, composition, improvisation, analysis, memorization, and musical literacy and fluency in general. These skills include, but are not limited to, the following: realizing figured basses, playing common progressions (e.g. cadences, sequences, modulations, etc.), improvising in historical styles, playing from open score, transposing, and harmonizing melodies.

    Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to do the following:

    • Realize standard figured basses (i.e., triads, seventh chords, and suspensions) in four-voice keyboard style;
    • Play and combine common progressions (e.g., tonic prolongations, cadences, sequences, modulations) comfortably in keyboard style, in all common keys and in a variety of meters;
    • Improvise variations over standard ground basses, as well as simple minuets;
    • Read multiple parts in open score, including common C clefs, and create a workable realization on keyboard;
    • Transpose single-line melodies, harmonic progressions, and simple two-voice patterns to other keys using clefs;
    • Harmonize given melodies in four-voice keyboard style;
    • Utilize the keyboard effectively as a tool for teaching music theory.

    Given that the mastery of these skills is a lifetime project, the course is also intended to build efficient and musically rewarding practice methods to assist students in the further development of their keyboard musicianship beyond the end of the semester.