Qualifying Examination

The Qualifying Examination is normally taken at the beginning of the second semester of the second year for all students in Composition.  For Musicology, the Qualifying Examination is divided into two parts, with Part 1 taken at the end of semester four and Part 2 at the beginning of semester five.  For Ethnomusicology doctoral candidates, the mini-portfolio is submitted at the end of the first year of study. You must pass the qualifying examination in order to continue study in the doctoral program.
Before taking the Qualifying Examination, the student must have passed the Foreign Language Examination(s) as well as have cleared any Incompletes. The Qualifying Examination is ordinarily administered by a committee of three members of the Graduate Faculty appointed by the Director of Graduate Studies.

The purpose of the Qualifying Exam in Composition is to test the depth and breadth of your knowledge in a variety of repertories from different historical periods. Sample examinations are available in the Music Graduate Studies Office (Room 109).

Composition Exam Categories

The Qualifying Exam in Composition has four categories that will be examined in written essays as well as in an oral exam. The four categories are as follows:

1.    Category A: Make yourself an expert on one composer of your choice from any historical period or cultural background. By "expert," we mean that you will:

a)     be familiar with the majority of the composer's catalog, and have a detailed knowledge of at least five representative compositions;

b)    be familiar with the most important writings about this composer (e.g., six to ten articles/books and biographical materials which include theoretical and cultural/historical approaches to the subject);

c)     be knowledgeable about other artists whose work informs the work of this composer. You will be asked to give a presentation on your research during an oral examination (see below).

2.    Category B: Select three other composers to study in considerable detail, though not as extensively as the composer in Category A.  For each composer in this category, we will expect you to have studied at least three scholarly articles and at least two representative works. Your work on these three composers may grow out of your research on your Category A composer, but this is not strictly necessary.

3.    Category C: Propose six other composers from contrasting historical periods and familiarize yourself with their principal compositions. You should be familiar with one or two important scholarly writings about each of these composers. The Qualifying Exam Committee will require particular composers for this category for all composition students taking the exam.

4.    Submit a portfolio of the compositions you have written while at Duke, including scores and any recordings of performances of these works. Prepare a written statement about your work, addressing specific pieces you have composed at Duke. Discuss how you hope your work will evolve in your remaining time at Duke (e.g., future projects, musical / technical issues to be addressed, etc.). A separate portfolio should be prepared for each member of the Composition Committee (typically three copies).

5.    In Categories A, B, and C, a "composer" may be defined flexibly. You may choose to study a musical repertory which does not rely on notation, or in which the border between composer and performer is not strictly defined (e.g., popular music, improvisation, non-western musical traditions, etc.)

Guidelines for Portfolio of Compositions

Your Composition portfolio needs to include a major chamber work of fifteen minutes in duration as well as two or three shorter works. These works should demonstrate a professional level of ability in compositional craft and clear expressive intent. The scores must meet professional standards of presentation, that is, they should include a title page, instrumentation, performance notes, and any other relevant information. All scores should be carefully edited, neatly printed, and bound. One copy of each work in the portfolio should be presented to each member of the exam committee before the end of the third semester. Upon approval of the portfolio by the committee the scores will be returned to the student.


Given the scope of the exam, students should begin to work on the preceding four categories immediately upon matriculation. Here is the timetable:

  1. During the first semester, make preliminary decisions about which composers you will research.
  2. By the end of the second semester, submit a list of composers and repertory for each category for review by the Composition Exam Committee, which will review your list.  To ensure equal treatment for all students, the Exam Committee will select particular works or composers for Category C that will be shared by all students taking the exam.
  3. By December 1 of the third semester, submit your composition portfolio to the members of the Composition Committee.

Qualifying Exam Format

The qualifying exam has two parts, a written component and an oral component.

Written Exam

The written portion includes seven short essays on score or sound examples from Categories B and C or closely related works provided by the Exam Committee.

You will have one day (eight hours) to write these essays.

You may use practice room pianos but no library resources while you write.

After you turn in your essays, spend the intervening week preparing to amend or clarify the points you made in your essays, particularly if they included inaccuracies.

Oral Exam

At least one week after the written exam, you will meet with the Committee for an oral examination. During this meeting you will answer questions on your essays as well as give a half-hour presentation on some aspect of your principal composer's work (Category A). This presentation should be appropriate for a professional gathering of interested scholars and musicians (i.e., students and faculty at a job interview). Your talk should bring together analytical, stylistic, and cultural/historical issues that are related to the specific topic.

The faculty will evaluate both the content as well as the organization of your presentation. In addition to the expectation that you will have used the week between the written and oral exams to address any weaknesses or inaccuracies in your short essays, the committee will also expect you to be familiar enough with the excerpts to be able to play them on the piano during the exam.



The Qualifying Examination for the doctoral program in Ethnomusicology consists of a mini-portfolio made up of the three best term papers (one of which must be an Ethnomusicology paper) from seminars taken in the first year, in combination with the results of the required two-course social/critical theory sequence. This examination determines acceptance into the second year.

The mini-portfolio must be submitted to the Ethnomusicology faculty no later than three weeks after the last day of spring graduate courses. The faculty will notify the students of the results of the evaluation in writing within two weeks of their submission.

The Qualifying Exam for Musicology includes two parts, which are described below. For sections A and B of Part 2, exam candidates will be permitted to use a computer to prepare written essay answers. No online resources are to be consulted during the eight-hour exam period. Exam candidates will be required to submit a signed statement confirming that they have written the exam without consulting online resources.

Part 1

Major Field Examination

            The Major Field Examination, at the end of semester 4, serves as the culmination of the Major Field Independent Study. The purpose of this part of the qualifying examination is to assess the student’s knowledge in a specialized field of research to determine the student’s eligibility to continue with a dissertation in that field. The student proposes the definition of the major field to the Director of Graduate Studies (due December 1 of semester three), who then approves it after consultation with the Graduate Faculty. The definition of the field should resemble a job description for a research university: for example, “seventeenth-century music” (not “Schütz”).  During the Major Field Independent Study, under the guidance of a member of the Graduate Faculty, the student prepares a comprehensive annotated bibliography and a list of core repertory. During the Major Field Examination, a committee of three members of the Graduate Faculty, appointed by the Director of Graduate Studies, will evaluate the student’s knowledge of the field, as well as methodological and theoretical approaches undertaken by scholars in that field. The examination will be conducted orally and last a maximum of two hours.

Part 2

Comprehensive Examination

            The purpose of the Comprehensive Examination is to test the student’s general knowledge of the field of musicology. The examination is given at the beginning of semester 5 by a committee of three members of the Graduate Faculty appointed by the DGS. The examination has three sections:

  1. A written examination on a series of seven out of ten unidentified documents (musical scores, texts, illustrative materials, or sound documents) without the aid of library resources. (8 hours)
  2. Three essays written without access to library or online resources. The topics will be chosen from three periods:
  3. music before 1700;
  4. music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
  5. music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Two questions will be given for each category and the student will choose one from each set.

Essays should be double-spaced and printed on one side of the paper to facilitate copying. (8 hours)

  1. An oral examination on the history of music (including discussion of sections A and B of the exam). During the oral exam, students may not consult notes in response to questions about the section A and B answers.

In addition, the student will be expected to present a prepared analysis of a brief composition, the score of which will be provided after the completion of the written exam. The analysis should be organized as an oral presentation, as for a classroom or seminar; students may use prepared illustrative materials (e.g. charts, diagrams), but will be expected to speak conversantly, and from brief notes only; it is not permitted to read a written-out academic paper.

It is expected that students will use the time between the written and oral exams to address any weak spots encountered in the written portions. (2 hours)