Information about the general and specific goals, format of the exam, registering for the exam, preparing for the exam, taking the exam and grading the exam.

  • General Goal

    The purpose of comprehensive exams is to ensure that the student is prepared to enter the field of music history as a scholar well versed in all aspects of the field. While coursework tends to offer opportunities to focus on specific eras, composers, and genres, preparing for comprehensive exams allow the student to gather this detailed information into an overview, examining trends and the development of genres throughout different time periods as well as examining the major composers and works and their influence into later eras. The exam focuses more on the knowledge and skills needed by a scholar than those needed by a teacher, but it nevertheless also lays a valuable foundation that prepares the student for teaching in a large number of areas. When students complete their coursework and comprehensive exams, they should be prepared to teach graduate-level courses in music history.

  • Specific Goal

    The student should demonstrate a wide-ranging knowledge in the field: an overview of all areas of the history of western art music from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century, supported by specific examples and details, as well as an awareness of important scholars and recent research in important fields. It is more important to have a surface knowledge in many areas (especially the broad development of genres and aesthetic ideas across different time periods) supported by pockets of detail rather than an excess of details in only a few areas. Details must be provided, but they are useful only insofar as they support a larger view.

  • Format of the Exam

    The Ph.D. comprehensive exam consists of two written components, administered on two consecutive days during the university’s stated comprehensive exam period, in four-hour blocks each day. There is no oral component to comprehensive exams in musicology at CUA. The format of the exam is identical on both days.

    Each day you will receive six questions and two scores. The questions and scores will be selected from any time period.


    Each score will be one page drawn from the middle of a composition (imagine turning to the middle page of a score in the library). For each score, you will be asked to do three things:

    1. Analyze the music, marking things on the music itself.
    2. Write a paragraph that points out the style characteristics, compositional techniques, and other features of the music.
    3. Suggest a possible genre, approximate date of composition, and a possible composer (or school of composers).

    It is absolutely essential that you do all three of these things, the first two in particular. Demonstrating your analytical abilities and writing intelligently about the music is more important than correctly identifying the composer! If your analytical observations are correct and your argument is valid, it does not matter if your proposed composer is correct.


    Of the six questions provided, you will be expected to write substantial essays on four of them. Although the questions may span any number of periods, you will be instructed to answer some questions emphasizing music before 1700 and some emphasizing post-1700 music.

    The questions may be general or detailed. It is more likely that the questions will focus on genres (symphony, concerto, motet, opera, etc.), performing media (string quartet, piano, orchestra, etc.), aesthetic ideas (Romanticism, Modernism, Nationalism, etc.), and contextual issues (patronage, politics, etc.), but questions about specific major composers (Monteverdi, Beethoven, Stravinsky, etc.) may also be asked. In all cases, you will be expected to speak generally about the subject but to illustrate your points with examples of specific works.

    You will be expected to carefully organize your answer into a logical essay, and to use a third-person, objective, scholarly style. It is very important that you focus on actually answering the questions asked. It is not to your advantage to demonstrate how much you know about the given topic or provide excessive details.

  • Registering for the Exam

    You must register for Doctoral Comps (MUS 998A or 998B, with or without classes, depending on whether you are enrolled for anything else that semester) in the semester you plan on taking comps. If you do not pass the exam the first time, then you must re-register when you re-take the exam.

    In addition to registering on Cardinal Station, you must also fill out an “Application for Comps” form that is available in the School of Music office. Fill out the form and give it to your adviser, who will perform a degree audit (to ensure that you are eligible to take comps), sign the form, and return it to the office. The form gives you an option of requesting to take the exam on a computer. The form must be returned to the office at least two weeks before the scheduled exam date; the earlier in the semester the form is turned in, the better.

  • Preparing for the Exam

    The best way to synthesize the vast amount of general knowledge that is expected of you for the exam is to use the articles in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (hereafter NGII) supplemented with period textbooks. You should also be sure to spend time studying scores. In all cases, you want to be sure that you are studying the most current information possible.

    New Grove II

    The articles in NGII usually offer clear outlines of the subject matter and excellent surveys. Be sure to study the NGII articles on:

    • Genres (including religious services such as the Mass, Vespers, Matins, etc.). You may also find the genre articles in the Harvard Dictionary of Music to be helpful.
    • Performing Media (especially string quartet, piano, and orchestra; we do not expect you to study every musical instrument in detail)
    • Composers (read the biographies of at least five major composers from each time period, and familiarize yourself with each composer’s major works)
    • Aesthetic Ideas (Romanticism, Nationalism, Modernism, other twentieth-century isms, as well as the articles on period labels such as Baroque and Renaissance)

    It is expected that you will also read and be familiar with one period textbook for each of the major periods. It is from textbooks that you can most likely glean which are the most important works with which to familiarize yourself, in order to draw upon them for examples when answering the questions. Period textbook anthologies are also excellent sources for studying scores. Many students also like to begin their studies by examining a general overview textbook, such as the most recent edition of the Grout/Palisca/Burkholder A History of Western Music. While this can be a helpful way to get your bearings, by no means should you rely solely on a textbook like this. It is recommended that you discuss with your adviser which textbooks you are using, though whichever books you bought for period courses are always safe choices. Another helpful (if somewhat old) book is David Poultney, Studying Music History: Learning, Reasoning, and Writing about Music History and Literature (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983).


    As you study, be sure to skim the bibliographies of the NGII articles, as this is a convenient method for familiarizing yourself with recent research in the field (especially since the NGII bibliographies are ordered chronologically). Be sure to pay special attention to:

    • Recurring names: When a scholar’s name recurs frequently, that person and their work is important to the field. It is recommended that you also look up that person in RILM, to search for even more recent works.
    • Recurring or unfamiliar concepts: If several articles refer to an unfamiliar concept or if the title of an article seems important, read the abstract(s) of the article(s) in RILM.
    Other Tips

    Your studying is really only as efficient as your note taking; be sure to take notes as you study, using whatever system works best for you. Many people find it useful to re-copy and re-organize their notes throughout the studying process. By the last month before the exam you should be done with all of your reading and just studying from your notes. Your note taking can even begin during your coursework!

    Many questions will ask you to “compare and contrast,” “trace the development of,” and “summarize” important points. Keep this in mind as you are preparing your notes; it is important to always keep a holistic view and understand how things relate. Is it also very important to study the same concept across periods rather than compartmentalizing all of your studying within periods.

    With the permission of your adviser, the Head of the Musicology Area will allow you to look at exams from previous years. Use these questions to practice writing exam essays, and time yourself as you do so. It does not hurt to have several “sample” answers in your head when you sit down for the exam; however, be absolutely certain that you answer the questions asked (don’t simply spit out your sample answer because it’s on the same topic). When looking at the previous exams, keep in mind that you should think of these as examples of the types of questions you will be asked, not as models for the questions themselves. These exams go back quite a number of years, so also be aware that the format of the exam has changed over time and that your exam will not necessarily look like these.

    The university has an excellent support system in place for students who are concerned about their studying and test taking skills. If you feel you require extra assistance, contact the Center for Academic Success, which also offers Study Strategies Workshops. CUA is also happy to accommodate students with documented disabilities; for more information, contact Disability Support Services.

  • Taking the Exam

    Be sure to read all of the questions carefully when you first open the exam. It is more efficient to take a few minutes to think about the answer and sketch an outline than it is to immediately begin writing.

    Be as specific as possible in your answers, and be sure to answer precisely the questions asked. It is not to your advantage to provide an excess of information that is not relevant to the question.

    Only answer questions that will show your knowledge to the best advantage. If you must write an essay in an area in which you are uncomfortable, it is more important that you demonstrate a general familiarity with the material than to try to BS details. Sketching outlines to multiple questions before answering any of them may help you decide for which ones you are best prepared.

    Do not spend too much time on one question. It is very important that you budget your time effectively to cover all of the questions you need.

    You will be permitted to take one ten-minute break during the exam, but the break is included in your four-hour time slot. (Thus, you can not stay an extra ten minutes to make up for the time lost during the break.)

    There is little benefit in attempting to answer more than four questions. However, if you have three solid essays but are uncertain about all of the other questions, it is not a bad idea to provide brief general answers to two other questions, to showcase your breadth of knowledge.

    Be sure to answer four questions and to identify both scores! If you do find yourself running out of time, it is much better to write an outline than to omit a question entirely.

  • Grading of Exams

    Exams are prepared by a committee of at least three faculty members. The questions are written and selected by musicology faculty members, and the scores are provided by a music theory faculty member. All members of the committee read the entire exam and have a say in evaluating all questions.

    The committee will look for evidence that you have reviewed the appropriate sources, have a good overview of the field with sufficient detail to provide relevant examples, and are familiar with up-to-date terms, concepts, and people in the field. The exam is graded as an aggregate; one poor answer will not cause you to fail the exam provided that the other answers are sufficiently strong to demonstrate broad knowledge of the field. It is not possible to partially pass the exam.

    Exams are generally graded within a month of the administration of the exam; it can sometimes take longer for exams to be graded during the summer. The results of the exam will be conveyed in writing in an email from the Head of the Musicology Area. Please do not ask your adviser or any faculty member about the results of your exam until after you have received the email.