Music: Composition, PhD

The Ph.D. program in Composition stresses training in the craft of composition, contemporary repertory, and theory and analysis. Instruction in composition comprises much of the course requirement; such instruction takes the form of private lessons. Participation in the concert life of the department and attendance at Composers’ Forum events complement that instruction. Students are assigned to particular instructors for composition lessons by the Director of Graduate Studies on the advice of the composition faculty. Composition instructors are assigned on a rotating basis to assure that all students are exposed to a variety of approaches and have the opportunity to work with each member of the composition faculty during the period of coursework. The Department of Music at the University of Pennsylvania also offers a Ph.D. program in Music Studies, and composition students also take several courses with the music studies faculty during their coursework.


View the University’s Academic Rules for PhD Programs.

Required Courses

Core Requirement
Foundational Methods Core Courses
Must take two of the following:2
Creative and Compositional Approaches
Historical and Historiographic Approaches
Ethnographic and Anthropological Approaches
Analytical and Theoretical Approaches
Composition Methods3
Composing with Instruments
Composing with Electronics
Composing with Performers
Composition Studio and Forum (Complete 4 times)
Seminar in Composition (Complete 2 times)
Elective Courses3
3 courses (6xx, 7xx, or 9xx) selected in consultation with advisor and graduate chair
Total Course Units14

Forum and Lessons

During their third year in the program, composition students will continue non-credit participation in both forum and lessons.


Musicianship Requirement

The musicianship requirement may be fulfilled through demonstrating facility as a performer, or through an exam administered by the faculty. Students should consult with faculty about what performance opportunities might be most appropriate for them. For instance, with faculty approval, this requirement could be met through performing at a sufficiently high level (including conducting) in a Penn Sound Collective,or similar, concert. It could also be met by participating for one academic year in a Department-sponsored ensemble. Alternatively, a student may, in consultation with the faculty, take an exam in which facility in sight-singing, dictation, and keyboard are demonstrated. This requirement must be fulfilled by the end of the second year of study.

Practicum Exam

During the first semester of study, students will work collaboratively with faculty (as part of Forum and lessons) to determine their areas of strength and opportunities for growth in repertorial knowledge. During the second semester of study, the faculty and student will outline 5 areas to be examined at the end of the first summer. These areas will be selected as follows: Faculty will select 2-3 areas; faculty and student will agree on a further 1-2 areas; the student will propose the final area. The structure of the exam should be settled and communicated to the Director of Graduate Studies during the Annual Review meeting (see below).

The exam will consist of two questions per area and students will answer 6 (one question from each area must be answered). Questions may take the form of scores, recordings, videos, and/or other objects. Answers should interact with and work toward an identification of the score, recording, or video in question. Emphasis in evaluation will be placed more on the quality of the interaction and less on exact identification. Students will sit for the exam in the week before classes resume (late August) and students will be allotted 4 hours to select and prepare their answers. 

Practicum exams will be evaluated based on the following structure:

Pass: A Pass on all portions of the examination is required for admission to the Ph.D. program.

Partial Pass: The student must take some portion of the examination again (normally at least four months later) before the question of admission to the doctoral program is decided.Failure to achieve a Pass during the second sitting may result in an offer of a terminal master’s degree(see Annual Review).

Comprehensive Review

During the third year of study, students will complete a Portfolio of Compositions and prepare a Ph.D. Essay (see below for descriptions). These materials must be submitted for review by the graduate group faculty two weeks prior to the Comprehensive Review. In April of that year (dates set by the faculty exam committee at the beginning of the Spring Semester), each student will sit for their Comprehensive Review. The faculty exam committee, along with the student’s principal advisor in composition will be in attendance. Topics of discussion will include the Portfolio of Compositions, the creative trajectory that it implies, the quality of the work, and the opportunities it suggests. The Ph.D. Essay will also be discussed, both in terms of content and also with a view toward publication.

Portfolio of Compositions

The portfolio will be made up of compositions with a combined duration of no less than thirty (30) minutes. No later than the beginning of the fall term of the second year of study, students must, in consultation with their current composition instructor, establish concrete plans for the medium, number, and scope of compositions that will comprise the portfolio. At least one of the works included in the portfolio should be a significant revision. The portfolio must be submitted for review by the graduate group faculty no later than two weeks prior to the student’s comprehensive review.

Ph.D. Essay

The Ph.D. essay is a paper on an analytical, historical, theoretical, ethnomusicological, or critical subject prepared under the supervision of two members of the faculty. The primary reader must be a member of the composition faculty. The second reader may, where appropriate, be a member of the graduate group faculty with a specialization other than composition. The essay should be an article-length (approx. 8,000 words) study of publishable quality. It may revise a paper that the student prepared for a seminar. Students will find support for their work on this essay in the Dissertation Essay/Grant Writing Workshop and from their advisors. A final draft of the Ph.D. essay must be submitted for review by the graduate group faculty no later than two weeks prior to the student’s comprehensive review.

Ph.D Composition

Candidates will produce a major musical composition as a PhD dissertation, the nature of which must be approved by the composition faculty, which serves as the dissertation committee. It is understood that during the two semesters leading up to completion of the dissertation the student and advisor will be in regular contact regarding the progress of the dissertation. A final draft of the PhD dissertation must be submitted for review to the composition faculty by March 1 of the last semester of study, and the completed, approved composition, incorporating any changes recommended by the faculty, must be submitted to the graduate group faculty by April 1 of the graduation term.

Public Performance of Ph.D. Composition

In consultation with the composition faculty, but no later than April 15 of the graduation term, a public performance, reading, or workshop of the dissertation composition will be scheduled. This public event constitutes the final examination in composition.

Language Requirement

Reading knowledge of two languages is required for all students in music studies and composition. Students will select their language exams in consultation with the graduate chair and faculty, with the understanding that their selections should relate clearly to their projected plan of study and proposed dissertation topic. Where appropriate, students may request approval from the graduate chair and faculty to use a computer language to complete one of the two exams.

Students for whom English is not their native language may choose their native language as one of their two language exams if they plan to conduct significant research/fieldwork in that language or in cases where a major corpus of literature pertinent to the student’s field of research exists in that language.

Language Examinations

Language examinations are given twice each year: at the beginning of the fall term and at the beginning of the spring term. Students must take an examination at each of these times until their language requirements have been met. Each language examination consists of a passage of approximately 500 words selected from a representative work of musical scholarship. The student is given two hours to write an English translation. Use of a dictionary is permitted.

Reading courses in French, Italian, and German are administered by the Graduate Division during the summer (May through June), and are available to Ph.D. students at no cost. Students may register for undergraduate language courses as a fourth course as ‘auditors.’ Graduate credit will not be granted for such undergraduate language courses.

The degree and major requirements displayed are intended as a guide for students entering in the Fall of 2022 and later. Students should consult with their academic program regarding final certifications and requirements for graduation.