It's been years since I graduated with a music minor. My background consists of:

  • Traditional two-semester sequence in music theory (basic notation to borrowed chords), i.e., Kostka/Payne
  • Twentieth-century (Kostka). Also did research in Ravel and Prokofiev's music, which I feel is "quasi-tonalism" often neglected in a music curriculum.

  • Renaissance Counterpoint (species)

  • A seminar on Wagner's Ring Cycle.
  • Form and analysis (if memory serves, a lot of study into traditional structures, e.g., sonata form, binary, etc.).
  • Schenkerian analysis (using the Forte text)
  • Didn't take orchestration, but I learned it on my own in high school by reading through Rimsky-Korsakov's text and by studying the scores of Ravel after.

Sure, I could buy a copy of Counterpoint by Kennan (which, to my knowledge, covers Baroque counterpoint) once I have the money, but as far as I know, this is the only severe deficiency I have with respect to what is covered in an undergraduate program.

This is only at the undergraduate-level; people graduate with Ph.D.s in Theory, and this makes me think there has got to be more that I can learn. I'm not interested in getting published in a peer-reviewed journal, so I guess what I'm saying is I'm aiming for master's-level competency. Where do I go from here? Especially appreciated would be resources that people can refer me to.

2 Answers 2


My goodness. This is a large topic. Also, though perhaps unintentional, there appears to be some hubris underlying your question. Before I continue to my answer, I want to address three points in your question:

1.) Regarding "quasi-tonalism" - extended tertian harmonies and the evolution into the 2nd Viennese School, Neo-Classicism (Prokofiev) and Neo-Romanticism (Ravel) should all be adequately covered by any legitimately accredited organization for higher learning. Please remember that you speak only from the view point of your personal experience of your one particular program; a program in which you were a minor and therefore spent less time there than the students who majored.

2.) Regarding counterpoint, did you study out of Fux? If that name is unfamiliar to you, then you absolutely cannot count yourself proficient.

3.) Regarding orchestration, it has nothing to do with how you feel but rather how the music sounded when you stood in front of an orchestra and conducted your own music or an arrangement of something. Confidence is one thing, but if it sounds like garbage, then it is garbage.

I'll preface my answer and say that it will not be comprehensive, but it will be enough to satisfy your question, I believe. Also, before I rattle off several avenues of music theory, I'd also like preface my answer by saying that even though a graduate student and an undergraduate student might be actually taking the same class, they aren't in fact taking the same class. Someone who has no experience writing music will approach an orchestration class much differently than someone who has extensively written. Orchestration, like many other aspects of composition pedagogy, is an art form unto itself. So even though it might seem like a lame answer, sometimes the most pronounced difference between undergrad and grad level course is time and individual experience.

Just to save us all a lot of time and headache, I'll list several avenues of graduate level and beyond music theory and highlight a couple. I'm not going to bother with resources - you can figure it out on your own.

In No Particular Order

  • Serialism
  • Set-Theory
  • Lydian-Chromatic Concept
  • Schenkerian Analysis
  • Neo-Riemannian Theory
  • Compositional Modeling
  • Spectral Analysis
  • Instrument Synthesization
  • Assorted Seminar Classes on Analytical Histories of Specific Composers (In grad school I took a course on Beethoven that focused almost exclusively on his keyboard works. In seminar classes, you must also present your own analysis to the class in the same manner in which you might present a theory paper at a conference.)
  • Carnatic Rhythms
  • Electronic Composition
  • Small Form / Large Form Composition
  • Form & Analysis
  • Pedagogy of Theory
  • Various history classes
  • Score Study & Analysis

I'd like to highlight a couple of things: 1.) Even though you asked about theory, I included the bit about history classes because I find I learn so much more about music theory (application, nuance, and language) when I learn more about the composer's life and the circumstances in which they wrote. Learning about composers is tremendously helpful. 2.) In compositional modeling, you create music by mimicing styles of other composers. It is a hands-on approach to learning theory and style. 3.) Electronic Composition may feature a variety of focuses. I have friends who focus on MAX/MSP. I have other friends who focus on musique concréte, and I have others who focus on synthesizing various instruments from pure waveforms. 4.) Schenkarian Analysis is an old warhorse of graduate-level theory. If you do nothing else from the list but want to feel like grad student (i.e. hate yourself) then study Schenker religiously.

As I mentioned, this list is not comprehensive. If I think of more later, I'll jot them down. Each bullet represents one class for one semester. Obviously there is more than a masters degree worth of work here. If anyone else thinks of something, they are welcome to add it.

  • Apologize for the hubris. I'll edit it out. I have read Fux. I had covered the entire theory curriculum for the majors minus the orchestration and Baroque counterpoint course before I graduated, so I don't think it was too much of a stretch for me to make that claim about quasi-tonalism in the curriculum. The only mention that I recall even remotely similar to that was a bit of talk about planing in the 20th century class, pertaining to Debussy. As for orchestration, I studied from Rimsky-Korsakov's text (continued...) Apr 5, 2016 at 10:39
  • (cont...) which I realize is outdated in its treatment, and then self-studied the scores of Ravel. Apr 5, 2016 at 10:40
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    Anyway, thank you for the list. This is very helpful. I've also remembered a few more subjects that I forgot to include in the list. Apr 5, 2016 at 10:47
  • @Clarinetist Happy to help. Regarding orchestration, one of the most popular contemporary texts on the subject is the book by Samuel Adler. There is also another excellent book by Alfred Blatter. Apr 5, 2016 at 23:25

Also, algorithmic composition, machine learning, and such; David Cope has been active in this field, or see the text by Gerhard Nierhaus for a summary of areas of note.

  • Feel free to edit my answer and add "Algorithmic Composition" to the list. Apr 6, 2016 at 22:38

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