Welcome to NEC! As Chair of the Music Theory Department, I am writing to let you know what to expect when you arrive in August. Since graduate students at New England Conservatory come from diverse national and international backgrounds, a diagnostic Competency Exam is given to ensure that each student who joins us has acquired certain essential skills and information.

This exam will be given on during the orientation period, prior to the start of classes in the Fall. Further details of testing dates and times will be communicated via email during the months of July and August.

Please note that the competency exam will change from a paper-based to electronic format in Fall 2016. An electronic practice test will be distributed to all incoming students prior to orientation. All content will remain the same however, and you should feel free to utlise the links below to prepare for the exam.

All Master of Music students must pass the exam before enrolling in graduate courses offered by the Music Theory Department. It is also strongly recommended that Graduate Diploma students take the exam; while they are not required to take theory classes at NEC, they need to pass the exam or get the instructor's consent in order to enroll in graduate theory classes.

The Music Theory Competency Exam covers four areas:

  1. Formal/Harmonic Analysis,
  2. Melodic Ear Training,
  3. Harmonic Ear Training, and
  4. Sight Singing.

(This last portion is required of only some students, and will be administered later in the week. Further explanation is provided below.)

Have a wonderful summer, and I look forward to seeing you during Orientation week!


Dr. Katarina Miljkovic, Chair
Music Theory Department

Explanation of graduate placement exam (Orientation)

Formal/Harmonic Analysis

This section of the exam contains several subsections:

writing (15%)
You will be provided with a key, meter, and a series of Roman numeral labels; you are to notate the progression in four-part harmony (chorale style). This will be a short progression of no more than eight chords.
Find practice exam here.
analysis of a tonal piece (45%)You will be asked several questions on a movement, or section of a movement, from the 18th or 19th century. Questions will focus on any of the following: phrasing and cadences, form, overall tonal plan, harmonic analysis, non-chord tones, and motivic analysis.
Find practice exam here.
analysis of a post-tonal piece (40%)You will be asked questions on a movement, or section of a movement, from the 20th century. Be prepared for questions on pitch collections and their melodic, rhythmic, and textural transformations in the piece.
Find practice exam here.

Melodic Ear Training

Find practice exam here.

identification and notation of melodic intervals
dictation of unaccompanied melodic fragments (3 pitches per fragment)
For this exercise, a major key will be established for you. You will then hear a series of three-note melodic fragments in that key; you should notate these fragments in whole notes. (Rhythm is not a factor in this exercise.) You will be given two hearings for each fragment.
rhythmic dictation
A meter will be established for you, after which you will hear a short melodic fragment. You are asked to notate only the rhythm of the melody.
dictation of an accompanied melody (56%)You will hear an accompanied melody; you are asked to notate the melody only (not the accompaniment). Please be aware that the meter and the barlines will not be provided for you. (Since you will need to determine the meter on your own, you might want to practice identifying meters from recordings in preparation for this portion of the exam.) Since we are not telling you what the beat is, there might be several meters that would be acceptable; we will allow for several possibilities.

Also, while we will tell you the key of the passage, we will not play the tonic pitch ahead of time; you are expected to infer the tonic from the melody itself. Assume that the melody could conclude with any of the following cadences: perfect authentic, imperfect authentic, or half cadence. (To put it another way: the final scale degree of the melody might or might not be the tonic.)

You will hear the accompanied melody in its entirely six times.

Harmonic Ear Training

Find practice exam here.

identification of chord quality: triads
Your choices are major, minor, diminished, or augmented
identification of chord quality: seventh chords
Be prepared for the three following seventh-chord qualities: major-minor (same as dominant seventh); minor, and fully diminished.
tonal harmonic progressions: provide soprano, bass, and Roman numeral labels

Sight Singing

This portion of the test will be recommended only for those students who fail the Melodic Ear Training portion of the exam. For more details about this test, see below.

How the placement exam results will affect you

We offer one remedial course, Principles of Harmony and Form, two times a week, and the Ear Training lab once a week. In addition, students can take selected courses in order to pass portions of the exam. The following explains the relationship between each exam component of the Music Theory Competency Exam and courses we offer for remediation.

Analysis and Part Writing

Tonal portion of the exam (60 points):

Students who do not meet the minimal standards for passing this component will have the choice of (1) taking this exam component again until they do pass it, or (2) enrolling in and passing Principles of Harmony and Form lectures.

Post-Tonal portion of the exam (40 points):

Students who have difficulty with this portion of the exam will have the choice of (1) learning the material on their own, or (2) enrolling and passing one of the graduate 20th–21st century courses.

*A student can pass the placement exam without passing the post-tonal portion by earning 60 points on analysis of tonal music and part-writing.

*If a student chooses to enroll and successfully complete a graduate 20th–21st century course, he/she will be granted 40 points for the post-tonal portion of the exam without retaking it.

Melodic Ear Training

Students who do not meet the minimal standards for passing this component will have the choice of (1) taking this exam component again until they do pass it, or (2) enrolling in, and passing, Principles of Harmony and Form Ear Training lab.

Harmonic Ear Training

Students who do not meet the minimal standards for passing this component will have the choice of (1) taking this exam component again until they do pass it, or (2) enrolling in, and passing, Principles of Harmony and Form.

*Students may choose Solfège Through Vocal Music (VC 525) course for 0 credits as a supplement to the Ear Training lab or as a resource for learning material before they retake the test.


As noted earlier, this exam is taken only by those who have failed the Melodic Ear Training portion of the test. This portion of the placement exam is not pass/fail; in other words, there will be no negative consequences if you do poorly on it. On the contrary, your performance on this section could help you in an important way: if your score on the Melodic Ear Training portion is just below passing, a strong performance on the Sight Singing component could help pull up that grade to passing.

Otherwise, your performance on this portion will help us to advise you of your options for fulfilling the melodic ear training requirement. For instance, we might strongly recommend that you enroll in Ear Training lab or Solfege through Vocal Music (VC 525), or we might suggest that you address the deficiency through self-directed work with ear training software.

The Sight-Singing exam will consist of a ten-minute individual appointment with a faculty member, during which you will be asked to sing several melodies at sight. You may sing with any method that you prefer (solfège syllables, neutral syllables, etc.).

To summarize, the following explains how each exam component will “feed into” our two remedial courses for those students who do not pass that component.

Exam ComponentCourse that would fulfill the deficiency
Formal/Harmonic Analysis »Principles of Harmony and Form
Melodic Ear Training »Introductory Ear Training and Sight-Singing
Harmonic Ear Training »Principles of Harmony and Form
Additional Resources
20th century »Graduate 20th–21st century course
Melodic Ear Training »Solfège Through Vocal Music

Please be aware of the following

  1. Remember that enrollment in the courses shown in the right column of the table above is voluntary. In other words, if you fail any of the exam components, you are not required to enroll in the course that remediates that deficiency. You may instead choose to retake the exam (or rather, the portion of the exam that you failed the first time) the next time it is offered. The exam is given twice during the year: during fall Orientation, and in January at the beginning of the spring semester.
  2. Since we are able to offer only one to two sections of the remedial course, Principles of Harmony and Form, per semester, it is possible that we will not be able to accommodate all students who would like to enroll in those courses. In such cases, the Theory Department will need to make some difficult decisions regarding the final class list. Please know that we will be as fair and objective as possible in making these decisions.

    If you would like to enroll in a remedial course and are not able to (whether because of limited available spaces, or any other reason), you should try to take the relevant portion of the exam the next time it is offered.

Testing dates and times

Incoming students will be assigned a test date and time prior to the orientation period. Attendance at the exam is required. There will not be any make-up dates for this test. All attendees will need a photo I.D. for admission to the exam. Please note that you may use a paper English translation dictionary during the exam. (Electronic dictionaries of any kind are not allowed.)

For those students who need to take it, the Sight Singing exam will be given later in the week. 

Students who need to take the sight-singing exam will receive a notification through their NEC e-mail account. If you do not receive an e-mail, you do not need to take the exam. (More details will be provided at your orientation meeting.)

Preparing for the exam

The following materials, among many others, present music theory materials, skills, and concepts helpful for establishing a background for graduate-level study. They also are helpful for students who wish to review the American-English terminology for such work. However, students might wish simply to review their undergraduate music theory work in preparation for the exam.

Fundamentals, Harmony, and Form

Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne: Tonal Harmony (McGraw-Hill)
Bruce Benward/Jackson: Practical Beginning Theory (McGraw-Hill)
George Thaddeus Jones: Music Theory (College Outline Series; HarperCollins)
Douglass Green: Form in Tonal Music, 2nd Ed. (Harcourt College Publishers)

Post-Tonal Theory

Joseph Strauss: Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory (Prentice Hall, 2005)

Ear Training

Anne Blombach: MacGAMUT (music software): can be purchased at www.macgamut.com
Bruce Benward/ Timothy Kolosick: Ear Training: A Technique for Listening (McGraw-Hill)

Sight-Singing Skills

Robert Ottman and Nancy Rogers: Music for Sight Singing (Prentice-Hall)
Lars Edlund: Modus Vetus (Edition Wilhelm Hansen)