To all incoming undergraduate NEC students:

Welcome to NEC! As Chair of the Music Theory Department, I am writing to let you know what to expect when you arrive in late August. During Orientation week we will be giving several placement exams to all incoming undergraduate students. These exams will help us to place you in the appropriate courses in the fall.

First, it may be helpful for you to know something about our overall pedagogical approach. We believe that the purpose of music theory is to help students grow as practicing musicians. Music theory therefore involves much more than the teaching of conceptual knowledge; our objective is to help you develop important skills that will stay with you the rest of your musical lives. (And we hope you will continue to develop these skills after you leave NEC.)

We regard four skills as especially important:

  1. singing (including music reading skills)
  2. ear training
  3. keyboard
  4. writing (for instance, notational exercises such as four-part writing, or musical analysis)

Undergraduate Theory diagramAs shown in this diagram, these four skill areas are interconnected (see the arrows). Developing your singing skills, for instance, will ideally help you with your writing skills, and vice versa. The same applies to any possible pairing in the diagram. The resulting “web” of interconnected skills is an essential component of musicianship.


Description of our core curriculum

The table below shows the typical course distribution for the first two years of music theory at NEC. Together these courses make up what we refer to as our "core curriculum." (Elective courses are also offered for the third and fourth years.)

Note that two different courses are listed for each semester. You will be expected to enroll in two courses simultaneously, one from the far right column, and another from the column just to its left. A possible exception is your first semester; if you pass out of Fundamentals of Music Theory (as explained later on this page), you may be taking only Solfege 1 during the first semester.

A summary of the courses appears below the table. Please note that considered together, these courses provide training in the four skills listed above. (This training includes not only drill-and-practice work, but also the practical application of those skills in musical repertoire.)

first yearfall[Fundamentals of Music Theory]Solfege I
springTonal Practice ISolfege II
second year fallTonal Practice IISolfege III
springTonal Practice IIISolfege IV

Fundamentals of Music Theory: The study of musical fundamentals focuses on scales, keys, intervals, and chords. This course includes written work, ear training, and keyboard skills, with emphasis on both accuracy and fluency. (Fluency is the ability to provide correct answers with reasonable speed.)

Tonal Practice: Our three Tonal Practice courses focus on the study of tonal harmony and form. These courses include training in several skill areas: written work (counterpoint, part writing, analysis), basic composition, ear training, and keyboard skills.

Solfege: Our Solfege courses provide training in score reading, basic conducting, sight singing, and melodic ear training.

Explanation of placement exams during Orientation week

While the above table shows a typical course schedule, you might be able to place out of one or more of these courses, depending on your performance on the placement exams during orientation week. The following explains in more detail.

Required for ALL students

ALL entering students (both new students and transfers) will take a Fundamentals exam and a Solfege exam. These exams are summarized below. (Note that the Fundamentals exam contains several subsections.)

Fundamentals exam

  • ear training section
    This section of the Fundamentals exam will evaluate your ability to hear scales, intervals and chords (both triads and seventh chords); it will also include several short dictation exercises.
  • written section
    This written portion of the Fundamentals exam focuses on key signatures; scales and scale degrees; intervals; triads (root position and inversion) and seventh chords (root position only); and Roman numerals. While this section is not designed to be a speed test, we expect you to be able to complete this part within a reasonable amount of time.
  • fluency section
    This section of the test will evaluate your fluency with some of the most basic aspects of musical fundamentals. This fluency section resembles the written section (described above), except that it will feel more like a “speed” test. This section will consist of 6 pages, each of which must be completed within a specified time period, ranging from 40 seconds to a minute and 40 seconds.

IMPORTANT: in order to pass out of the Fundamentals course, you must first pass each of the three test sections described above. In addition, those who pass all three sections will then need to take and pass a Fundamentals keyboard test in order to pass out of the Fundamentals course (see below).

Solfege placement exam

This exam evaluates your sight-singing skills. You will be meeting individually with an instructor or teaching assistant for this exam, for which you will be asked to sight-sing several melodies. The exam will help us to determine how best to place you within the Solfege program.

Required for SOME students

In addition to the above required testing, SOME students will also be required to take a Fundamentals keyboard exam:

If you pass all three sections of the Fundamentals exam, you will also be required to take a keyboard exam in order to pass out of the Fundamentals course. (Since our Fundamentals of Music Theory course includes a keyboard requirement, we want to find out whether you have the necessary skills to meet that requirement before being placed into Tonal Practice I.) NOTE: If you are a piano major, either classical or jazz, you would be exempted from this keyboard exam.

Optional for all students

Tonal Practice placement exam

If you have already studied theory beyond the level of fundamentals and think you might be able to pass out of one or more Tonal Practice courses, you have the option of taking the Tonal Practice placement exam.  The test will be given in three sections, with each section testing the content of a particular Tonal Practice course (I, II, or III). If you wish, you may take only one or two sections of the test.

The Tonal Practice placement test will include an ear training component, in which you are asked to notate the soprano, bass, and Roman numerals of a harmonic progression.

To summarize, here is our testing schedule, along with the specific times:

Monday, August 31
Required for all12:30–2:00pm

Fundamentals exam
(first three portions)
Tuesday, September 1
Required for all

(see orientation packet for assigned times)

Solfege Exams
Required for those that pass
Fundamentals Exam;
Piano majors not required

(Fundamentals Exam Results and Keyboard Harmony Exam assigned times
will be available at the Undergraduate Class Meeting)

Keyboard Harmony Exams
Wednesday, September 2
Required for those that pass
Fundamentals Keybaord Exam
(Will be notified at Keyboard Exam on Tuesday if you need to attend)
Tonal Practice Placement Exams

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


Dr. Katarina Miljkovic, Chair
Music Theory Department