M.M. Music History Competency Exam

Format and Study Tips

All Master of Music students entering NEC are required to pass the Graduate Music History Competency Examination in partial fulfillment of their degree requirements. (Graduate Diploma and D.M.A. students do not take the exam.)

The exam will be administered online during orientaiton. Students will receive assigned times and a link to the online exam through their NEC email in August.

The exam is designed to test basic music history competency on the level of an Undergraduate Music History Survey course. Students who do not pass the exam in August may take the exam one additional time in January. Those who do not pass the second attempt must take the one-semester Remedial Music History Survey for zero credit in the subsequent semester.

Before the test

  • Students will be assigned a testing time which will be sent to your NEC email in August.
  • The test will take place online through Zoom so it can be proctored.
  • Students need to bring a photo ID to the exam.
  • The test can be taken one time only. There will be no make-up dates for this test.

During the test

  • Students will have 90 minutes to complete the test.
  • During the test, students can pause the test and resume at any time and also skip questions and return to them later.
  • No outside material or devices will be allowed (books, notes, cell phones, iPads, tablets, flash-drives).
  • Hard-copy dictionaries only may be used (electronic dictionaries will not be allowed), subject to inspection by proctors.
  • Students will be required to keep their camera and microphone on so proctors can observe them.

Exam format

  • The exam will be a computer-based test, with multiple-choice questions (4 answer choices per question, with only one correct choice).
  • Students must score 60% or better in order to pass.
  • Students may choose between 2 tests:
    Test A (Classical repertoire 90%; Jazz/World music 10%)
    Test B (Jazz music 50%; World music 5%; Classical repertoire 45%)
  • Both tests will have questions from the following seven categories of repertoire:
    Five from the Western classical tradition (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, 19th century, 20th century)
    Two categories from outside of the Western classical tradition (Jazz and World Music)
  • The difference between tests A and B is in the way that these categories are proportioned.
  • Students are free to choose which test they want to take irrespective of their major.
  • Students may take only one of the offered tests (Test A OR Test B).

After the test: results

  • Students will be notified of their test results by the Office of Student Services.
  • Students who fail the test will be required to take the Graduate Music History Remedial Survey (zero credit).

Preparing for the Exam: Study tips and materials

Questions on these tests are drawn from the following sources. If you are familiar with the information in these basic texts, you should be well prepared to pass the exam. Keep in mind that this is a music history exam. Familiarity with the sound and sight of the music is essential to understanding historical developments in musical style.

For Western classical repertoire (Medieval through 20th century):

Donald J. Grout. A History of Western Music. 9th ed., J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca. New York: Norton, 2014.

A "standard." The narrative of A History of Western Music naturally focuses on the musical works, styles, genres, and ideas that have proven most influential, enduring, and significant—but it also encompasses a wide range of music, from religious to secular, from serious to humorous, from art music to popular music, and from Europe to the Americas. 

Focus on the following issues for each of the Western music historical periods:

  • preferred instruments and ensembles (vocal and instrumental)\
  • characteristic genres and forms
  • defining features of the various genres and forms
  • representative works
  • representative composers and their approximate dates (early, mid, late century)
  • characteristic traits of individual composers' styles
  • principal lines of stylistic development
  • chronology of events/composers/important works in the period
  • definition of terms specific to the period

For Jazz

Mark C. Gridley. Jazz Styles: History and Analysis. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.

A concise account of stylistic developments in jazz, with emphasis on bebop and later styles. Aimed at a general audience, not just musicians. 

For World Music

To limit the scope of this exam, the world music section has been restricted to five general cultural areas of traditional music:

  • West Africa (mainly Ghana and Gambia)
  • India (mainly South India)
  • Indonesia (mainly Bali)
  • Japan
  • the Middle East (mainly Egypt and Turkey)

Use the relevant chapters in the following source as a guideline for the kinds of questions to expect in the World Music section.

Jeff Todd Titon, et al. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples, Shorter Version (with CD-ROM) [Paperback]


Sample Questions (NOTE: These are sample questions, not from the exam itself):

1) Modal notation is associated with:
a) Aquitanian polyphony
b) rhythmicized chant
c) Notre Dame organum
d) 14th-century motet

2) L'Orfeo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, and L'incoronazione di Poppea are operas composed by:
a) Handel
b) Lully
c) Monteverdi
d) Pergolesi

3) Rondo forms in the Classical period are most often found in:
a) first movements
a) slow movements
c) scherzos
d) final movements

4) Among the operas Verdi composed are:
a) Nabucco, Il Trovatore, and Il barbiere di Siviglia
b) La Traviata, La Bohème, and La forza del destino
c) Rigoletto, Aïda, and Otello
d) Parsifal, Don Carlos, and Macbeth

5) Which composer cannot be grouped with the others on the basis of his style:
a) Terry Riley
b) Steve Reich
c) George Crumb
d) La Monte Young
e) Philip Glass

6) Typical instruments of the Japanese gagaku ensemble include:
a) sho, ryuteki, hichiriki
b) shamisen, koto, shakuhachi
c) sitar, sarod, tabla

7) An important trumpet influence on Dizzy Gillespie in the 1930s was:
a) Miles Davis
b) Roy Eldridge
c) Red Nichols
d) Bunk Johnson