Graduate Placement in Music Theory

Welcome to NEC! The faculty of the Music Theory Department look forward to meeting you and working with you throughout your journey at the Conservatory. We are writing to let you know what to expect when you arrive in August. Since graduate students at New England Conservatory come from diverse backgrounds, a computerized diagnostic Master of Music Theory Competency Exam (MMTCE) is given to ensure that each student who joins us has acquired certain essential skills and information.

MMTCE is a mandatory exam, administered to all incoming Master’s students during Orientation Week in the Fall semester, and the week before the start of classes in the Spring semester. Make sure to reserves a week in the fall and spring semester for the examination. Exact dates and times are communicated via email.

All Master of Music (MM) 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 to enroll in graduate theory classes.

Have a wonderful summer, and we look forward to seeing you during Orientation Week!


The Music Theory Faculty

Master of Music Theory Competency Exam (MMTCE)

Subject Areas:

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 measures.

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, rhythm and meter, form, overall tonal plan, harmonic analysis, non-chord tones, and motivic analysis.

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, including a 12-tone row, integer notation, and melodic, rhythmic, and textural transformations in the piece.

Melodic Ear Training

identification and notation of melodic intervals


dictation of 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

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



If you do not pass one or any of the components of the MMTCE, we strongly recommend that you enroll in Principles of Harmony and Form (THYG 082) immediately after the exam. If you would like to focus on improving your ear-training skills with respect to the exam, we strongly recommend enrolling in Principles of Harmony and Form-Lab (also THYG 082) immediately after the exam. In addition, students can take selected courses to pass portions of the exam. The following table shows remediation courses in relation to each MMTCE component:

Exam Component

Course 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

Please be aware of the following

  1. The enrollment in the courses shown in the right column of the table above is voluntary in the first semester of your studies. In other words, if you fail part-writing, tonal and post-tonal analysis components, you are required to do one of the following: 
    1. Enroll in the Principles of Harmony and Form course 
    2. Retake the exam (or rather, the portion of the exam that you failed the first time) in January. 
  2. If you fail only the 20th century section of the exam, you are required to do one of the following:
    1. Enroll in the Principles of Harmony and Form course
    2. Enroll in 20th-21st century theory elective 
  3. If you fail the Ear Training exam, melodic or harmonic portion, you are required to do one of the following: 
    1. Retake the Ear Training test (the portion that you failed) in January 
    2. Enroll in Principles of Harmony and Form - Lab
  4. You can take the MMTCE exam twice: in the Fall, in your first semester, and in January, in your second semester. If you don’t pass the exam in January, you are required to take the review course, Principles of Harmony and Form, and the Lab, in January, your second semester. 
  5. In the fall semester, we offer two sections of the review course, Principles of Harmony and Form, and it is possible that we will not be able to accommodate all students who would like to enroll. In such cases, you will take the course in the spring semester.

Resources for Review

You can find instructions for the online practice exam here.

The following selected materials, are helpful for preparation of the placement exam and review of the undergraduate music theory.

Harmony and Form 

  • Burstein, L. Poundie, and Joseph Nathan Straus. Concise introduction to tonal harmony. WW Norton, 2016.
  • Caplin, William E. Analyzing Classical Form: An Approach for the Classroom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Chs. 1–8.

Post-Tonal Theory

  • Straus, Joseph N. Introduction to post-tonal theory. WW Norton & Company, 2016. Chapters 1 and 2 are of special interest for the placement exam. 

Ear Training

Sight-Singing Skills

  • Robert Ottman and Nancy Rogers: Music for Sight Singing (Prentice-Hall)
  • Lars Edlund: Modus Vetus (Edition Wilhelm Hansen)
Instructions for Theory Practice Materials Fall 2021

Practice Exam Instructions

Closeup of a Steinway piano.