Musicology, Ethnomusicology, and Music Theory

These constitute the three main humanities disciplines of graduate study in music (as opposed to musical performance, composition, conducting, digital music, music therapy, music administration, and music education).

Traditionally, musicology has referred to the study of Western art music, or the music of the past, while ethnomusicology has been associated with the study of non-Western and traditional musics, or of living musical traditions. But these historical boundaries are more porous than before. The two disciplines overlap and influence one another in their methodologies and subjects, and both are increasingly interdisciplinary. But because of their roots in different nineteenth-century intellectual endeavors, they maintain distinct approaches to musical evidence. Ethnomusicologists typically conduct field research and use ethnographic methods to understand and analyze the significance of music as a cultural phenomenon.

Music theory is usually defined as the study of musical structures and elements, or how music is put together. It overlaps with music analysis, acoustics, music psychology, and other empirical approaches to music and sound.

Requirements for further studies in the field

Graduate study in music as a humanities discipline draws on multiple skills. The main requirement is a curiosity about music and its cultures and discourses, and the ability to read and write critically. You do not need to have majored in music, although music literacy and knowledge are required. It also helps to have reading knowledge of at least one foreign language, particularly one relevant to the genre(s), time period(s), and/or geographical area(s) of music that interest you.

Graduate study in musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory usually leads through an M.A. degree (2-3 years at most North American universities) to a Ph.D degree (an additional 4-6 years at most North American universities). The goal is usually an academic position in the discipline of the Ph.D. at a college or university, which involves teaching, research, and publication. However, there are other careers open to Ph.D. holders outside academia, such as music librarianship, applied ethnomusicology, and music administration.

Most (but not all) programs for graduate study in musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory require the following application materials:

  • Undergraduate transcripts 
  • Letters of recommendation from two to three instructors 
  • Two to three samples of your academic writing 
  • A statement of purpose and/or personal statement 
  • GRE (Graduate Record Examination)

If you are considering graduate study in musicology, ethnomusicology, or music theory, here are some things you can do while an undergraduate to get to know your discipline:

  • talk with music department faculty in your area(s) of interest to learn more about their scholarly work and career paths 
  • browse some of the journals and blogs published by the main American societies that represent your discipline(s) — AMS, SEM, and/or SMT (for titles and links, see “Professional Organizations” below) — and seek out other journals and blogs representing smaller societies and sub-disciplines in the United States and abroad 
  • attend a chapter meeting or annual national conference hosted by AMS, SEM, and/or SMT, or a conference hosted by another society or sub-discipline of music scholarship 
  • subscribe to the email listservs hosted by AMS, SEM, and/or SMT, and to other email listservs representing your academic interest(s) 
  • reach out to graduate students, faculty, and Mount Holyoke alums working in areas that interest you, to hear from them about their experiences in graduate school, in the field, on the job market, and in academia

For more information about graduate study in these three disciplines, see the following websites:


Relevant music courses (Mount Holyoke)

  • Music History: Music 128, Music 281, Music 282, Music 283, Music 371 
  • Ethnomusicology: Music 226, Music 228, Music 229, Music 374 
  • Music Theory: Music 231, Music 232, Music 334 

Please look at the current course offerings at the department to ascertain what is available in the current term.

Relevant non-music courses (Mount Holyoke)

Selected courses available in the Five Colleges

See music courses in the Five College Catalog for up-to-date course information.

Sample courses in Musicology and Ethnomusicology:

  • African Popular Music (Amherst) 
  • Master Musicians of Africa (Amherst) 
  • Hip Hop History (Amherst) 
  • History of Opera (Amherst) 
  • Seminar in Popular Music (Amherst) 
  • French Art Song (UMass Amherst) 
  • Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (UMass Amherst) 
  • Popular Music, Gender, and Sexuality from Rock to Rap (Smith) 
  • Popular Music of the Islamic World (Smith)

See also the Five College Certificate in Ethnomusicology.

Sample courses in Music Theory:

  • Jazz Theory and Improvisation (Amherst) 
  • Twentieth-Century Analysis (Amherst) 
  • Post-Tonal Theory (UMass Amherst)

Professional Organizations

American Musicological Society (AMS) 

Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) 

Society for Music Theory (SMT)