Undergraduate 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. 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 the skills that will stay with you and continue to evolve after you leave NEC.

We regard four focus areas as especially important:

  1. Music literacy 
  2. Musicianship
  3. Analysis
  4. Composition 

Description of Music Theory in Practice

Our core curriculum, Music Theory in Practice, comprises two complementary sequences, Music Literacy and Musicianship, and Analysis and Composition, consisting of eight courses, usually taken in the first two years of study.

The Analysis and Composition (AC) curriculum promotes conceptual understanding through active music-making and creative work.  In keeping with this hands-on approach, students demonstrate their musical understanding through multiple “modalities”:  playing, singing, hearing, music-writing, score reading, and analysis.   The first year of the curriculum focuses primarily on tonal harmony and voice leading, with special attention to the way harmony relates to rhythm, texture, and musical form.  The second year covers late 19th and early 20th century. During each semester, students apply their skills and knowledge through creative projects, which explore the relationship between analysis, composition, and performance.

Music Literacy and Musicianship (MLM) is a sequence of four courses that focuses on the acquisition of music literacy and musicianship skills essential to any professional musician. Using “fixed-Do” Solfège as a common language throughout the sequence, students develop mastery in sight-singing tonal, modal and post-tonal melodies; performing rhythmic patterns involving changing subdivisions and meters; conducting regular and irregular meters with tempo and expressive nuances; reading vocal and instrumental lines in any clef and transposition level; and understanding larger textures through “sing-and-play” exercises and arranging.

A typical distribution of these courses can be seen in the table below. However, students can place out of one or more Music Theory in Practice courses based on their performance on the Undergraduate Placement Exams.



















Undergraduate Placement Exams

The Undergraduate Placement Exams are administered during the month of August.

ALL entering students (both new students and transfers) will take the AC exam and the MLM exam.

AC exam

The AC exam consists of the following sections:

  • Ear training 
    The Ear training section of the exam evaluates your ability to hear scales, intervals, chords (triads and seventh chords), and notate a diatonic harmonic progression, including all triads and dominant 7th chord. 
  • Analysis 
    The Written section evaluates your knowledge of Roman numeral analysis, non-chord tones and phrase structure as well as critical thinking skills in music analysis.
  • Part-writing 
    The part-writing exam assesses your music-writing skills and silent hearing. Given Roman numerals, a student writes a harmonic progression in a chorale setting (SATB). 

You will receive the link to the online practice exam via email. 

Students who pass AC I exam will proceed to tests designed for the upper levels of the AC sequence. If a student places out of AC III, the student will meet with a theory faculty member for an interview. 

MLM Placement Exam

The MLM exam evaluates your sight-singing skills. It consists of a one-on-one audition with a faculty member or teaching assistant in which a student will be asked to sight-sing melodies and score excerpts. For Level I, the fluency in reading bass and treble clef is necessary. For the upper levels, fluent reading in alto, tenor and soprano clefs is expected. This exam will help us to determine the ideal placement for you in the MLM program.

Have a wonderful summer, and we look forward to seeing you in the Fall!

The Music Theory Faculty