Generals Anxiety

October 7, 2007 at 2:13 pm 2 comments

My third-year colleagues and I recently went through the Harvard historical musicology General Exams.  For some time, this qualifying exam remained one of the few (if not only) that expected you to cover everything–this year that changed.  We moved to a “topic exam,” not unlike the model followed by many other PhD programs.  Since this was the first year of the new exam format, none of us (speaking from the point of view of the students) really knew how it would all unfold.


Back in April we were asked to submit our eight (8) special topics for faculty approval.  Six of these were along traditional historical divisions (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, 19th century, and 20th/21st century).  The other two included one related to jazz/popular/non-Western music and another drawing on an aspect of theory/methodology/historiography.  We were asked to aim for breadth in distribution of genre, geography, and vocal/instrumental music.  In the end, I selected these topics:


  1. The Written and Oral Transmission of Chant
  2. Ferrara and Mantua in the 16th Century
  3. Purcell’s Theatre Music
  4. Mozart’s String Quartets
  5. 19th Century Piano Music in Paris
  6. Gershwin in the Context of American Musical Theatre
  7. Indigenous Music of the Philippines
  8. Historiography of African-American Music


The actual format of the exam remained pretty much the same as it always has:  Two 8-hour days of written exams (closed book, long and short-format essays); two days of musical analysis (we’re given a piece of music and a recording at 9am and have to turn in an analytical paper by 5pm); and an oral exam (you vs. all the faculty on the generals committee).  This all unfolds during the last three weeks of summer.


They’re over.  I passed.


I have to admit, I actually quite enjoyed the process.  How could I not?  All I had to do this summer was read about and listen to music–something that I ought to enjoy given that it is my chosen profession, right?  The exam itself was a generally pleasant experience despite a few curveball questions during both the writtens and orals.  This is not to say, however, that I (and my fellow test takers) didn’t have a great deal of anxiety leading up to and during the exams themselves.  One way my nervous energy manifested itself was through a series of nightmares, two of which I thought I’d share–just for fun.


Generals Anxiety Dream #1: (mid-summer)

I’ve just been given the first of my written exam questions, sealed in a manila envelope, and I’m trying to find a quiet place to compose my answers.  Since the two-hour time period for each portion of the exam begins as soon as you pickup your question, I’m confused as to why it is up to me to find a room.  I try to remain calm.  I locate a room only to be informed that I can’t use any of the classrooms because they have all been reserved for the day.  (Whoever informs me of this is very polite and apologizes for the inconvenience.)  I’m told to proceed instead to the practice rooms downstairs–all of which now form an odd labyrinth with interconnected passageways.  To get to an available room, I have to walk through a number of occupied rooms.  I encounter a series of friends who want to chat about how generals are going–no time to talk!  Almost half of my allotted exam time is gone once I finally find a vacant room.  It is dimly lit and the piano bench is missing.  To top it all off, I open my envelope to find that, instead of essay questions, this portion of the exam will be multiple choice.  What?!? There is also a pen and a note saying “Ryan, we ran out of #2 pencils.  It is OK to use ink on the enclosed Scantron sheet.”  As I haunch over the wobbly music stand and try to figure out how to explain Leo Treitler’s contributions to our understanding of written and oral transmission in chant by only filling in bubbles, I wake up.


Generals Anxiety Dream #2: (1 week before the writtens)

In reality, each section of the written portion of our exam consists of 2-3 long-answer essay questions (from which we choose one) and a series of short-answer essay terms/questions (from which we choose three).  This was also the case in this particular dream, until I got to topic #6: Gershwin in the Context of American Musical Theatre.  Instead of receiving the standard 8.5×11 envelope containing my questions, I was handed a large piece of poster board with my long-answer options laid out in three vertical columns.  Furthermore, rather than being typed out, these questions were a cut and paste assortment of newspaper clippings (from the 1920s and 1930s).  In more ways than one, it resembled a ransom note.  I had to solve the riddle offered by each column in order to figure out my question.  What was particularly frustrating was that, I had to decipher all three options in order to figure out which I was best equipped to answer.  Halfway through deciphering the second one (I apparently solved the first and found the question unsatisfactory) I woke up.


What do these dreams mean?  I don’t know.  In retrospect I could say that the first was a subconscious reminder that I had to (and could) navigate my way through a seemingly endless maze of material.  And with the second, some sort of reminder that all this information was in my brain somewhere.  I would be curious to have you all offer your own analysis (or perhaps share your own musicology-related nightmares).  More on generals in the coming posts…

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

And What of the Course Trailer? Wikis and Blogs


  • 1. Rebecca  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    You have very vivid dreams, Ryan! Congratulations on the mark of a healthy subconscious. I see the first dream as a reminder that while you can study your heart out for generals, there are aspects that are beyond your control.

    My own generals nightmare? I receive 32 score IDs instead of the usual 12 and have the same amount of time for analysis. Ah, unfortunately, that was NOT a dream. But I survived. 🙂

  • 2. Katherine Lee  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    ryan, you were a wonderful colleague to go through this arduous process with. i honestly couldn’t have done it without your support and friendship. i’d add my generals nightmares here too, but i’ve conveniently repressed them for the time being. 🙂


Amusicology is an online forum for musicologists, academic or otherwise. Although Ryan Raul Banagale and Drew Massey are its founders and chief contributors, we welcome guest submissions. Please let us know if you would like to contribute a guest posting. Comments are always welcome and encouraged!

Please bookmark us or add our RSS feed.

Bookmark and Share

Twitter: Amusicology in 140 Characters or Less!

  • RT @anthonyocampo: Anti-Asian racism isn’t un-American—it’s quintessentially American. You can’t kill millions of Asians across the Pacific… Posted by Ryan 10 months ago
  • For the record, on this first day of distance learning: teaching college is way Way WAY easier than teaching elemen…… Posted by Ryan 1 year ago


%d bloggers like this: