The Ph.D. program in composition stresses training in the craft of composition, contemporary repertory, and theory and analysis. Instruction in composition, in the form of private lessons and seminars, comprises much of the curriculum. Students are assigned to particular instructors for composition lessons on a rotating basis to assure all students exposure to a variety of approaches and access to composition teachers of their choice.  

A portfolio of original compositions is one of the central requirements of the Master's degree while a major composition serves as the dissertation at the doctoral level. In addition, Ph.D. candidates in composition must submit an article-length essay on an analytical, historical, or theoretical subject. 

A significant amount of contemporary music is performed under the auspices of the Department of Music. The concert series Wail of the Voice includes a varied repertory of music by composers both within and outside the department. The Penn Sound Collective (formerly Penn Composer's Guild), dedicated to the performance of works by student composers, draws its musicians primarily from the Curtis Institute of Music and from the ranks of professional players in Philadelphia. All degree candidates in composition are assured of the public performance of at least one work in each academic year. Orchestral works by student composers are often given readings by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute. Students are encouraged to participate in the preparation of these performances.

Guest composers regularly offer colloquia at the Music Department. Recent speakers have included Daniel Asia, Robert Beaser, Daniel Coleman, Daniel Godfrey, Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, Yinam Leef, Jonathan, Leshnhoff, Robert Maggio, Eric Moe, Thea Musgrave, Shulamit Ran, Christopher Rouse, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Chou Wen-Chung, and Richard Wernick.