Nancy Yunhwa Rao is a Distinguished Professor of Music at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. She is a music theorist and historian specializing in the analysis of American ultra-modernist musical works, the transpacific history of American music, and contemporary composers of East Asian heritage. Previously, she taught at Oberlin College and has held visiting professorships at the Curtis Institute of Music, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Princeton University, and Bard College. She has also regularly served as an outside reader for dissertation committees at universities including Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and the National University of Singapore.

Rao is a recipient of two Research Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2004, 2021) and a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (2003), as well as fellowships from the Library of Congress and Huntington Library. She was honored with the Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research by the President of Rutgers University (2021) and the Outstanding Alumni Award from National Taiwan Normal University (2018). Rao has held leadership roles in various professional societies, including her election to the Executive Board of the Society for Music Theory in 2018. In 2023 she became editor of the journal American Music.

 As a music theorist Rao has combined gender studies and music analysis. Her 2007 article “Ruth Crawford's Imprint on Contemporary Composition” received the Lowens Article Award from the Society for American Music.

 One of Rao's most impactful contributions to music scholarship is her 2017 book, Chinatown Opera Theater in North America, which explores the iconic theaters and migration networks that integrated Chinese opera into North American cultures. The book received multiple recognitions, including the Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music, the Music in American Culture Award from the American Musicological Society, the Book Award in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the Association for Asian American Studies, and a Citation of Merit from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. It received reviews in nineteen academic journals.

 A Chinese translation of the book was published in 2021 by the highly regarded Guangxi Normal University Press. It was selected as one of sixteen best books in the translation category by leading Chinese publishers in September 2021 and appeared on recommended book lists of scholarly associations such as the American History Association of China and China Association for Anthropology of Arts. Since the book's publication, Rao has been invited to collaborate on various projects and has served as a consultant for museums, documentaries, and performing groups. In 2022, she joined a research team on "Opera as Cultural Heritage" at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Baltic Sea Region Research at the University of Greifswald, Germany.

 Rao's ongoing research addresses music theory and the interdisciplinary fields of musicology, ethnomusicology, ethnic studies, and Asian studies. Most notably, the transpacific perspective presented in her work offers a new framework for understanding American music history, advancing multiple fields of study, and shedding light on the often-unheard voices of Asian American in American music history.