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 Introduction to Musical Composition  posted by  boym   on 3/20/2008  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
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Robison, Brian, 21M.065 Introduction to Musical Composition, Fall 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare),  (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

21M.065 Introduction to Musical Composition

Fall 2005

Words like thermovoltaic cell set to a rhythm pattern.

Some examples of using speech patterns to generate additive rhythms and mixed meters, from Assignment 5. (Examples by Prof. Brian Robison.)

Course Highlights

This course features an extensive list of listening assignments and recordings of final composition projects.

Course Description

Through a progressive series of composition projects, this course investigates the sonic organization of musical works and performances, focusing on fundamental questions of unity and variety. Aesthetic issues are considered in the pragmatic context of the instructions that composers provide to achieve a desired musical result, whether these instructions are notated in prose, as graphic images, or in symbolic notation. No formal training is required. Weekly listening, reading, and composition assignments draw on a broad range of musical styles and intellectual traditions, from various cultures and historical periods.

Special Features



Composition Assignments

Each assignment will focus on one (or perhaps a few parameters), but over the course of the semester the consideration of parameters is cumulative. For example, in Unit Two, when we concentrate on rhythm, I'll still grade you on your handling of the parameters studied in Unit One.

Expect to complete one assignment for each class meeting. Each late assignment is penalized one letter grade for each calendar day it is late; no assignment will be accepted more than three days late.


Composition (putting music together) and analysis (taking music apart) are closely related processes; insights gained from the former can be applied to the latter, and vice versa. The point of the assigned listening is not simply to let the music wash over you and decide whether or not you like it, but to listen attentively to how it is put together. If you hear something that you like, you can then formulate a clear sense of how to achieve similar effects in your own music. (Conversely, if you hear something that you hate, you can then formulate a clear sense of what to avoid.) Classroom discussions provide a forum for sharing insights with your peers, and also for demonstrating to me that you're thinking about how music is put together.


Even if you have no intention of performing publicly an improviser, the experience of improvising can significantly enhance your development as a composer. This is partly because it offers you instantaneous feedback: you can try an idea, and immediately hear how well it works. It also provides a way to tap into your (mostly unconscious) musical intuitions, which at this point in your development are probably more sophisticated that your (strictly conscious) musical calculations. (This is arguably true even for composers at later stages of development - i.e., good music represents a problem of nonlinear, organic complexity, rather than a problem of linear simplicity or stochastic, disorganized complexity.)

Each class session will feature at least two bouts of improvisation: one for the entire class, and one for a small group based on a rotating roster. Everyone will be designated as an improvisation leader for three or four class sessions. The leader assumes responsibility for the overall success of each improvisation, nudging the other players when necessary to improve the musical interest.


Much as analysis offers insights on aesthetic issues, experience as a performer will help to sharpen your appreciation of pragmatic concerns: how much information do you need to give the performer? When does specification of detail become confusing and counterproductive? What's the clearest, most legible format for your instructions to the performer?

In classroom performances and in the final concerts, you typically will perform other students' compositions, not your own. Therefore, it's important that you always submit (n + 2) copies of each completed homework assignment (where n is the number of performers): one for you, one for me, and one for each performer.

Journal Entries

Write a paragraph or two about each listening selection, with particular attention to the specified parameter(s). Likewise, write a paragraph or two in reaction to all of the supplementary readings. Be sure to bring two copies of your journal entries: one to submit to me, and one for your own reference during classroom discussion.


There will be five quizzes; each will be in two parts. The first portion will test your recognition of the assigned listening (I'll ask you to name the title, composer, and performer, as applicable). The second portion will test your knowledge of the terms and concepts from the assigned reading. Each quiz will last about 15-20 minutes.

Final Project

You will compose a trio for three performers whom I will choose for you (more or less at random) from the class. The piece should last about three minutes, and your score must take into account the abilities of your assigned performers, especially with regard to using notations that are meaningful to them.

Up to six students may take the option of writing for the entire class as a large (untrained!) chorus, or large (untrained!) percussion ensemble, or either such large group in combination with one or two solo instrumentalists.

Report on the Final Project

In addition to the score of your final project, you'll submit a report in which you describe what you were trying to achieve, how well you feel you achieved it in your score, how well you feel your performers realized your intentions during the concert, and how you might revise your score to get better results next time.


Students use a draft of Professor Robison's forthcoming textbook Putting Music Together, which is not yet available to the public. This book is supplemented by additional readings.


Composition Assignments 20%
Participation in Classroom Discussion 10%
Participation in Classroom Improvisations and Performances 10%
Participation in Final Project Performances 5%
Journal Entries 5%
Five Quizzes 10%
Final Project 15%
Report on Final Project 5%
Final Examination 20%


1 Welcome - Ritual Reading of the Syllabus - Overview  
Unit One: The Big Picture

Everyone will participate in Unit One large-group improvisations as a vocalist, even if you have no training. When you're assigned to participate in a small-group improvisation, you're free to choose your best instrument (where "instrument" includes your voice as an option).
2 What is "Music"? What is a "Score"? How are they Related?

Cook: "Music: An Imaginary Object"
3 Form and Proportion; Large-scale Rhythm and Phrase Rhythm (Special Guest: Jewlia Eisenberg, Composer-performer) Drill 1 (solo piece)
4 Speed, Volume, and Register

Quiz 1
5 Timbre Revision of Drill 1 (trio piece)
6 Texture and Articulation Assignment 1 (duo piece) due
Unit Two: Rhythm

Everyone will participate in Unit Two large-group improvisations as a percussionist, even if you have no training. You are responsible to procure or construct your own instrument no later than Lec #8 class meeting. When you're assigned to participate in a small-group improvisation, you're free to choose your best instrument (where "instrument" includes your voice as an option).
7 Symmetric Meter Assignment 2 (solo piece) due
8 Accent and Syncopation

Quiz 2
9 Polyrhythm and Polymeter Assignment 3 (duo piece) due
10 Asymmetric Meter Assignment 4 (duo piece) due
11 Alternatives to Meter Assignment 5 (trio piece) due
Unit Three: Melody and Harmony

Use your best instrument (or voice) for all improvisations, whether large-group or small-group. Instrumentalists: this means you must bring your instrument to every class meeting.
12 Consonance and Dissonance Assignment 6 (solo piece) due
13 Intervals and Harmony

Quiz 3
14 Melodic Construction and Transformation Assignment 7 (duo piece) due
15 Contrapuntal Relationships Assignment 8 (duo piece) due
16 Drone, Ostinato, Chaconne and Passacaglia Assignment 9 (trio piece) due
17 Contrasting Harmonic Areas

Quiz 4
18 Deadline For Final Projects  
Unit Four: Onward and Beyond

Instrumentalists: bring your instrument only for the rehearsals of the piece(s) in which you'll play it.
19 Sampling, Quotation, Paraphrase, and Allusion

Read-through of Large-ensemble Compositions
Assignment 10 (trio piece) due
20 Polystylism

Rehearsal of Large-ensemble Compositions
Assignment 11 (trio piece) due
21 What (and How) do Sounds Mean? Assignment 12 (trio piece) due
21 Dress Rehearsal of Large-ensemble Compositions

Quiz 5
22-24 Performances Of Final Projects

Post-concert Discussion of Performances
25 Report on Your Final Project  
  Final Examination   Tell A Friend