21M.065 | Spring 2014 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Musical Composition

Composition Assignments

In addition to short written reactions for each set of listening and reading assignments, students complete the following composition assignments, culminating in a final project and class concert. Samples of student work are courtesy of the students and used with permission.

1. Silent day

Starting with the end of this class at 12:30 pm, until 12:30 pm on the next day, you should not intentionally initiate any form of music playback. This means, no iPods, no CDs, no iTunes, no TV, no video games, etc. In other words, do not initiate passive music consumption. It is permitted to play an instrument if that is a normal part of your day, or attend a rehearsal or a live concert.

At the end of the 24–hour period please write a two-page description about how has this change affected your life. Some things to think about:

  • Describe the sounds around you.
  • Describe how our sonic landscape is shaped.
  • How do you ordinarily “use” music in your life, and how has removing music affected you?
  • Is it possible to escape music playback in our contemporary environment?

Feel free to address anything else that came up as you did this assignment.

2. Soundwalk

Write a soundwalk. A soundwalk is a set of instructions that tells someone where to go, what to listen for, and possibly what to do.

Example: Location specific

  • Go to x-xxx and listen to the ventilation. Then, go to x-xxx and listen to the acid waste pipe over your head…

Example: Context based

  • Go to one end of MIT’s Infinite Corridor and listen for the sound that is farthest away from where you are standing. Go to that sound and listen for the sound that is farthest away from where you are standing. Repeat until xxx.

Example: Action based

Your soundwalk to should create a 30-minute experience for the person following your instructions. The 30 minutes should include the time it takes to get to the starting point from our classroom, and the time it takes to return to our class after the soundwalk is done.

Please bring a printout to class. We will randomly exchange these and perform the walks.

3. Visualizing music

Choose a favorite piece of music. It could be a song, or really anything that you like, approximately 3–4 minutes in duration. Using Ligeti’s Artikulation as a model, create a visualization of the piece. It can include color, it could be in 3-dimensions, whatever you think best represents the music.

We will look at your visualizations together before listening to the music, to see if we can predict, based upon your graphic representation, what the piece sounds like. It’s possible that you won’t be able to upload this assignment, if you get very creative, so just bring it to class. Also, please share an .mp3 of the piece you chose to visualize.

Visualization (JPEG) by Austin Duffield (License CC BY), of Daft Punk. “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” Parlophone France, 2006.
4. Text-sound composition

Using the Schwitters Ursonate as a model, compose a piece for two voices, 1–2 minutes long. You may use any sounds that the voice can make (phonemes, syllables, words, noises). You can incorporate some sort of graphic notation if necessary.

Make sure that your score is neatly presented, with clear indications of timing, dynamics, synchronization, and performance instructions. Think about affect and the way in which sound can be produced with the voice.

5. Instrument building You’ll work in small groups to design and build your own instrument. Meet with your group, decide what you’d like to build, and submit a proposal describing its aesthetic characteristics and the practical aspects of its construction.  Then build the instrument, and bring it into class for a brief demonstration. Gamma Sonification

6. SPEAR sounds

Create 3 new sounds using SPEAR.

Use these files as starting points: Sounds for SPEAR (ZIP - 6.5MB) (This ZIP file contains: 10 .aiff files.)

7. Audacity piece #1 Create a piece in Audacity, 1 minute or so in length. Use your SPEAR sounds from the previous assignment. You should also create a new batch of sounds in SPEAR based on a different starting sound file. The piece you create should focus on the interplay between the two sets of sounds.  
8. Tabula rasa Create a 2-minute piece using your computer. You can use any software you’d like. You can use any sounds you’d like. It can be in any style you’d like. In other words, you have total freedom in your composition.  
9. Audacity piece #2

Create a piece in Audacity with SPEAR using ritornello form.

Use the 1st movement (Allegro) of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 as a model. You can refer to the free audio and score at IMSLP, or this video: CroBaroque. “J. S. Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D BWV1050 - Croatian Baroque Ensemble.” March 4, 2014. YouTube. Accessed August 22, 2014. www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnjqGhAlFzs

You can use any sound sources that you like. However, the sounds cannot appear unmodified. There should be a main “theme” or “refrain” which is a thicker texture. There should be a contrasting, “solo” texture. You should alternate refrain and solo a total of 7 times (ABAB’AB’‘A), ending with the theme. Restatements of the theme should be shorter than the initial presentation at the beginning of the piece. The last solo section should contrast with the whole piece in a similar way that the harpsichord solo in the Bach breaks the form.

2 minutes or so is long enough.

10. Audacity piece response Write a 2 paragraph response to the piece by one of your classmates which has been assigned to you. One paragraph should be about the form, and one paragraph about the musical materials.  
11. Final project

Read the text of this 1937 lecture by John Cage: “The Future of Music: Credo.”

Write a piece which responds to this article. It is up to you to define what “response” means. It should be 2–3 minutes in length. In addition to the piece, also write a one-page description of how you are responding to the Cage article.

Your piece can be a sound file or a performance. If it’s a performance we will ask students in the class to help out, in exchange for good karma. Think about the possibility of writing a piece that the whole class performs.

We will meet individually in the week to go over your draft of your final project. So in other words, consider May 1 your deadline, and then you will revise your project based upon our meeting.

Final project by Heejo Choi

Final project by Austin Duffield (License CC BY)

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2014
Learning Resource Types
Projects with Examples
Written Assignments
Activity Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights