21M.065 | Spring 2014 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Musical Composition


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Forums and Concerts: 6 required events outside regular class times

Course Description

Music making (composing, improvising, performing, listening) is a fundamental vehicle for human expression, taking on myriad forms in different times and places. This course is principally concerned with improving access to musical creativity, with providing and enhancing tools and techniques. The focus of written assignments will be to develop musical ideas and notation methods that effectively transmit them to performers. The computer will be used as a tool to explore these and related issues.


There is no prerequisite for the class. All musical backgrounds are welcomed, including students without prior musical training.

This is not the class for you if you want to learn:

This is the class for you if you want to be creative with sound and performance. We will be experimenting with the fundaments of music making. Our inquiry will examine music from all time periods, as well as all cultures and regions. Nothing is assumed!

Partial Listing of Topics

  • Listening
    • Silence, Sound, Music, and Environment
    • Sound Walk
  • Performing
    • Notation / Rhythm
    • Collective Music Making
    • The Voice
    • Text-Sound
  • Organizing
    • Musique Concrete
    • Analysis / Resynthesis
    • Form

Requirements and Policies

This is a HASS Arts Distribution undergraduate subject. Instead of term papers, you will be writing music to meet the writing requirement. All music that you write will be performed in-class by your fellow students, or will be presented on computer.

In addition to your composition assignments, you will also have frequent reading and listening assignments.

The final project will be a significant composition, to be assigned later in the semester. This composition will be performed during the last few weeks of the semester.

Late assignments will not be accepted. Attendance is mandatory.

You will never need your cellphone during class, unless it is used in a composition as a sound source. Please keep your cellphones stored away. We will eventually be using your laptops for creating music, but not for the first month or so of the semester. Please keep your laptops stored away when we are not using them.

Required Forums & Concerts

You must attend these six events during semester, including four events with MIT artists-in-residence Either/Or. If you are unable to attend any of them due to a scheduling conflict, then we will find substitute events for you to go to. You must let me know by the beginning of the second week of class if you cannot attend any of these events.

2 Forum with Either/Or: the music of Alvin Lucier
2 Concert by Either/Or: the music of Alvin Lucier
5 Forum with Charles Shadle
9 Forum with Either/Or: the music of Keeril Makan
9 Concert by Either/Or: the music of Keeril Makan
13 Forum with Florian Hollerweger


Composition assignments 50
In-class participation 20
Final project 20
One-page responses to listening / reading 10


Session Key

L = Lecture
F = Forum
C = Concert

L1 Introduction: silence, sound, music, and environment Assignment 1 (silent day) out
L2 Soundwalks

Assignment 1 (silent day) due

Assignment 2 (soundwalk) out

L3 Either/Or residency Assignment 2 (soundwalk) due
F1 Forum with Either/Or  
L3 Alvin Lucier  
C1 Either/Or concert: Alvin Lucier  
L4 Notation: Visualizing music
Earle Brown
Assignment 3 (visualizing music) out
L5 Review visualizing music assignment

Assignment 3 (visualizing music) due

Assignment 4 (text-sound composition) out

L6 Western notation  
L7 Choral music
Text-sound performances
Assignment 4 (text-sound composition) due
F2 Forum with Charles Shadle: discussing Western Saddlebag, a newly composed suite of arrangements of traditional cowboy melodies for piano  
L8 Text-sound performances  
L9 Instrument building Assignment 5 (instrumental building proposal) out
L10 Instrument building (cont.)

Assignment 5 (instrumental building proposal) due

Assignment 6 (SPEAR sounds) out; due 1 day later

L11 Instrument building (cont.)  
L12 In class performances with your instruments Assignment 7 (Audacity 1) out
Spring Break week – no classes
L13 Musique Concrète Assignment 7 (Audacity 1) due
L14 Either/Or residency Assignment 8 (tabula rasa) out
F3 Forum with Keeril Makan  
C2 Either/Or concert: music of Keeril Makan  
L15 Tabula rasa assignment

Assignment 8 (tabula rasa) due

Assignment 9 (Audacity 2) out

L16 Listen to and discuss tabula rasa compositions  
L17 Listen to and discuss tabula rasa compositions  
L18 Discuss Audacity 2 compositions; introduce final project Assignment 9 (Audacity 2) due
L19 Listen to and discuss Audacity 2 compositions Assignment 10 (Audacity 2 response) out; due 5 days later
L20 No lecture; individual meetings on project Assignment 11 (final project draft) due
F4 Forum with Florian Hollerweger: “The Revolution is Hear! Sound Art, the Everyday, and Aural Awareness”  
L21 No lecture; individual meetings on project  
L22 Final project presentations  
L23 Final project presentations Assignment 11 (final project) due
C3 Class attends MIT CAST Sound Installations evening event  
L24 Final project presentations  
C4 Either/Or concert  

Course Info

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