21M.351 | Fall 2008 | Undergraduate, Graduate

Music Composition


Students work on the five composition projects during the term:

  1. Melodic writing: a work for unaccompanied melodic instrument
  2. Counterpoint: a work for two instruments with equal melodic weight
  3. Melody and accompaniment: a song using twentieth century or contemporary poetry as a text, for soprano and piano
  4. Timbre and rhythm: a work for percussion
  5. Variable texture: a work for string quartet

This page presents examples of some student compositions, followed by a description of the weekly assignments to develop the compositions.

Student Composition Examples

Following are select examples of composition assignments, in score and recorded performance, courtesy of the students and used with permission.

Solo melody The Last Leaf by Benjamin Park (PDF) Anonymous MIT student, flute 
Recorded by Adam Schwartz 
Internet Archive (MP3 ‑ 1.7 MB)
Life of a Butterfly by Joy Perkinson (PDF) Anonymous MIT student, flute 
Recorded by Adam Schwartz 
Internet Archive (MP3 ‑ 2.5 MB)
Counterpoint for two melodic instruments Up to No Good by Benjamin Park (PDF) Claxton Everett, clarinet 
Anonymous MIT student, bassoon 
Recorded by Adam Schwartz 
Internet Archive (MP3 ‑ 2 MB)
Duet for Clarinet and Bassoon by Joy Perkinson (PDF) Claxton Everett, clarinet 
Anonymous MIT student, bassoon 
Recorded by Adam Schwartz 
Internet Archive (MP3 ‑ 2.1 MB)
Solo percussion Drifting by Benjamin Park (PDF) Simone Ovsey, percussion 
Internet Archive (MP3 ‑ 2.9 MB)
Limit One Per Cussion by Joy Perkinson (PDF) Simone Ovsey, percussion 
Internet Archive (MP3 ‑ 3.4 MB)

Weekly Project Assignments

This section describes the week-by-week process of developing compositions during the term.

Due Session #2

Compose an unaccompanied, melodic composition for one of the instruments of the wind quintet: flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. If you are not familiar with the range and character of your instrument study the entries in the orchestration texts of Piston and Adler.

Read Techniques and Materials of Music, chapters 1, 5, and 7 and/or The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis, chapter 30 (Modes, Scales, and Sets).

Due Session #3

Revise and complete your melodic composition and begin work on a short two-part piece for winds. Continue to study Stefan Hakenberg’s Brücke mit Reiter. What contrapuntal devices and textures does he use? How does he create variety from movement to movement? Compare the music with the visual artworks that they illustrate. Stefan Hakenberg will be with us the following week; be prepared to discuss his music with him.

Due Session #4

If you complete the first or revised draft of your two-part composition, begin work on the next project: a song for soprano and piano. Choose a short (8-14 lines) modern poem in English. Begin sketching a piano introduction and/or parts of the vocal line and/or ideas for the accompaniment.

Song Project, Sessions #5-7

Composer and visiting assistant professor James Matheson will take over the composition seminar for three weeks. You can finish up your solo and duo wind pieces with him, but your main focus for these three weeks will be the composition of a song for soprano and piano, using twentieth century or contemporary poetry as text.

The first two sessions will be divided between listening to and discussing excerpts of recorded works during the first half of the class, and workshopping student compositions during the second half. The third and final session is devoted entirely to a masterclass examination of the student compositions.

Preparation for Session #8

Percussionist Simone Ovsey (MIT ‘10) will give a demonstration of percussion instruments and technique in preparation for your next composition project.

Please download and print out scores of Stockhausen’s Zyklus and Kraft’s Divinations. Study the prefaces to these scores carefully. Listen to the recordings while following the scores. You will find that the Stockhausen piece has a special challenge in this regard…

Preparation for Sessions #10-11

In connection with your solo percussion composition, read Techniques and Materials of Music, Chapter 3 (Rhythmic and Metric Devices) and The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis, Chapter 35 (Rhythm and Meter). This will help stimulate ideas and organize your thoughts about the rhythmic organization of your piece.

You should aim to have this complete 2-3 minute composition finished by Ses #11, so that we can proceed to the last project of the semester, a short string quartet. Remember that the instrumentation for your percussion solo should be restricted to vibraphone, 3 tom toms, snare drum, suspended cymbal, and temple blocks. Small modifications of this basic instrumentation can be arranged.

Simone Ovsey has made herself available until the end of this week for consultation; do take advantage of that.

Special Class Event, Session #11

New music pianist Seda Röder will join us for the last hour of class. She will perform Stockhausen Klavierstück IX, Henze La Mano Sinistra, and Lachenmann Ein Kinderspiel. This will give us an opportunity to discuss with a performer what it is like to play such a work, and to catch up with the German new music scene in general.

Preparation for Session #12

Readings of your wind melodies and duos will occupy the first two hours of class (don’t be late!). The last hour we will discuss Stravinsky Three Pieces for String Quartet and Webern Bagatelles. Please print out scores to these pieces, listen to them, and come prepared to discuss them.

Final Project and Last Class Sessions

For your final composition project, compose three miniatures (30-60" each) for string quartet, along the lines of the Webern Bagatelles or the Stravinsky Three Pieces. Be aware of the timbral resources of the instruments as they were expanded in the twentieth century and exploit them if you wish, e.g., col legno, sul ponticello, pizzicato (including the ‘Bartok’ pizz), sordino, harmonics, etc. You will find discussion of these resources in most standard orchestration texts, including Adler and Piston. Even more helpful will be to concentrate your listening (with scores) in the remaining weeks of class on modern string quartets, e.g., Schoenberg String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4, Bartok String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4, Berg, Lyric Suite, Crawford Seeger String Quartet, Carter String Quartet No. 1, etc.

The final score (or draft) of your string quartet is due on MIT’s last day of classes. (If you are unable to finish a complete piece by then, I will be understanding, but you should have a substantial amount of it done.) I will be available to meet with you during the last few days to give you feedback on your ongoing work. You will have an opportunity to polish and revise your work before the music is read by a visiting string quartet during the Spring 2009 term, and I will be available to help you with that as well.

Session #13 is devoted to readings of your percussion pieces with Simone Ovsey.

In Session #14 we will have readings of student songs by soprano Janna Baty.

Orchestral Project and IAP

Those students planning to continue 21M.351 in Spring 2009 should begin work on their orchestral pieces during IAP.

The project is to write a 3-5 minute piece for symphony orchestra, with the following instrumentation: 2222-4331, timpani+2 percussion, strings. That is, 2 each of woodwinds, 4 horns, 3 trumpets and trombones, and one tuba, timpani and 2 percussion, and a full complement of strings: violins 1 and 2, violas, cellos, double basses. The completed score is due to MIT Symphony Orchestra conductor Adam Boyles by March 1, 2009; there will be no flexibility about this deadline.

  1. Listen to as much twentieth century/contemporary orchestral music as you can. Use scores as much as possible.
  2. “Hear with your eyes; see with your ears:” When you read orchestral scores, try to imagine the sound; when you hear orchestral music, try to imagine what it looks like on the page. This applies to orchestral music of any period.
  3. A good exercise for orchestral novices: Make a blank page of an orchestral score. Imagine that you are a conductor. With a baton or pencil or just your hand, ‘cue’ each of the instruments. For example, look at the page, decide to cue the second oboe, look up, imagine where the second oboe is sitting, and cue her. Cue the violas. Cue all the strings, all the horns, etc. The purpose of this exercise is to develop a concrete sense of the relationship between the written score and the physical actuality of the orchestra. It means learning the layout of the orchestra, which you can find in any orchestration text and many Web sites.
  4. Acquire a good orchestration text. I recommend Walter Piston’s Orchestration or Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration. Learn the individual attributes of the instruments to the extent that you can—ranges, timbral qualities, idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses, etc.—and keep the texts handy for reference.
  5. Compose a ‘short score’ initially, 2-4 staves; save the bulk of the orchestration for the second draft.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2008
Learning Resource Types
Projects with Examples