21M.351 | Fall 2008 | Undergraduate, Graduate

Music Composition


Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


The methods and musical language that you use to compose music for this class will explore the resources of twentieth-century “post tonality.” Within that general requirement—which we shall see through analysis, score reading and listening is extremely broad!—you are free to compose in any style and use any technique that you like.


21M.304 or permission of the instructor.

Course Format

This seminar-style course meets once per week. It is offered every term, and can be repeated multiple times for credit. The relatively highly structured syllabus exemplified here is particularly suited to students who are new to post-tonal compositional techniques.

Composition Projects

  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. Timber and rhythm: a work for percussion
  5. Variable texture: a work for string quartet


We will refer to chapters that deal with twentieth-century compositional technique in two books:

Benjamin, Thomas, Michael Horvit, and Robert Nelson. Techniques and Materials of Music. 7th ed. New York, NY: Schirmer, 2007. ISBN: 9780495189770.

  • Chapter 30, “Modes, Scales and Sets.”
  • Chapter 33, “Ordered Segments and Serialism.”
  • Chapter 35, “New Ways to Organize Rhythm, Meter, and Duration.”

Clendinning, Jane Piper, and Elizabeth West Marvin. The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2004. ISBN: 9780393976526.

  • Part IV, “Twentieth Century Materials.” pp. 181-221.

You may own one of these texts from your previous music studies at MIT. The relevant chapters will also be provided in class; if you are new to post-tonal compositional technique you will find these chapters particularly helpful.


We shall explore twentieth century and contemporary works in class, using scores and recordings. In addition, I ask that you immerse yourself in the music of our time on your own. As with language acquisition, immersion is a key to understanding and competence. Outside listening should include both recordings (with scores) and live concerts, with a weekly journal assignment as described in the listening section.

Summary Calendar

SES # Topics
1 Introduction
2 Solo melodic composition for wind instrument: flute, oboe, clarient, horn or bassoon

Complete melodic composition

Begin two-part composition for winds


Complete draft of two-part composition

Begin song for soprano and piano

5 Song project with Prof. James Matheson
6 Song project (cont.)
7 Song project (cont.)
8 Composition for solo percussion
9 Composition for solo percussion (cont.)
10 Composition for solo percussion (cont.)
11 Composition for string quartet
12 Composition for string quartet (cont.)
13 Readings of percussion pieces
14 Readings of songs
During Spring 2009 term Readings of string quartets

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2008
Learning Resource Types
Projects with Examples