21M.361 | Spring 2008 | Undergraduate

Composing with Computers I (Electronic Music Composition)


This page includes a course calendar.

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Labs: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session

What The Class Is, and What It Isn’t

This class is all about sound, and what we can do with it. The sources are recorded from our surroundings, sampled, and electronically generated (both analog and digital). Assignments include composing with these sounds, feedback, noise, etc., using DSP, convolution, algorithms, simple mixing, etc. The emphasis of the class is not on technology, math, or acoustics, though these are examined in varying depth. Rather, the focus is on sonic and compositional aspects. There are weekly composition and listening assignments, the material and forms for the latter being drawn from sound art, experimental electronica, both conventional and not-so-conventional classical electronic works, popular music, and previous students’ compositions. This is not an intensely classical class, nor is it about making beats, production, and studio recording. You will, however, learn some of the skills that will be useful for doing those things. A detailed syllabus, including all composition and listening assignments, and what should be achieved each week, will be given at the beginning of each module.

The following contains some general rules and procedures that must be followed, so please read this syllabus carefully, and refer back to it from time to time. Experience tells me that I will periodically be asked about class requirements, etc. Please first look back at this document. Especially note the section on grades. Also please note that everything is posted on the class Web site, including this.

Class Structure

There are five modules. Each module consists of weekly composition assignments, new studio techniques, and for some of you, new types of listening to music and new ways of thinking about it. The assignments work progressively toward a final project for each module. At the beginning of each module, a syllabus will be handed out. We will present a cross-section of our work at a final concert, open to the public (which usually means one or two friends, plus the class, maybe a parent). I always (try to) make piece especially for the concert, using the constraints I set for you. There is no official final project, and there is no exam. The first class is simply for introductions, a performance of a non-instrumental reading of John Cage’s 4'33", either on the geometric sculpture in Killian Court, or on the benches beside the Green Building (or under the Green Building if it is raining), and a survey of the music we will be encountering this semester, including student compositions. You’ll know then whether or not this class is for you…

The Five Modules

1 Musique concrète, form and content (3 weeks). Studio basics, recording, musique concrète, representation, basics of Pro Tools software, detailed structure. (PDF)
2 Feedback and continuity (2 weeks). Studio feedback, Pro Tools bussing, hardware and software delays, hardware filtering, software reverb, continuous/improvised structure. (PDF)
3 Noise and layers (3 weeks). Convolution, Peak software, making noise, dense layering, software filters, noise reduction, other Pro Tools plug-ins, sculpting sound, beautiful sounds. (PDF)
4 Synthesis, algorithm, interaction (Max/MSP) (4 weeks). Introduction to Max/MSP software—a graphic programming environment—algorithmic composing, sound synthesis, interfaces for (performance) interaction. (PDF)
5 Sampling, remixing, polishing (1 week). Borrowing sounds from other sources (either a single source, a large number of sources, or one’s own compositions), using single sounds to make new music, or polishing a previous composition. (PDF)


On the day of our final lab we will each play one of our pieces from the semester, which may or may not be interactive, and perhaps do a performance of an Imaginary Landscape by John Cage.

Class: Composition Assignments and Composition Critiques

This will be in seminar/critique format, mainly consisting of listening and reacting to the previous week’s composition assignments and listening. Contribution to class discussion, and occasionally writing responses to student work, is required. Attendance is mandatory. Each semester we will have a guest artist, or explore composition via non-musical means.

The composition assignments—some of which are studies or recordings, others real compositions—will generally be short, and carefully specified. Having said that, there’s a lot of leeway in what you can do. The assignments are specified in the syllabus for each module, and the instructions should be followed exactly. Assignments are expected to be submitted on time. They are due before class, and must be in the appropriate folder on the studio computer, appropriately named.

When final modular compositions have been submitted—there are five of these—instead of there being a full listening journal, a composition critique is required with an extremely abbreviated listening journal both due at lab. This means that when each piece is played, everyone must take notes. We will have the usual verbal discussion, but over the next two days, a slightly more organized version of the critique must be completed and submitted to the appropriate class Web site assignment dropbox before the next lab. I do not accept paper or emailed versions. I will then condense and collate feedback, and hand it back to each of you for your edification (at least, I hope it will be edifying). Comments will be treated anonymously, so please feel free to write anything constructive. I will slip in remarks that I choose not to make during class.

Lab Sessions

Lab times will be allocated on the first day of class. In lab we cover technical aspects, bring up problems, and discuss compositional technique at the computer. With a couple of exceptions, lab notes will be given out and put on the class Web site. Attendance is mandatory for the first lab of Modules 1-4. And definitely be punctual. I used to wait for all students before starting the lesson, but now I start exactly at five minutes past the hour. And all labs used to be mandatory, but now it’s really up to you to show diligence or superb prior knowledge, wisdom, and technique. (Don’t confuse this with class, which is absolutely mandatory.)

Listening Journals

There will be around an hour of compulsory listening each week, listed in each modular syllabus. All works will be available on the class Web site. Five pieces will be listed as compulsory. Of those, you must write a half page each on three of them of your own choosing. Focus on showing me that you actually listened to the pieces, that you gained some insight (technical, aesthetic, personal), and that you can describe these insights. For the remaining two pieces, you must write a couple of lines just to show me that you listened to them. Please interpret “half page” in a reasonable manner. Most weeks I will also provide listening guides of varying depth and quality, including both information and issues to be addressed. Your listening assignments must be completed and submitted to the appropriate class Web site assignment dropbox before the next lab. I do not accept paper or emailed versions. I will then condense and collate feedback, and hand it back to each of you for your edification (at least, again, I hope it will be edifying). You should try to listen to the pieces by the time we have class, even though the write-up is due by the following lab; this way we can discuss the pieces in class. Dates are specified on each modular syllabus, though the pattern is obvious. A few recommended extra pieces will be listed. You don’t need to listen to these, but they are there if you are interested and have time. Perhaps some time in the future. Works from past students are also posted, to offer ideas or hints at what might be expected of you, for each week’s assignment.

An exception to this is for the weeks you have to give a composition critique—these will be made clear in each modular syllabus, by the word abbreviated. There will still be listening, to be discussed in class, and instead of a full journal, just a line on each of the five pieces is required.

Don’t think of this as a burden; it should be fun, or at least interesting. If you like, do this while working on p-sets, or whatever. There is no use taking the class if you don’t want to open up your ears. It is unlikely that every piece will be to your immediate liking, but try to be as positive and open-minded as possible. Do not “grade” the pieces or the composers.

Studio Access, etc.

The studio is available 24/7, and you will have 4 hours allotted to you on a regular basis; this should be enough for your composition assignments. Your hours will be chosen/allocated in the first lab. Students living off-campus, especially females (for safety reasons), have priority in choosing times. Your hours can be divided in any way, though past experience tells me that one or two blocks of time will serve you better than four one-hour sessions. There are studio rules to be followed—we will cover these in the first lab. Some assignments can be completed on your own equipment, in which case you will need a way of transferring large files from your computer to the studio, always as aifs, never mp3s or wavs or anything else. A flash drive, something like an iPod®, or CDs might be useful; but i find proficiency with scp or sftp or other networking tools/commands are way more helpful. It’s up to you to learn how to navigate the MIT network, especially when a Mac is at the receiving end.

Studio Rules (PDF)


There will be none! (That is, aside from my listening notes, and my weekly feedback.)


I hate grades, but here goes:

Participation 55%
Assignments (composition, listening, critique) 45%

Assignments are weighted equally. Participation has already been described, and will be reiterated below.

I will only tell you your grades for each component if you ask; I’ll let you know if you are slipping or if you are obviously not spending enough time on your assignments. You will notice that participation is worth the most. And throughout the semester you’ll notice I’m pretty easy-going about a number of things. Among these things are most definitely not: punctuality, attendance, getting assignments in on time, and treating this class merely as your HASS requirement. To each of those points:

  1. Show up on time. In the past I didn’t start until everyone was present who had not forewarned me of his or her absence, but now I start on time for class and lab. Being late is also inconsiderate.
  2. Be sloppy with your other classes if you like. But I’d like you to show up to every class and every mandatory lab. Otherwise it is more work for me. Or you’ll fall behind, and I don’t want that, even if you don’t care.
  3. This is a participation-heavy class, and that means sharing your work. You have to do your work on time for that to happen.
  4. The HASS thing. I have tried to make this class as enjoyable as possible, and as much a reprieve from the hell of MIT p-sets as possible, without it being an easy A. It is a serious composition class. Treat it that way.

Acceptable reasons for skipping class or lab, or being late with an assignment: field trip, job or internship interview, conference, illness (please don’t come to class if you could pass something on to someone else), mental health, death of someone close, religious reasons, sporting events in which you are participating. I accept all acceptable reasons equally. Please let me know in advance if possible (and please ask, don’t tell. Just for the sake of being polite). Unacceptable reasons for the above: being tired, having pulled an all-nighter, need to study for an exam, hangover, need to complete an assignment for another class, concurrently being enrolled in another class, bad weather. You get the idea. Asking for extra help—and I’m generous with responding—doesn’t ruin your grade. But doing extra work doesn’t improve your grade. In fact, you are strongly encouraged to seek extra help when you need it, but save particularly advanced questions for 21M.540. If you miss class or lab for a legitimate reason, I will gladly help you catch up. If you miss for no good reason, you are out of luck.

In summary: Attendance of all classes and some labs is mandatory. Assignments, listening journals, and critiques must be submitted on time or your grade will hurt. Tardiness in any way constitutes a breach of the attendance and deadline rules.

And, here’s the most important part: You can “mess up” once (be remarkably late, absent, fall behind, all without reasonable excuse—and I’m reasonable about what reasonable means). More than once, I’ll be tempted to give you a potentially disappointing grade.


1 0 None None First class: listening survey (PDF)
Module 1: musique concrète, form and content
2 1.1 Basic studio technique Recording sounds, basic studio technique Listen to assignment 1.1, discuss listening 1.1
3 1.2 Pro Tools editing Technical composition, abstracting scores Listen to assignment 1.2, discuss listening 1.2
4 1.3 More Pro Tools editing Real composition based on score

Look at score from assignment 1.2; listen to assignment 1.3, discuss listening 1.3

Assign critique, due at lab 2.1

Module 2: feedback and continuity
5 2.1 Speaker-mic feedback; outboard processing such as filters, delay, EQ, Aural Exciter Feedback improvisation Listen to assignment 2.1, discuss listening 2.1
6 2.2

Pro Tools busses, internal feedback loops, delay and reverb inserts; Pro Tools tricks

Feedback composition and continuity

Listen to assignment 2.2; discuss listening 2.2.

Assign critique, due at lab 3.1

Module 3: noise and layers
7 3.1 Introduction to Peak Collecting specific types of sounds Listen to Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room”; listen to examples of assignment 3.1 and discuss listening 3.1; go through examples of my own work related to assignment 3.2.
8 3.2 Recording using Peak; Peak plug-ins; SuperFreq-10; SoundSoap; other noise reduction techniques Layers, scenes, nice sounds, dense and linear noise

Listen to assignment 3.2; drawing with pastels for “inspiration” for the next assignment while we discuss listening 3.2.

Listen to Maryanne Amacher’s “Head Rhythm 1” (from Sound Characters) loud, and watch South Park.

9 3.3 Other Pro Tools inserts; automating inserts; dynamics; Peak to Pro Tools and vice versa

Noise or drone composition

Special assignment: before lab 4.1, download Max/MSP and begin to learn it.

Listen to assignment 3.3.

Assign critique, due at lab 4.1.

Module 4: synthesis, algorithm, interaction (Max/MSP)
10 4.1 Basic Max/MSP Basic Max/MSP Listen to and look at assignment 4.1, discuss listening 4.1
11 4.2 More Max/MSP; review assignment 4.1 More basic Max/MSP Listen to and look at assignment 4.2, discuss listening 4.2, prepare for listening 4.3 which will be your own choices.
12 4.3 Go over current Max/MSP work Write proposals for final Max project and assignment 5.1 Review Max final project proposals, both written statements and initial work
13 4.4 More Max/MSP, with emphasis on finishing final Max projects Complete final Max project Review assignment 4.4 and listening 4.4
Module 5: sampling, remixing, polishing
14 5.1 Listening to module 5 pieces, explain assignment 5.1

You choose!

Special assignment: prepare for concert

Listen to assignment 5.1, discuss requirements for concert
15   Concert    

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Activity Assignments with Examples