Reply To: How Are You Teaching Composition?

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In my music theory classes, because I have the luxury of a four-semester sequence, I fold in creative projects during each of the major units of my curriculum. In the first-year unit on pulse/meter/rhythm, students create short works (using GarageBand) that demonstrate the difference between non-syncopated and syncopated rhythm. In the unit on the hierarchy of scale degrees in tonal music and the metaphor of musical forces (based on Steven Larson’s excellent work), they create film scores (again in GB) for a 1:00–2:00 video clip from which we’ve stripped the original sound. We find scenes that feature lots of dramatic motion, and the musical forces in their music (gravity, inertia, and magnetism) must mirror what’s seen on screen. During the unit on the circle of fifths and keys, they do a creative project based on the 18th-century conception of closely and distantly related keys. Students compose a short segment (in Finale), then transpose it to a closely related and a distantly related key (easily done, but it demonstrates understanding), *then* they must compose transitions that make the motions smooth. They quickly discover how much harder it is to move farther away, and we discover compositional strategies such as fragmentation, sequencing, chromatic saturation, etc., to destabilize the first key so that the distant one can be more effectively approached.

In the second-year course (AP), we spend much of the fall doing exercises in all five species of counterpoint, then in the spring students harmonize soprano lines and realize figured bass lines in four parts. They also rework an eight-measure, two-phrase unit so that in each instance it ends with a different cadence (PAC, IAC, DC). We explore how melodic motion in the soprano-bass framework, rhythmic relationship to the meter, and harmony all work together to contribute to the relative effect of each type of cadence.

In our Composing with Digital Tools course, students create “word music” (à la Toch’s “Geographical Fugue”) based on recordings of eight words that the class has chosen as favorites. They learn about recording with good S/N, DAW editing techniques, and musical texture and density in the process. A later project brings together skills in panning, mixing, filtering and changing pitch to create short works using just a front-desk bell tone. Finally, after learning about echo, reverb, and the localization of sound, they do a final 2:00–3:00 musique concrète project using provided recorded segments of found sounds and musical examples that we’ve listened to during the semester.

I’ve just learned this week that a new, full-year advanced course has been approved by my administration, so I’ll be developing that one! I’m thinking about MIDI orchestration projects, film scoring (connecting with our digital art teacher), podcasts/audio-learning projects (our principal is very interested in online learning), and, for my many budding hip-hop artists, developing higher production value in their projects. Some of this will happen in GarageBand, but I may also use Finale and Logic Express. Any ideas for me?