Music Composition as Music Appreciation

George Todd

I have the enormous good fortune of having two colleagues in my department, Greg Vitercik and Jim Grant, with whom I share a somewhat unconventional and adventurous view of how to introduce music to undergraduates in a Liberal Arts curriculum. We try to teach our beginning students the very first thing before they learn anything about theory, harmony, counterpoint, (the usual first things): what it is to compose music. We teach them to run before they walk. We designed this approach in part out of a negative impulse. We had become frustrated with the standard beginning theory course with its focus on the so-called common practice period and all the implications such a course implies: that the music to be studied is the music of the Masters; that there are right ways to do things, 64rules" or principles to be followed; that there are models "out there," remote, and, I might add, somewhat intimidating, to be emulated; and that these models are in a special musical dialect (tonal) assumed to have an inherent and observable rightness.

For years we taught (and were taught) according to these assumptions. Music is to imitate; composition—the creation of music—is done only after you have become competent in that analysis and imitation. The "common practice" music theory course, in other words, is about the music of others, not about the student's own music, about his or her musical voice. We designed a course which has as its primary focus the music that the students themselves discover in themselves. We wanted to offer a course which we would have liked to take ourselves as undergraduates, a course in which we do interesting and challenging things right from the first day, making active musical decisions and experiencing the consequences and delights of those decisions. Composition was the obvious way. In composing, one does everything from conceiving an idea, to writing it down, orchestrating it, conducting it, rehearsing, and performing it. Composing is doing music.

At first, this seemed a daunting idea. How can students possibly compose if they don't have the tools first, tools such as scales, interval names, understanding of triadic harmony, etc.—all those things which spring from our understanding of music as tonal music? Again, there's a surprisingly simple answer: don't teach tonal music! Avoid even the standard nomenclature of tonality; give the intervals neutral numbers 1-12; design your own chords and scales as part of the compositional process; invent your own strategies for voice leading, harmonic progression, and form. In fact, re-invent music as if tonality had never happened.

When we simply drop the idea of teaching music with a tonal bias, surprising and wonderful things happen. Instead of focusing on such things as scales, intervals, triads, meter and rhythm, we put our attention immediately to the universal concerns of composition: texture, motion, symmetries, imitations, transitions, development, color, rate of disclosure, etc. Instead of voice leading as conventionally understood in the common practice period, we focus on motion in general and on how motions interact. Instead of imitating a style from our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European heritage, we encourage the students to discover their own musical styles. This approach implicitly demotes some of the things held sacred in music pedagogy—pitch, for instance. Pitch, in conventional theory studies, is understandably a primary concern. It's so important, in fact, its "correct" use all but overwhelms other concerns. In our Music I approach, pitch becomes a concern, but its importance is discovered rather than imposed.

I'd like to show you in some detail the progression of assignments in our Music I course. First of all, some factual background. Middlebury has a 4-1-4 calendar year: two twelve week semesters and a one-month Winter term. Music I is offered in the Fall. Enrollment has ranged from 25 to 40 students. The course has one prerequisite: that the student play an instrument (including voice) and can read music on that instrument. It is a beginning course, then, not for the Great Unwashed, but for the Lightly Rinsed. Though Music I is required of music majors, most of the students who take it are not music majors. It meets twice a week for one and a half hours, and there is a required three-hour rehearsal most weeks.

Each assignment is designed to give the student a complete musical experience, from conceiving a musical idea and getting it down on paper to rehearsing, conducting, and playing it for an audience. Assignment One, of course, presents a singular challenge: we ask the students to compose, score, conduct, and perform a piece without any of the skills or experience necessary to compose, score, conduct and perform a piece. The trick is to show them only a few things—only those things they need to know to get started. We restrict the length of the piece (12 bars), its tempo (quarter note = MM60), meter (4/4), size and makeup of ensemble (four percussion instruments), and rhythmic values (shortest, sixteenth note; longest, whole note). We show them how to write notes, how to set up a score, how to compute rhythmic values in 4/4, how to beam, and how to align notes vertically and horizontally. We show them how to conduct in 4 and how to plan a rehearsal. We give them a check list that forces them to examine 21 things in their scores, from correct instrument placement to proper stem lengths, and set them to work.

Within a week, using only these few tools, they finish and perform a piece. The following week, they write a piece in a different meter (9/8) with more rhythmic values, different beaming problems, another set of percussion instruments and they are introduced to expressive and articulative markings. This is how the assignments proceed throughout the course. Each composition gives the composer a few more tools to add to those acquired in earlier assignments. The materials are presented vertically, as it were, instead of horizontally. That is, they don't start by learning everything about rhythmic values, or everything about conducting, or about all the instruments in an orchestra, etc. They are given only what they need to know to get the assignment done. The second assignment focuses on types of motion. Let me read it to you. It is in two parts.


Your second composition will be modeled on Stravinsky's Orchestral Etude #1, written in 1922. The piece is on your cassette. Before you start composing your own piece, you will want to have a good idea of how Stravinsky's piece works. What musical forces are utilized? What sorts of musical devices does he use? How do the instruments interact with each other? What kinds of musical motion are there? Do all the instruments move in the same way? Does the music move over a broad or narrow range of pitches? How is repetition used, if at all? How does he treat his material metrically and rhythmically? What is the piece's form? At this point you don't have a large vocabulary to deal with these questions. No matter! Do the best you can.

Part I. In a one-page essay, describe everything you hear, using the following analogy: think of the music as dance. The questions above, then, would read:
• How many dancers are there?
• What kinds of gestures do they make? (vertical? horizontal? smooth? jerky? etc.)
• Do they cross into one another's space? How?
• Do they ever touch?
• Where do they stand relative to one another? (far apart? close together? behind each other? lined up horizontally? etc.)
• Do they all move the same way and at the same rate?
• Do they move a lot or very little?
• Do they repeat gestures? How?

Before reading you Part II, let me describe for you this piece. Note how the dance analogy works: there are four dancers; one is standing still, another is moving fairly consistently in a gesture that has three parts, another sporadically with a four-part gesture, and the topmost dancer, using only five notes, plays from beginning to end. There are many other observations to make, of course, and after multiple listenings, the students come up with them.

Part II. Pretend the young Stravinsky were in Music 1. Write the composition assignment for him that would result in this piece. What, in particular, will you tell him about how the sounds move in and what their relationships to each other are? Write your own piece following these instructions.

As in the first pieces, this composition is written for and performed by the students in the class. You may well imagine that this is a somewhat miscellaneous group, lopsided toward pianos and electric guitars. At first this concerned us—but it proves to be no problem. It just means that quartets, quintets, etc., tend to have a piano and a guitar in them.

Assignment Three focuses on pitch collections. After writing out some scales based on intervallic formulas of our own devising and composing phrases using those scales, we ask the students to compose a six-note scale of their own using the intervals 1, 2, and 3. (We use only numbers to describe intervals in Music 1: such terms as "major second" and "minor third" have tonal implications which we avoid.) They then work their scales, transposing them and writing them out in modal forms—i.e., beginning the scale on the second note, the third note, etc. After these calisthenics, the composition assignment is given. It reads:


Compose a piece in ABA form for a duet consisting of your own instrument and another instrument that will be assigned. The pitch material for the A section should be taken from either a whole-tone scale or a pentatonic scale; the pitch material for the B section should be taken from a six-note scale of your own devising. In the second A section, switch instruments, tailoring each line to the new instrument's range, performance characteristics, and sonic character.

In this assignment, as in all of them, there is a benign conspiracy to assault the student's prejudices about what music is. Even though they may not know what the tonal system is, they tend to believe that the only legitimate musical dialect is the one that speaks in major and minor scales. Forcing them to work with pitch collections that are alien to them is a way to getting them to think otherwise. At the beginning—even in this assignment—there is considerable resistance. By the end of the course, they are entirely accepting of using materials that wouldn't have otherwise occurred to them.

Assignment Four has several parts and culminates in a "free" piece to be played in a concert. It focuses on serial/motivic transformations and how these can generate music. At the beginning the student is told:


Compose a motive using four pitches. You may repeat one note to have a total of five "events." Do not use articulation, expressive or dynamic markings. Think only in terms of pitches, rhythm, and contour. Write a pitch or matrix chart showing your motive at all transformations in Prime, Retrograde, Inversion, and Retrograde Inversion. (We show them how to do this.) Augment your motive. Diminish it, fragment it, break it up with rests, contract and expand its shape.

Using any of the material you have generated above, chain them together, add time signatures, change clefs, add articulations, dynamic markings—whatever you need—to express the following sentences and ideas:

• "I hope that falling tree doesn't hit him ... HEY, LOOK OUT! Oh dear ... too late."
• Some popcorn popping.
• "This is what I believe and I am always right!! Well, um .... maybe I'm not right this time.... Sorry."
• The flight of a frisbee on a windy day.
• A goofy clown telling a stupid joke.
• "I'm so tired. I'm about to fall asleep. zzzzzzzzzzz"

We place considerable emphasis in Music I on the narrative quality that music can have. By giving the students these dramatic images or stances, it makes articulations and expressive markings and dynamics come alive. It's been our experience that students are otherwise reticent about using these tools. Forte marks, crescendoes, ritards, etc., are really quite abstract notions if you are inexperienced in music. Falling trees, popcorn, and goofy clowns make them concrete.

These exercises are followed with the final assignment which is to compose an original work using motivic manipulations. The students are free to choose their ensemble. Since this is the first piece that they will compose in which they are free to determine form and how the music will unfold—answering the eternal compositional question "what comes next?"—we give them a strategy for generating material and giving it an architecture. Here is how the assignment reads:


Invent and write up a short film scene—a scene in which something transpires in a way which you could narrate.

Using motivic manipulations like those you have written at the beginning of this assignment, write out a rough skeleton score that would support this film scene with music. As you compose, ask yourself these questions:
• What kinds of motivic manipulations seem most appropriate to the dramatic actions. How can they be chained together?
• How many instruments should play here? Whole ensemble?—A solo? (In Music I we put a great deal of emphasis on rhythm-of participation and its effect on texture.)
• How do the parts move? Fast? Slow? For how long? In parallel, oblique, or contrary motion?
• Where should the music slow down, rest, come to a full halt?
• Are there sections? Is anything repeated?
• How could dynamics help the narration?
• How could tempo and tempo changes help the narration?

Add prose to your sketch: "Needs a transition here ... .. Play unisons here", "This needs to be longer"...etc. A Suggestion: Don't let yourself be tyrannized by your storyline. If the music seems to be going off on its own direction, follow it. Change the storyline. When your piece is finished, we should be able to throw out the screenplay and listen to the music entirely on its own merits.

I want to play one of the final concert pieces for you. Keep in mind, please, that the composer of this piece is a non-music major who, three months before this piece, had never put a note on a piece of paper, who plays just a little guitar. Also that the ensemble playing is made up of other students just like him. A masterpiece it isn't; an absolutely individual utterance, it is. [Plays cassette of student's work]

What do the students get out of Music I? In practical terms, a surprising amount. They know how to write a score properly. They have firsthand experience and knowledge of at least eight instruments. They have put these instruments in juxtapositions and learned things about masking, doublings, and timbre. They have an understanding of meter and rhythm. They can put expression and passion into their music. They can conduct simple music for ensembles. They can manipulate pitches and motives. They understand through experience what texture is. But most importantly: They get involved! And this can be documented. Last year all but one of the students in Music I went on to Music II. But that's another presentation. A postscript: Music I and Music II are prerequisites for our course in Tonal Music which we teach as an advanced course. We cover in two terms the tonal materials we used to cover in four terms. And the students take the course knowing that tonality is simply another (and very wonderful!) way to compose music.