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Assignments are listed in reverse chronological order

For our recital on May 12th at 4:00 p.m.

These are the things to send to Dr. Nelson by April 28th:

  • Title

  • Your name

  • Performers/instruments

  • If you need your piece to be in a certain order in the program

  • Tech needs

  • Equipment you will be using (stands, mics, big instruments, etc.)

  • Program notes that you want included in the program. This is anything that you need people to know about your piece that cannot be said from a mic in 30 seconds or less.

For March 24th

During the 20th and 21st century, there has been a great deal of experimentation in composition and performance. For a long time now, there has been a prevailing idea or culture in Western art music that the composer is the boss. But some composers in the last 100 years or so started to question that, and wondered what it would be like if the performers were put in charge. Or even more than that, what if everything that happened in performance was subject to the element of chance? These questions led to the development of aleatoric, or chance music. 

Basically, the composer lays out some kind of framework, which could be some melodic fragments, general instructions, or simply some ideas, and then the performers are the drivers of how those elements are executed. Here are some examples:

In John Cage's 4'33'', the audience and the environment actually become the music and the performers. The pianist (usually, although it can be "performed" on any instrument) sits at the piano with a stop watch and waits for four minutes and 33 seconds. The sounds in the room made by people, chairs squeaking, HVAC, and whatever else is the performance. This means every single performance of this piece will be different, because there will never be an exact replication of those sounds ever again.

Another piece by John Cage, Book of Changes gives some notes/chords/clusters for the pianist to play, but how many times and how long to play them are up to the performer. 

One of my favorite pieces for orchestra is Hovanhess's And God Created Great WhalesDifferent sections are given melodic fragments to play at their own tempo, so there's repeated motifs throughout, but you hear them overlapping and tumbling over each other, while a melody plays over top of everything. If you watch the linked video above, you'll notice that often the conductor cues a section and then just stands back while they play their motif during that moment. He's kind of just a traffic cop, telling each section when it's time to go. There's also an electronic element, as whale sounds are played along with the orchestra.

Another piece that I love and have been able to perform a couple of times as a singer is Come, Sweet Death by J.S. Bach, arranged by Rhonda Sandberg. The choir begins together, and then around the 2:15 mark of the linked video, the conductor walks away, and after the choir finishes the last phrase, they then start singing the song again, but starting when each singer chooses and at what tempo they choose. 

There are numerous other examples that you can search for online. Your assignment to be presented after spring break is to write a piece of any genre that includes some element of chance or performer choice. You might try assigning notes to the sides of dice and then rolling the dice to see what the melody will be. You could give melodies or rhythms to different people and let them perform it whenever they choose during the performance time. You could write up a melody, cut it into different pieces, and draw them out of a hat to see how they fit together again. There are so many options! This particular assignment is likely going to be best presented either live in class, or on video so we can see the element of chance. Seeing it worked out is one aspect of the performance that I personally think is rather essential to this genre. 

Assignments will be due in class time. If you have a video, you can send me the link or the .mp4 file to my email. Happy composing! And I hope you have a good spring break. We're in the home stretch!

For March 10th

This week week we'll be exploring unusual time signatures. Your assignment is to write a piece of any genre using either a mixed meter (meter changing often) or an unusual time signature like 5/4, 7/8, 5/8 , etc. 

One danger in writing for mixed or unusual meters is that the strong beats can get lost, and so there's nothing for the audience to hang on to. My suggestion is to put some emphasis into the strong beats so we can eventually feel the pattern and have a bit of predictability. Remember, folks like to have some predictability in what they hear, so if the pattern changes too much, your audience might give up and stop listening. 

Here are some examples of songs in unusual meters:

Fresh and Fearless by Daniel Elder in 10/8

Love is Stronger than Justice by Sting in 7/8 and 4/4

Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky in mixed meter

Take 5 by Dave Brubeck in 5/4

Breathing the Breath by Matt Redman that starts in 4/4 and changes to 7/8 around 2:45

Your assignments are due at class time next week. Happy composing!

And for fun, here's the Rite of Spring cup game.

For February 24th

This week we're starting a two week series on film music.

Unlike the compositions we have worked on thus far, film music is almost always in the background and is intended to set a mood, remind us of a character, or foreshadow something that is coming. It is more emotional in nature, in that it helps influence audiences to know how they should be reacting in any given moment. 

The choice of instruments can be really influential. In class today we discussed how patriotic or heroic songs may use percussion and brass more than they would use strings or guitars. Conversely, strings can be both slow and emotional, and fast and lively. Electronic instruments would feel out of place in a Charlie Chaplin movie or a historic/period piece. 

In the following playlist, there are several examples that we watched in class:

Some things to pay attention to:

1. In Rogue One, we hear snippets of the themes associated with the characters, but they are short and somewhat jumbled as the focus of the action changes quickly from the Rebels to Darth Vader. The addition of the choir adds tension, even though we have no idea what words they are singing. The soft, trembling strings add anticipation, before the dynamics are suddenly brought to forte and the instruments are again strong and forceful. 

2. In the Lion Cage, there is no dialogue, but the music is still supposed to be more in the background while we are paying attention to the action on screen. The tempo and rhythm get faster as the action gets faster, and at moments of highest tension, we hear a dominant chord, while we hear a tonic chord at the moments of highest excitement. 

3. Captain America starts off with solo snare drum, adds in brass, and slowly builds as the action builds, with more instruments added and louder music as the scene progresses. Then, when Steve outsmarts everyone and wins the flag challenge (spoiler alert), the music changes to strings and a different theme. Some of the melody in this part will come back later when Steve is Captain America, so the music also serves as a foreshadowing of the victory that is coming.

4. "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" is also known as the Navy hymn. Apropos for a move about a submarine. The use of a Russian-style choir, brings in thoughts of the "enemy" here early in the movie. It's also interesting the juxtaposition of fast action and dialogue on screen with very slow and sustained choral singing in the background. As the submarine goes underwater, the choir gets louder and comes more to the foreground, for a moment becoming a character in the scene.

5. The music for Home Alone is very much like Looney Tunes cartoons, where we hear small snippets of musical motives, rarely a full melody, and they are only loosely connected. If you were to play it all as a song, it wouldn't make much coherent sense at all. But you hear tension, action, anticipation, and even fear in how the orchestra plays. When Kevin is just about to make his escape and outsmart the thieves, we hear a bit of "Somewhere in My Memory," which is basically Kevin's theme. The relative loudness of the orchestra in parts is helpful in setting the mood, and the rapid changes in the snippets the orchestra plays help to give a sense of urgency and ultimately victory. 

For this week, choose the clip that you will provide music for. There are a lot of silent movies on YouTube, which is the easiest thing to do. There are also clips on YouTube that have had the music removed. I searched for "Movie scenes with music removed" and found several. There are also ways to use software to remove background music, but that's not something I know how to do, so you're on your own for that. 

Aim for about one minute, though you can make a longer clip if you choose. Next week the entire class time will be for you to work on this project, so bring a computer, earbuds, or whatever you need to use the time well. Your completed clip with music will be due on March 3rd at class time. If you get it done and made into either an .mp4 or a YouTube link, I can put them all into a YouTube playlist for us. Since this is a short assignment, we should be able to play everyone's entire clip if we use our time well. Happy composing!

For February 17th

We're finishing up our genre-bending exercise by rewriting your chosen song into your chosen genre. 

We discussed in class on Friday the importance of honoring the genre you chose, and avoiding making caricatures of any genre, especially if you are borrowing from another culture. That means being careful to use the characteristics of your chosen genre well. This can be tricky, but being mindful about how you are using different elements will go a long way. And if you have any questions, reach out to me for some help and clarification. 

Please send your completed assignments to me by class time on Friday. Happy composing!

For February 10th

This week we're exploring genre-bending, which has been around since the Renaissance times. Early Renaissance composers often took popular pub songs and included them in sacred music, many 18th and 19th century hymn tunes were based on popular pub songs, and current songs are often rewritten for various other types of ensembles or events, like pop music rewritten for weddings and such.

Your assignment over the next two weeks is to choose a song that is already written, and rewrite it in another genre. For this week, you'll do some research into the new genre so you know what the essential elements of that style are that should be included in your rewrite. 

For example, if you are taking a hymn tune and rewriting into a New Orleans jazz style, you'll get to know more about New Orleans jazz. Some things you'll want to find out include:

  • common instruments used

  • common tempos used

  • overall texture (sparse, full, busy, etc.)

  • types of harmonies used

You'll present to us the elements of your chosen genre, and play a representative song from that genre. Next week you'll start your rewrite.

Here's a YouTube playlist for inspiration:

No need to send anything to me this week. Happy researching!

For February 3rd

Next week you'll present your jingles/commercials/whatever to the class. Since these should be short, we'll be able to hear from each of you. However, in order to leave enough time for explaining the next assignment (which I think you're going to love), please keep your introductions around a minute. No big stories, just present it as you would in a meeting like an advertising professional. Have a great week!

For January 27th

This week we're looking into advertising and the psychology of music. Advertisers and researchers have spent a lot of time over the years observing our collective behavior and how we are influenced by different types and characteristics of music, and how those influences affect our buying decisions.

As an example, we discussed what we would want to play overhead if we owned a jewelry store. We'd likely want customers to spend a lot of time inside the store making decisions, so we'd probably play slower music to encourage them to slow down. We'd likely want to encourage conversation, so we'd have softer music without lyrics. To evoke a mood of love or nostalgia, we might play music that was somewhat familiar, such as instrumental covers of familiar love songs. We might also consider playing instrumental classical/art music, which can evoke a feeling of wealth or permanence. In contrast, we might not choose to play rock music at a high volume, unless that would appeal to the demographic you are trying to target. 

When thinking about advertising, we want potential customers to come away from seeing or hearing about our product with a clear idea what it is, what it promises to do, and how they will feel when they use it. If customers are confused about any of those points, they either will tune it out, or take longer to make buying decisions until they get more information. Music can help let customers know what they should be paying attention to and feel more confident about their choices. There are very few products that are for every person, and so part of what the advertisers need to do is also weed out who the product is not for. That can be just as important as targeting who it is for. Music that accompanies advertising is chosen incredibly deliberately, and with good science behind it.

Some things to consider when composing music for advertising include:

  • Tempo: do we want people to feel excited or calm?

  • Intervals: upward leaps or upward modulations can make people feel excited or anticipating something, whereas downward leaps and modulations can make people feel more calm and settled

  • Instrumentation: an electric guitar can give a different mood than a cello

  • Tessitura (this is the average pitch of a piece): if a piece hangs out in the higher range, it may make people feel excited or happy, while songs at a lower tessitura may make people calm or even sad


Think about some of the advertising jingles you know. Can you recognize some of the characteristics that are used? How effective are they? 

If you're so inclined, here are some articles that discuss music in advertising, and how the psychology of music plays into it:

Music In Advertising: How is Music Used to Persuade?

Musical Influences in Advertising

The Effects of Music on Emotional Response, Brand Attitude, and Purchase Intent in an Emotional Advertising Condition

How Background Music in Ads Affects Consumers

Guide to Music and Consumer Behavior

For the next two weeks we'll be delving into the world of writing music for advertising. Your first assignment for this week is to come up with the product, service, movie, or whatever that you are going to write for. Some things to consider include:

  • What are the main features that I want customers to know about?

  • How do I want customers to feel about this?

  • Is this brand considered common place, or maybe a little high brow or unique?

  • Is this expensive or cheap?

  • What age are the potential customers I'm trying to reach?

All of these things will help you make decisions about how the music will play into it. Next week, you'll present your product, tell us a bit about it, and then you'll have the rest of class as lab time to work on it. Bring what you need to work, which may include your computer, phone, a notebook, and ear buds. You don't need to send me anything this week. Your complete jingle/commercial will be due on February 3rd. Happy advertising!

For January 20th

Last week we worked with chord progressions and planned how to move to cadence points in our songs. This week we're going to build on that and try modulations.

Modulations are simply changing the key. There are many ways that you can modulate from one key to the next, and you can use any of them. The distance between your two keys is likely going to be dependent on the genre you are writing for. In orchestral/instrumental music, modulations to keys that are further away are easier to navigate. For pop, worship, and choral music, voices have limits, and so modulating to more closely related keys is likely to be easier to navigate. 

Some of the easiest ways to modulate include:

  • going up or down one key (A to Bb major)

  • going up or down one spot on the circle of 5ths (C major to G major, because they have common chords)

  • using a common chord or a common note that is in both keys to change quickly from one key to another (D major to G major using e minor chord: D to e to G, or more easily D to D7 to G)

  • using the parallel major to minor or vice versa (A major to a minor, or a minor to A major)

  • using the relative keys (D major to b minor, because they have the same key signature)

How you get from your original key to the new one is your problem to solve. You can do it suddenly, or you can take us on a bit of a harmonic journey with multiple chords to get us to the new key. It's up to you.

Here are some examples with modulations:

Your assignment this week is to write a piece that includes a modulation of some kind. You can use the piece you wrote for today's class as your starting point, or write an entirely new piece. Aim for about one minute long. Please send them to my email by 1:45 next Friday, January 20th. Happy composing!

For January 13th

Moving ahead, we're going to make a few changes to how we structure the class in order to use our time well and have more time to focus on some things that will help you learn and improve your skills. So for the coming semester, all assignments, unless otherwise noted, will be due by class time on Fridays. In practical terms, that will mean that most of you will need to send them to me via email before class time, but that will give me more time for providing feedback with our large class. Each week, two or three folks will be selected to share their assignments with the class for feedback, rather than everyone sharing. Again, that will save us time. I'm still trying to think through the best way to manage that, but I hope to have it nailed down by next week.

For this week, we're focusing on chord progressions and how we give our listeners moments of tension and release, or places to rest their ears and brains. We like predictability, and when we encounter things that are unpredictable, sometimes our brains will simply tune it out. For composers and musicians, we have developed patterns over the centuries that help us give our listeners a measure of predictability while still allowing for creativity. One of the best ways to do this is to use cadence points and chord progressions.

Simply stated, a cadence is a place of rest or resolution in a piece of music. You can think of it like a comma or a period in a sentence. The most common pattern of cadences are question/answer, in which one cadence poses a kind of musical question (the comma), and the next cadence answers it (the period). Try reading the following sentence out loud:


If you think being a composer is easy, you should try enrolling in the class next year!


If you stopped reading the sentence when you got to the comma, it would feel unfinished. Try it. It needs the second half to be finished and make sense. Chord progressions can be the same way. 


Try singing the first half of the verse of this famous folksong:


My Bonnie lies over the ocean.

My Bonnie lies over the sea.


If you stop there, the song feels unfinished, because the chord/harmonic progression of the last word is on an unstable note. It feels like it needs something more. This is the "question" part of the chord progression, also called a half cadence. It is a moment of rest for our ears and brains, but still we know there needs to be something following to get us to a place of being settled or done. Finishing the song with the "answer" portion makes it feel settled.


My Bonnie lies over the ocean.

So bring back my Bonnie to me. 

The most common question/answer chords are V-I. You will often hear the first cadence chord as a V or V7, and then then second cadence will be I. As an example, here are the chords for the folk song in the key of C major:

      C                F           C

My Bonnie lies over the ocean.

      C                F           G7

My Bonnie lies over the sea.

      C                F            C

My Bonnie lies over the ocean.

     F                     G7            C

So bring back my Bonnie to me.

At the end of the second line, the question cadence ends with the V chord. Unless you want to torture your audience (not recommended), you would not end the song there. The next cadence ends with a very strong V-I resolution that really brings it home for the listeners, called the full cadence. Try listening to the song and hearing the chord progressions at those cadence points. 

While you don't have to manage your compositions with these cadence patterns all the time, most compositions follow this pattern. It is predictable for our listeners, we crave those moments of rest. To chuck out these expected patterns will make it harder for your audience to follow along with your musical ideas. They have become the norm in musical compositions for a reason, so they are good to pay attention to.

Now, all the chords that come before your cadence points are the part where you can let your creativity run amuck, though you should remember that every chord should be intentional, and should be leading to the cadence. This sense of going somewhere will keep your listeners engaged, and when we finally get to the cadence point, it makes sense because you've been leading us there all along. In order to do this well, think about how closely your chords are related to one another. If they are so different that it is jarring, that can be a fun moment in your composition, but if it happens all the time, your audience will lose their aural foothold, and it will be harder for them to follow along. When it becomes hard for listeners to follow along, they'll start to tune you out. 

An easy pattern to experiment with is the circle of fifths. Following along the circle of fifths (or the circle of fourths, either is fine) is called a circle progression, and is a pattern that is easy for us to follow along with. You might try that with your assignment this week. Another way to consider which chords to use is to consider the common notes in each chord. The more common notes, the more closely related those chords are to one another. The few common notes, the further apart they are in relation. Here are some examples:

Try playing the following chord progression in C major: C major, a minor, F major, C major

Each chord has at least two notes that are also in the next chord. It's a smooth progression that makes sense.


Try this chord progression, also in C Major: C major, G major, F major, b diminished, C major

In this progression, the chords have either no or only one note in common with the chord that follows. It's a much more disjunct feeling progression that doesn't make as much sense. 


Again, you don't have to have closely related chords all the time, but especially as budding composers, learning how to think of harmonies in this way first will give you a better ability to branch out later when you choose to. It takes thought, and as I've said many times before, everything you do should be intentional. Now that you've had a semester to kind of throw spaghetti at the wall and experiment, now we'll bring our listeners and their needs into the conversation more fully, so you are intentionally composing things that they will want to listen to again and again. 


Your assignment this week is something we started in class yesterday. You'll write a chord progression of at least eight chords, and then you'll add a melody over those chords. Here are some things to consider:

  • About half way through you want to get to a half cadence point, which will give you momentum to lead us to the full cadence 

  • the song should end with a full cadence, and I recommend either a V-I or a IV-I resolution

  • consider using chords that are more closely related to one another leading up to the cadence points

  • your melody can include all the notes under the sun, but should have enough of the chord notes to make it make sense and not clash with the harmony

  • also consider that your melody should make sense, and huge leaps all over the place is chaotic

Your assignment will be due by next Friday at 1:45 to my email. If you have other questions, please let me know. Happy composing!

For December 2nd

As promised, your last assignment for the fall semester is to compose a holiday song. This is practical songwriting, in that working songwriters/composers often are tasked with writing compositions with a particular theme, audience, and intent in mind. 

Consider which holiday you'd like to write for, do a little research as to the main ideas for that holiday, and keep your audience in mind. You might be writing to evoke a sense of nostalgia, as many Christmas songs to. You might be calling people to action, like planting a tree for Arbor Day. Or perhaps you are writing to educate your listeners as to what the holiday is about. This is not always the kind of thing that you're writing simply for your own enjoyment, though it can be. 

A great question to ask is, "What is the main idea I want the listeners to remember when the song is done?" If you can answer that, then you've got a good start as to what you need to include in the piece. 

Aim for about a minute long, any genre and instrumentation. Please send PDFs and .mp3s to my email by 7:00 p.m. on December 1st. Have a great Thanksgiving!

For November 18th

Music has an inherent psychological aspect to it. There's no way around it. We use music in all kinds of ways to evoke emotion, both for good and for ill. In the Baroque and Classical periods, ideas developed around what types of emotions were evoked by certain keys, a principle known as affekt. Over time, this principle developed to have very specific emotional associations with certain keys, to the point that composers would set their pieces in those keys in order to match the emotions they were attempting to convey. One famous example is "Hallelujah" from Messiah, which is in the key of D major, a key associated with heaven, victory, and triumph. Many other songs in that particular oratorio have key associations based on the idea of affekt. As an example, "Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs" is in F minor, a key that implies funereal lament and depression, and the "Pastoral Symphony" is in the optimistic key of C, 

For this week your assignment is to write a piece, at least 1 minute long in any genre and instrumentation, in a key of your choosing. You should choose the key based on what mood you want to evoke, and which key matches that description. To read the key descriptions, visit this link:

After you write your initial piece, transpose it into another key so you can hear the difference. MuseScore has a way to transpose with a couple of clicks, so you shouldn't have to rewrite the whole thing. Here's some instructions on how to do that:

When you've completed your assignment, send me the PDF of the original piece, and .mp3s of the original piece AND the transposed piece. We'll listen to both versions in class to hear the comparison. This assignment will be due by 7:00 p.m. Thursday, November 17th for class on the 18th.

Heads up! The next assignment is to write a holiday song that will be due our last day of the semester, December 2nd. You can write for any holiday you wish, but you might want to start thinking about it early. We'll talk more about it next week.

You can send me any questions you have to my email address, or via the chat feature here. Have fun and good luck!

For November 11th

We're playing with sound this week!

We are surrounded by all kinds of sounds at almost all times of the day and night. Our brains generally help us to filter what is important and what is not, so we hear all the sounds around us, but we don't listen to everything. Same thing with touch and sight. We take in much more information than we actually pay attention to. 

This week, explore how to make sounds with different things in your home, called "found object music." You might consider the different kinds of timbres that you can make, the loudness of sounds you can make, and the length of sounds you can make. 

Then make a sound or video recording of a piece that you compose using these found object sounds. You can make the instruments you use, like putting beans in a jar, or just make sounds with existing things. Totally up to you. Because of the nature of this assignment, you don't need to send me anything, so we'll all be surprised by your compositions next Friday. 


The point is to be able to expand your view of what music can be by making different sounds and thinking about how those sounds are made, how they contribute to the overall texture of a composition, and the many different ways you could even use instruments beyond the norm to create interesting and creative pieces of music. 

You can send me any questions you have to my email address, or via the chat feature here. Have fun and good luck!

For October 28th

Great job with your compositions last week!

This week you get the chance to expand your knowledge and start the process of learning how to write for an instrument that you don't have experience with yet. The first step is to learn about the instrument you'd like to write for. Some things to learn include:

  • The range of the instrument or voice type

  • A brief history of the instrument

  • Strengths of the instrument, such as the part of the range that it sounds best in or what other instruments it pairs with

  • Weaknesses of the instrument, including which parts of the range are difficult or technical things that are troublesome for the instrument (you might consider asking someone who is familiar with the instrument for their experience)

  • Listening to this instrument or voice type performing different genres of music, like jazz, classical, folk, rock, etc. 

In class next week, be prepared to give a short 2-3 minute synopsis of what you learned, and perhaps play a representative recording of your instrument. The rest of the time, if there is any, you can use to start the process of writing a new piece in any genre for your chosen instrument. This new piece will then be presented on November 4th. Aim to have a work at least one minute long. You can pair your chosen instrument with other instruments or voices, as long as your chosen instrument is the predominant or highlighted voice in the mix. 

Important details for this week:

  • You don't need to send me anything before class this week.

  • If you haven't yet figured out how to export a PDF and/or .mp3 on Musescore, please take a few minutes this week and either ask about how to do that or look it up online. It's not difficult, but it is a requirement for turning in your homework to me, rather than sending me the Musescore files. 

Have a great week!

For October 21st

We talked more today about "Golden Bricks," which are big ideas + musical gesture. 

We sampled a few pieces today, but if you haven't yet, I would encourage you to skip to the previous assignment listed below and read/listen to the examples I posted last week, in addition to the examples posted here.

In Ravel's "Bolero," the Golden Brick is both an instrument (the snare) and the rhythm it is playing on repeat. 

In Kerry Andrew's "All Things Are Quite Silent," the gesture she introduces the "extended sounds" the choir makes to mimic the sea. This is an "aleatoric" element, because the choir can make the sounds at will, and the composer didn't write everything out.

In pop music, the Golden Brick is also called a hook, and it's the ear-wormy element that keeps coming back again and again, the part that you get into your head. In Michael Jackson's "Thriller" from 1981, there are several rhythmic elements that repeat, like the heartbeat bum-bum that you hear in the bass through the dance break, and the main hook is the repeated word "Thriller." 

Your assignment is to continue to work on three musical gestures/Golden Bricks, that you can then use as the basis for a new piece of any genre. 

  • Your Golden Bricks should be simple, so you can expand them as you need to

  • Your new piece should be about a minute and a half long

  • You don't have to use all three of the Golden Bricks you write, but use at least one of them

  • Remember the story you are trying to tell, or what you are teaching your listeners to pay attention to. All the music in between is bringing people to those moments that you want to make an impression on them.

  • Keep it simple! Complexity is usually a lot more difficult to work with.

  • Send your completed works to me by October 20th at 7:00 p.m. Remember to send PDFs and .mp3s, and not the Musescore files. Send them to

Happy composing!

For October 7th

Great job on your melodies this week! And you're giving each other such great feedback that I hate to have to rush us along, but because this class is pretty big, we will have to tighten up the time that we spend on presenting and giving feedback. I'm thinking of solutions, which might mean we only have a few of you present in each class rather than all of you, or maybe only one person give feedback, but in the mean time, what would help the most is keeping our extraneous talking and interjecting to a minimum so we are staying on task. Ideally, we'd have more than an hour each week, but we have to work with the time we have. I appreciate your attention to how you contribute to our class time management. 

This week, we're going to set up for the following two weeks, by exploring creating moments in your compositions. This could also be called a musical gesture, or I called it a "Golden Brick" that you use to build the rest of the piece on. Your assignment is to spend some time thinking about a new piece that you'll be writing to present on October 21st. This piece needs to be about a minute and a half long or so, though longer is fine. Not too much shorter, so you have enough time to develop your ideas. As you are thinking of this piece, think of the story you will want to tell, or the ideas you want to get across. We've been talking a lot about story lately, which can include emotions, or pictures, or plot points that you want the audience to pay attention to. An alternative, though, is maybe you don't want to tell a story exactly, but you have a particular rhythmic figure that you want to explore. There will still likely be some moments of importance and the rest of the piece will be leading to those. You get to decide. But everything is on purpose.

"Golden Brick" = big idea + a musical element 

Notice that I used the word "element" on purpose. It's not a huge thing. It can be very small. Simple and small is often better.

In your piece, in every piece really, we are moving from moment to moment. Not every note is the most important, and so we have to decide what are the most important things, and then we write the rest of the music in such a way that we are leading our listeners to those moments. This takes planning. This week as you are planning, you'll explore the idea of musical gesture and write three things that represent the ideas you are wanting to highlight in your upcoming composition. This could be as small as a chord that has a particular feel to you, a rhythm that expresses some kind of emotion, or a small melody line that illustrates a storyline or character. Again, you get to decide. 

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

The entire Fifth Symphony by Beethoven is built on a four-note rhythmic pattern. Half an hour of music that he uses to explore those four notes, over and over and over. It's his Golden Brick that everything else is built upon. Of course you hear it in the opening measures, that you all have heard a bajillion times: Listen for a couple of minutes and hear how many times you hear that bu-bu-bu-BUM (short-short-short-long) rhythm over and over, and how he changes it ever so slightly so that it's still there, but not a carbon copy every time. Then fast forward to 7:37 and see how in the score he uses the short-short-short-long rhythm in a different way. And again at 9:50. And again at 17:40 or so. Such a small little thing, but he practically beats it to death through the whole symphony. It's really neat. 

In "Lux Arumque" by Eric Whitacre, you'll hear right at the beginning the choir singing "Lux" three times in a row, Latin for "light" and how the choir moves from an open chord to a dissonant cluster chord, kind of shimmering, like light. Then he moves away from that and the parts get a bit more active and less together until they come to the moment of "Angeli" (angels) and then land on an F# major chord together, highlighting the presence of the angels at the manger. Then immediately he brings back the figure of the open chord to the cluster chord on the word "canunt" (singing) and AGAIN on "natum" (born). Mr. Whitacre has described his image of the piece as shimmering gold light around the newborn Child in the manger, and he used those open to cluster chord figures to show that kind of shimmering light in an aural way. 

In the "Shire" theme from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, there are a couple of things to listen for right at the beginning that Howard Shore uses masterfully throughout the hobbit themes. The first is right at the beginning when he quotes the opening measures of the hymn "This is My Father's World" that evokes a sense of green, lush, and safe open fields and forests. He then brings in the French horn and introduces a surprise chord that has a majestic and almost march-like feel to it, hinting to us the bravery of the hobbits that we haven't seen yet. And then the staccato figures that give an image of frivolity and playfulness in the hobbits. These things keep coming back over and over through the entire theme, and even through the whole film score as we learn more and more about the hobbits through the way the music portrays them. 

So again, this week you are aiming to work with three gestures that you can use to build your piece upon. As illustrated above with the three examples I gave you, there is a lot of wide-open interpretation for how you might want to do this. Have fun with it! And remember, it doesn't have to be complicated. Simple figures are often the easiest to work with because they give you more space to expand and play with them. We don't really want to hear how clever you are. We want to be moved. 

Important details:

  • You do not have to send your three gestures to me this week. Just bring them to class.

  • You might want your computers or whatever you use to work on your compositions in class next week, because you may have some time to work on your composition in class (if we manage our time well!)

  • Remember that when you send things to me from MuseScore, please send the .mp3 file and the PDF, and not the MuseScore file itself. The .mscz files are really big and sometimes are harder to open. If you haven't yet figured out how to export those, ask me in class on Friday and I can show you how. It's really easy.

  • Your assignment on October 7th will be a new composition at least a minute and a half long, using at least one of the gestures that you write this week. You don't necessarily have to use all three that you'll work on this week, but start thinking about what your storyline or big idea in your new piece will be.

  • Keep working on building your composition skills through little by little work. Don't wait for inspiration to strike!


Have a great week, and I'll see you on Friday!

For September 15th

We had a good first class yesterday! There's a lot of info in this post, so read carefully. Here are a few things to remember and the details of your first homework assignment:

1. There are several elements to every musical composition. You as the composer get to decide what you want the purposes to be, and the way you do that is to make choices about each of the elements you include. Good work doesn't generally happen by accident, so you will compose things on purpose. 

2. You're going to be bad at this for a while, so don't fret. Being bad is part of the process that you can't really skip over. Sorry about that, but it's true. You'll be better in the long run if you let yourself go through the hard stuff of growing. Fail big, fail often.

3. Creativity is not a whim of nature, or whatever. Creativity truly is a discipline, so make space for it to happen. The quote I gave from Maurice Ravel is something like, "I'll be at my desk from 8-4 everyday. If inspiration wants to strike, she'll know where to find me." Make composition a regular practice, rather than waiting for inspiration. There are things you can do to increase your skills, even if you don't have ideas for your new pieces yet. Past students have told me about 2 hours a week, in half hour chunks or so, were what they needed to do work they were proud of. You might need more or less, but consistency is going to be really important for you.

4. To increase your skills at composing, you can do a few things. One of the best things you can do is to get good at dictating melodies you hear. Start with simple children's songs, and try to write them down or sit with your instrument and figure out how to play them without using a score. The better you can get at accurately writing or playing melodies you hear, the faster you will be able to accurately write down or play the melodies you hear in your head. You can also get scores of other pieces and copy them, which can often give you insight into the inner workings of a piece. And of course, listen listen listen. Listen to a lot of different music, even stuff you don't generally like. You can learn from just about anything. You can also try orchestrating a song into another genre or for other instruments to see what happens when you do that. It's fun!

We listened to Bach Prelude in C, and examined some of the building blocks of this piece. He used the same rhythm through almost the entire piece, the left hand almost always starts on a C that keeps getting struck like a bell tone through the whole piece, and he gets more and more complex in his harmonic language as the piece goes on. He ends it with a very satisfying IV, V, I chord resolution. Try listening again during your composition time this week and listen again for those building blocks and how they add to the piece as a whole. Imagine what the piece would be like if any of those elements were changed. Perhaps even experiment with changing them and seeing what they sound like. 

You'll need to choose your composition software. Whatever you decide to use is a personal choice, and it's totally fine. The only requirement I have is that whatever you use, you must be able to save/export a PDF of your score and an .mp3 of your work to send to me for feedback and to be able to share your work with your colleagues in class. Getting feedback is an essential part of the process! There are several free options available for you.

All assignments will be due on Thursday evenings by 7:00 p.m. sent to my email address, That means sending me your score via PDF and .mp3. Let me know if you need help figuring out how to do this with your chosen software.

A laptop and earbuds for classes are going to be helpful for you, but not required. We will occasionally have lab days when you'll basically have some time during class to work on your music, and having a way to do that without disturbing each other will be very, very helpful for all of us. 

Your first homework assignment is to write at least 8 measures (16 would be better) of a rhythm line. Just rhythm, no melody or harmony. Because musical compositions are a way for you to say something, think about it as an opportunity to tell a story. Good stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. In the beginning, you teach the listeners what to pay attention to. In the middle we often introduce a conflict or a problem, and move toward a climax. The ending resolves the conflict and brings our story to some kind of an end. This is tough to do in 8 measures, but again, think about how each note, each little bit of rhythm, contributes to the story. Each note is on purpose. This means you may spend more time thinking about your rhythm than you do writing it, and that's fine. You may write something and change it. Don't get caught up in perfectionism. Just do it. You'll have time to fix things later, if you need to. 

Rhythm exercises may be a bit hard to put into notation software, so for this assignment you aren't required to send them to me by next Thursday, but you certainly can. It's a great way to practice using your software and sending things to me. Be prepared to perform your rhythm exercise for the class on Friday. Let me know via email if you have any questions. 

Happy composing!

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