Chair of Music jablonsky at optimum.net
Fri Mar 20 07:40:16 PDT 2009


Your inquiry raises an interesting question: Why is composition taught  
separately from theory? An investigation of the major theory textbooks  
reveals that most of them do not discuss the fundamentals of the  
composition process at all. The only writing they encourage is the  
addition of bass lines or inner voices to already composed melodies,  
but there is virtually no discussion of how to write a melody. If you  
look in the index, the word "melody" rarely appears or there is a  
reference to a very brief discussion in the text.

Melody is where the world of composition begins--the creation of a  
musical line that is coherent and has proper musical syntax.
Students in theory classes should be introduced to the process of  
composition by instructing them how to write folk melodies in the  
first semester of their studies. In the second semester they can learn  
how to do soprano-bass counterpoint and compose more complicated  
melodies they can arrange for piano or small instrumental ensembles.  
In the third semester they can learn to write more sophisticated short  
binary or ternary form pieces. After that they are ready to move on to  
a composition class where they can explore a variety of styles and  
structures. This curricular scheme is based on the premise that music  
theory instruction should include composition and analysis, not just  
analysis and filling in Bach chorales or completing perfunctory  
exercises. I believe that everyone of my students is a potential  
composer and should be allowed to explore that possibility as early in  
the theory sequence as possible. With that in mind I included a  
chapter entitled "How to Write a Melody" in my Tonal Facts & Tonal  

I have had great success with this program. By the end of the first  
semester my best students have written four-phrase folk tunes that  
people want to hum. By the end of the second semester they can write  
their own sequence-based tune over chord progressions from American  
Standards (Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, etc.). And, by the end of the  
third semester they can write a binary or ternary piece for solo  
instrument and piano that makes sense from beginning to end and  
employs modulation.

The most important thing any beginning composer has to learn is how to  
hear--how to listen to what makes sense in the work of others and then  
use this skill to assess their own compositions. It is the job of the  
composition (theory) teacher to determine where a student's work goes  
off the track and to offer a set of options for fixing the problem.  
This is not always easy for theory teachers who are not composers. One  
of the big problems today is that many (most?) of our students do not  
have much experience listening to good music from a variety styles and  
genres. If all they know is House, Hip-hop or video game music you  
will have a difficult time getting them to understand Mozart, Richard  
Rogers, or even the Beatles. That is why I get them listening to  
"model" pieces that they can imitate after they get it in their ears.  
Over three semesters they listen to tunes sung by Burl Ives and Pete  
Seeger and end up with Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra.

Finally, what I try to leave with my students is an understanding that  
the most important part of the compositional process is the editing,  
hoping that eventually they will be able to supply their own solutions  
to the problems they find in their pieces and they won't need me.

Prof. Stephen Jablonsky, Ph.D.
Music Department Chair
The City College of New York
160 Convent Avenue S-72
New York NY 10031
(212) 650-7663

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