Mark Hijleh Mark.Hijleh at houghton.edu
Fri Mar 20 12:16:27 PDT 2009

On Stephen's point about integrating composition with theory, I say "hear, hear!" Actually, rhythmic motivic/development technique ought to come first, followed by adding linear pitch (i.e., melody). I'll also add that doing such work in a wide variety of stylistic traditions (gleaned or derived from different cultures) is, I think, essential in the 21st century.

If, David, you are asking about the training of composition majors specifically, I actually start the same way as described above, giving them compositional etude-type projects that force them to focus on only one or two elements (rhythm, linear pitch, vertical pitch, timbre, texture, etc.) at one time and to make music out of those. I picked those ideas up from Ellis Kohs' old book "Musical Composition" (now re-issued by Scarecrow Press), but then extended them a bit.

Several folks have inquired into the "field" of composition pedagogy recently. A number of doctoral students from different schools are doing or have recently done studies. (Though I don't recall names/schools).

Certainly there was no "composition pedagogy" curriculum widely in effect when I finished school some 20 years ago. Seems like most teachers (including me) pick and choose what they found most helpful from THEIR own teachers and resources, and put together some sort of system.


Mark Hijleh
Professor, Greatbatch School of Music
Houghton College (NY)
From: smt-talk-bounces at societymusictheory.org [smt-talk-bounces at societymusictheory.org] On Behalf Of Chair of Music [jablonsky at optimum.net]
Sent: Friday, March 20, 2009 10:40 AM
To: SMT Talk


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 Theories.

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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