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    Composition assignments in the theory sequence

    Hello all. I teach at a small Christian-based University in West Texas (Abilene Christian University). NASM requires students to acquire a “rudimentary capacity to create original or derivative music.” Because we do not offer a composition course (and cannot add one), I am wondering what my colleagues are doing in the theory sequence to fulfill this requirement (We currently offer the traditional theory I,II,III,IV). Feel free to email me as well if you have some “plug and play” assignments that meet this requirement that you are willing to share. I’m doing some things now to address this requirement but don’t think it is enough. Thanks! (michael.rogers@acu.edu)

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    • When I taught theory 1 I gave weekly "composition" assignments leading up to a couple of complete rounded binary minuets for piano in two voices. The results were often dreadful, but that's the price you pay if you want to let students experiment with the recipe (taste the food, so to speak). Some students came up with pretty spectacular stuff, and we had a little performance of the best ones at the end of the term. 

    • Hi Mike,

      If you teach your students species counterpoint, I have a step-by-step assignment to write a rounded binary form on my website that uses species counterpoint as the main jumping off point: http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/johnito/music_theory/CTP/CTPcomp.html

      It takes a certain amount of one-on-one coaching, and it also relies at one point on intuitions that have been brought to the surface by doing some Salzer-Schachter-style analysis of tonal music in terms of species counterpoint.  But I generally find that the results come out well.

      Best wishes,


      PS I now have the chorus from the final track of Jerry Jeff Walker's Viva Terlingua in my head thanks to the name of your institution...  :)   [and sorry if this is a duplicate, something weird with the interface..]

    • The lazy way to satisfy this requirement is to apply chorale writing on the Bach model to it. If you want to do something more interesting, Peter's suggestion, writing a minuet, is an excellent easy and fun composition assignment. Perhaps this mto article could be of use to you: http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.05.11.2/mto.05.11.2.eckert.html

      --Jason Yust


    • In defense of laziness, I assign my Theory I class a chorale-style harmonization challenge to be completed by the end of term. This is a chance for students to enact the concepts we discuss (logical harmonic syntax, performer-friendly voice leading, non-chord tones, etc.) in a way that falls higher up the pyramid of Bloom's Taxonomy than their other assignments do. I've found that most freshman I've taught in the last eleven years come to college thinking the craft of compositions is something one must to be born with, and it only works when the muse whispers in your ear. They are surprised and proud to learn that with some basic principles they can make a plain melody sound quite nice. This is one of the things I appreciate about Peter Schubert's videos demonstrating improvised canons by breaking the process down into step-by-step principles that anyone can use.

      Each successive semester of the theory sequence, as we introduce new concepts, we build on this until they are composing their own (brief) four-voice fugue expositions and theme-and-variations in Theory III and sonata-form expositions in Theory IV. After each round of compositions, I pass the submission off to a colleague who picks the top two for a performance on a departmental recital; so, much like Peter said, there's an added incentive of getting one's work featured.

      These projects tends to lead a few students (who, in many cases didn't believe they had "the gift") to enroll in my upper-level composition course each year. Even if you cannot accommodate a dedicated composition course, you may find that starting simply and gradually turning up the complexity each term will spark some genuine interest and latent talent.

    • From Tarleton State:

      Theory I: 1) write a lyrical melody using antecedent/consequent phrases plus other content requirements; 2) after that, another project is to write an accompaniment to that melody that uses a standard harmonic progression and a consistent accompaniment pattern, with other content requirements; 3) because there are multiple restrictions on the first two assignments and students usually complain, Composition #3 only requires 16 measures, containing harmony, and "seriously revised." Some of those are quite interesting and allows students to explore.

      Theory II: Students choose a poem in public domain and write an original melody to the poem and then apply 4-part harmonization to that melody in Bach chorale style. The biggest challenge here other than the harmony is to get language and metric syllabic emphasis to sync.

      Theory III: a two-part invention and Theme and Variations

      Theory IV: a Character piece and a serial composition

      Vicky Johnson