Saturday, February 21, 2009

Music Theory/Composition

These two classes are generally taught in tandem, and at first glance it makes perfect sense. Without a good understanding of theory, complex compositions are difficult at best, and what better way to practice the theory you learn than to personally write music using the skills learned. This idea is good in practice but in teaching one half of the class thoroughly you will do so at expense at the other half. To teach music theory, you need to build from the bottom up, and to teach composition you should be able to assume a base understanding of music theory. So you either teach a full semester of music theory and cram an entire year’s worth of knowledge into that one semester, then do the same with composition. Or you split the class into two year long classes with a prerequisite to composition being one year in theory.

All that said, theory courses are pretty straight forward. Generally they start with note reading, and work their way up to form and analysis. Composition courses are more difficult to organize. I think that composition should begin with melody lines. These lines should start in a single key, then progress to multiple keys, and finally to keyless and atonal. The second step should then be to compose a chord progression. The chord progression, just like the melody lines, should start in a single key, then progress to multiple keys and finally to keyless and atonal. Third, the young composers should begin to develop melody lines and chord progressions in tandem. It is important that they practice developing a melody line then a chordal accompaniment and vice versa in order to keep their minds flexible. Up to this point I would recommend using mostly block chords with minimal independent movement, except for suspensions and anticipations. The fourth phase would then be to begin to develop counter melodies and bass lines. Then moving into counter point and separate voicings and rhythms.

The last stage of the composition class would be to begin composing for instrumental groups. Beginning with small groups of like instruments and progressing up to symphonic orchestras and beyond. Ideally the class would hear live as many compositions as possible. Having their compositions performed allows them to get feedback into things that are difficult for instruments to play, and things that are difficult to read. Sometimes we, as composers, forget about the performer as a person needing to read the music and thus don’t write the music in an easily read format. I have often found that after I write a piece of music I can re-bar and re-stem many measures to make it easier to read. Also, a performance reflection may provide insight into a what key the music should be in if certain accidentals appear consistently.