Category Archives: Composition & Orchestration

Composition Challenges

Successful completion of these challenges involves approaching each task directly and thoroughly, avoiding extraneous musical details that do not contribute to the requested sonic effect.

Challenges that must be composed for acoustic instruments with no electronic accompaniment or sonic modification are indicated with a ☀️ symbol. Challenges designed for electroacoustic music are labeled âšĄ. Challenges designed for piano or piano-plus-one are labeled đŸŽš.

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Journaling for Composition Lessons


Ten out of ten composition lessons that I teach end with me jotting down a short list of repertoire for the student to study over the coming week. Most often, these pieces are chosen because their instrumentation or compositional approach is similar to that being used by the student. They also tend to have the secondary goal of broadening the student’s experience and leading them toward more adventurous and distinctive writing.

As far as I can tell, my students almost never follow through. To the professor (that’s me, but I think most composition professors do this), it is one of the essential parts of the lesson. To the student, it seems like extra work when all they really want to do is sit down and make stuff up.

With this in mind, I decided to create this page and direct students to it. What follows is a list of questions that must be answered for each piece of music assigned as listening. Some of them are “due diligence” to make sure that a score and recording were, in fact, located and perused. Others are designed to help guide the student’s study of the score and suggest practical ways that hearing new music can help a musician progress as a learner and gain new tools for composition.

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Studying Art Song

Preparing to teach a unit on Copland’s Twelve Poems Of Emily Dickinson to a class of composers who will, in turn, compose the “thirteenth song” as a style-study exercise. Thanks to Robert Maggio for the genesis of this unit and for most of these ideas!

And, for a quick link, here are the complete poems of Emily Dickinson.

When studying these songs, be sure to consider…

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Some Things Composers Think About

Style: Relationship between any given piece and a musical genre

Technique: Difficulty of a composition • Amount of time it may take (or is allotted) to prepare for its performance

Harmony: Use of traditional vs. non-traditional harmonies • Use of tense/harsh/brash/complex harmonies vs. serene/pretty/simple harmonies • Stylistic connotations of harmonic types • Types of harmonic progression • Rate/naturalness/shock of harmonic change

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Take a few pitches; shake, strain

A rare photograph of Irving Berlin and David Lang taken ca. 1935 and 2005.
A rare photograph of Irving Berlin and David Lang taken ca. 1935 and 2005.

It’s may seem like a huge stretch to find parallels between the music of Tin Pan Alley songsmith Irving Berlin and avant-garde postminimalist David Lang, but here’s a great meeting point in two pieces of music separated by more than 60 years: the use of systematic rhythmic permutation.

Cheating, Lying, Stealing

[Listen to the music and see the first page of the score]

Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993) was David Lang’s breakthrough piece, putting him on the map as a hugely influential composer. I remember hearing it for the first time back then and being dumbstruck by its visceral energy and rhythmic unpredictability. There’s something about its clangorous instrumentation — especially in its “rhythm section” of kick drum and brake drums — that I feel establishes a perfect balance of metric “orientation” and “disorientation.” I’m especially thinking about its first third (up to 3’50” on the Bang on a Can All-Stars recording) and its last minute (starting at 9’36”). For years, I never attempted to figure out if a pattern guided his process — I just marveled at the clanky rhythms.

There is a pattern under it all, of course, and it’s fun to figure out. SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to tell you what it is, so if you want to give it a shot first, here’s a tip. Skip the first two bars (the intro) and take the music in dictation, all in 4/4 meter, separating the treble and bass lines to consider separately. See if you can find what’s going on.

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