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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.

Instructions to the student: Answer the questions below, type your responses, submit them to your professor via D2L at least two days before your next lesson. [Download as a .docx file]

Questions that must be answered

  1. What is the composer’s name? Where is he or she from? What other composers relate to them, either as teachers or stylistic cousins?
  2. What is the full title of the composition? If the title is in a foreign language, translate it to English.
  3. Who published the sheet music, and how many pages is the score? Who performed on the recording, and how did you access it (CD, streaming service, etc.)?
  4. Does the work’s title lend meaning to the music? If so, how?
  5. Describe the character of the music. The character may be consistent, may evolve, may change rapidly, and so forth.
  6. What is the scoring of the work?

More questions: select at least four that seem most pertinent.

  1. Describe the scoring, timbre and dynamics of this work. What did you learn, if anything, from basic elements of instrumentation, such as score layout, use of transposing instruments, instrument groupings, use of moderate and extreme registers, doublings, idiomatic or specialized techniques, and so forth? Is there anything remarkable about chord voicing or use of register?
  2. Describe distinctive elements of texture or counterpoint in this work.
  3. Describe approaches to harmony in this work. Is it tonal, atonal, modal, or something else? Does it feature special kinds of consonance or dissonance? Does it maintain a tonal center or progress from one to another (if so, how)?
  4. Describe distinctive elements of melody or motive in this work.
  5. Describe the music’s rhythm and tempo. Is it based on groove? Does it feature constant or interrupted flow?
  6. Describe the overall formal structure in this work. Are there multiple sections or movements? If so, do they relate to each other, or succeed each other in an interesting pattern? Are movements or sections of the piece conceptually integrated?
  7. Are there compositional strategies evident? Compositional strategies may include formal approaches (like fugue, sonata, etc.), minimalist or serial procedures, textural concepts (like antiphony), focus on timbre over other parameters, etc.

Four final questions that must be answered

  1. What did you learn from this work? Did you like it? Why or why not?
  2. What are “take-home” elements that you might appropriate as interesting strategies for your own composition?
  3. Do you have any questions about the music that can be answered by your professor but not by a query online or an hour in the library?
  4. What composition should you hear next (find one on your own)? This may be another work by the same composer, another work played by the same performer or ensemble, something by a related composer, or another work for the same or similar instrumentation. Study that piece and complete this journal activity for it.