Blog Posts 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 ⚡. Challenges designed for piano or piano-plus-one are labeled ?.

Art Song in One Sitting

Unaccompanied Melody. Compose an unaccompanied melody using this nursery rhyme as its text. Be careful to set the text so that its stressed syllables agree with strong and weak patterns in the meter.

“There’s a train at 4:04,” said Miss Jenny.
“Four tickets I’ll take: have you any?”
Said the man at the door: “not four for 4:04,
For four for 4:04 is too many.”

Art Song With Focus. Compose an art song that uses the tongue twister A Two-Toed Tree Toad (below). Compose the melody completely from start to end “in-your-head” without referring to an instrument, writing it down by hand on staff paper. Then create a piano accompaniment for the melody that uses no more than one single textural approach, editing the melody and adapting it freely as you accompany it. Do this entirely in one sitting — don’t leave the piano until your work is complete. You may typeset the music later.

A tree-toad loved a she-toad
Who lived up in a tree.
He was a two-toed tree-toad,
But a three-toed toad was she.
The two-toed tree-toad tried to win
The three-toed she-toad’s heart,
For the two-toed tree-toad loved the ground
That the three-toed tree-toad trod.
But the two-toed tree-toad tried in vain;
He couldn’t please her whim.
From her tree-toad bower,
With her three-toed power,
The she-toad vetoed him.

Additional challenge: the next day, compose an art song that strongly contrasts with this one, using the same poem and following the same instructions.

Imitation challenges

☀ Effects Rig. Compose a short piece of music for 3-4 instruments that imitates the use of three or more of these electronic effects: delay • distortion • phaser • tremolo •  arpeggiator. Here’s a video of someone demonstrating most of these effects. Here’s one for the arpeggiator.

☀ Environment. Compose a short piece of music for 1-4 instruments that imitates one or more of these sounds from a natural or urban environment: bird or whale song • ocean • traffic • radio static • wind • rain/storm

☀ Vocal Sounds. Compose a short piece of music for 1-4 instruments that imitates one or more of these vocal sounds: whispering • yelling • barking • oratory • coughing • snoring

☀ Non-Vocal Sounds. Create a short piece of music for 4-8 voices that imitates industrial or natural sounds. Use no recognizable words (you may indicate syllables, though) and avoid common choral textures. Try not to be funny.

Completion challenges

Accompany a Melody. Compose an original piano accompaniment to the first 37 bars of Paul Hindemith’s Violin Sonata in C (1939). Here’s the violin solo part – don’t get to know the original before you do your own creative work!

Melodize an Accompaniment. Compose an original melody above the first 22 bars of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3. Here’s a copy of the lower three parts in MusicXML format.

“Nothing But” challenges

Nothing But Big Leaps. Compose a short piece of music for two melodic instruments (or piano in which each hand only plays a single note at a time) in which each “voice” only moves by intervals of a perfect fourth or larger. One example is Ligeti’s Etude No. 2 from Book 1.

Nothing But Little Steps. Compose a short piece of music for 4-6 melodic instruments (or piano) in which no instrument moves by an interval other than a half step. Some ideas to get started:

? Nothing But Fat Chords. Compose a short piece of music for piano or electric keyboard in which each hand only plays 3 to 5-note chords, with no linear melody allowed except that which results from the outer notes of the chords.

Nothing But Minor Harmony. Compose a short piece for 2 to 4 instruments in which there is nothing but minor-chord (not minor-key) harmony.

“How To Modernize Your Sound.” Watch this video, then create a tune inspired by it. You may use the chords demonstrated in the video, or create your own based on the approach demonstrated.

Parameter challenges

Soft vs. Loud. Compose a short piece for 4 to 6 instruments in which a continuous pianissimo layer flows under a layer of fortissimo outbursts.

Breakneck Speed. Compose a short piece for 4 to 8 instruments in which a blazingly-fast series of eighth notes continues from beginning to end. Imbue the music with constant surprise, gritty harmonies, changes of musical texture, runs from high to low (or vice-versa) registers, varied rhythmic accents patterns and phrase-elisions or extensions that constantly avoid cadencing until the very end. Try to create formal “direction” with extreme continuity of sound.

Dense Harmony and Clusters. Compose a short piece for choir or octet of strings, woodwinds or brass that features consistent use of tone clusters. These may be diatonic tones clusters (in which case, you may want to consider changing the scale frequently from one key to another), chromatic tone clusters, or music that moves back & forth between diatonic and chromatic clusters. Here are some ideas for approaches:

⚡ Lo-fi Monophony. Compose a piece for monophonic FM-synth sound in which a melody, chords, and bass are all constantly implied. Use Garageband or Logic or a similar program to play the music (you may wish to notate the music in Sibelius or Finale, then export the music as an .xml file to import into a music player with the right sound.

Extreme Reharmonization. Select a traditional melody (or compose a folk-like melody of your own) and harmonize it at least six different ways, each consistent in its type of harmony throughout. You may wish to move the original melody from one key to another, from treble to bass, or to include modulation from one key to another or type of harmony to another.

Conceptual Approach challenges

Polyrhythmic Grooves. Compose a piece for 4-6 percussionists, each playing a single-sound instrument (drum, hand clap, etc. — instruments may be different or the same for each player). Begin by composing a rhythmic groove (be sure to use accents!) for the first instrument, then gradually add layers to create distinctive polyrhythms.

Rhythmic Illusion. Compose a piece inspired by one or more techniques explained in David Bruce’s “Radiohead and the Rhythmic Illusion” video.

Motivic Saturation. Study Bartók’s Mosquito Dance from 44 Violin Duos [score | audio] and compose a similar work for two melody instruments to is completely built from a recurrences of a small (3-6 note), distinctive (consider rhythm and contour) motive. Consider all of the main techniques for motivic transformation (repetition, transposition, inversion, elaboration/ornamentation, augmentation, etc.) and be wildly creative with harmony and dynamic contrasts.

Permutation. Learn about a composition process in David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing here, then compose your own take on his use of rhythmic permutation.

A Couple of Amazing Chords. Create three small groups (a pair, a set of three, a set of no more than five) of terrific chords that work well together and are distinctive in their voicing/dissonance/beauty/clusteredness/simplicity/etc., then compose a piece that uses nothing but the alternation of chords from a single group in each section. Consider Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus as a model.

Unison Canon. Learn about Louis Andriessen’s use of unison canon in the tune Hout, then compose a piece for 4-8 instruments that features your own take on this technique.

Tintinnabulation. Study Arvo Pärt’s Tintinnabulation technique in pieces such as Fratres or O König taller Völker and create your own work that uses a similar technique, “personalizing” the approach in some way.

Revised Improv. Record yourself improvising for what seems like quite a long time, moving from one idea to the next freely and taking risks as you play. Listen to the recording and notate the three or four small gestures you like the most. Create a full composition out of just these fragments, using the material freely.

Extreme Scordatura. Compose a piece for string quartet in which each instrument is tuned differently from the usual tones and there is no use of left hand fingers, inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s Quartetto [score | recording] or Louis Andriessen’s Symphony for Open Strings.

Fanfare. Compose a short piece for brass with or without percussion inspired by Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta mov. 1 and Paul Dukas’ Fanfare pour précéder La péri. Or, consider using a non-traditional fanfare like Ligeti’s Etude No. 4 from Book 1 as a model.

Oblique Strategies. Follow this link and click through until you find three strategies that seem applicable to your interests. Write them down and follow through.

Compose a companion-piece that imitates techniques found in a work that we have studied this semester. Works include (but are not limited to!):

  • Louis Andriessen: Hout (see above: “unison canon”)Hoketus (see above: “a couple of amazing chords”)
  • Béla Bartók: Mikrokosmos #140, #149; Mosquito Dance from 44 Violin Duos [score | audio] (see above: “motivic saturation”)
  • William Bolcom: Waitin’ from Cabaret Songs
  • Dave Brubeck: Blue Rondo à la Turk
  • Claude Debussy: Preludes 2 (Voiles), 3 (Le vent dans le plaine), 4 (Le sons et les parfums…), or 6 (Des pas sur la neige)
  • George Gershwin: Prelude No. 2
  • Philip Glass: Knee 3 from Einstein on the Beach
  • Michael Gordon: London from Van Gogh [audio and sheet music]; Every Stop On The F Train (score is in Classical Scores Library)
  • Jonny Greenwood: 48 Responses to Polymorphia [score]
  • Charles Ives: At The River; In Flanders Fields
  • Witold Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini
  • James MacMillan: The Gallant Weaver
  • Arne Mellnäs: Aglepta
  • Olivier Messaien: Quartet for the End of Time: movements 5 or 6
  • Darius Milhaud: Sumare from Sodades do Brasil
  • Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten; Fratres
  • Steve Reich: Nagoya Marimbas [video • score]; Proverb
  • Alfred Schnittke: Sonata for cello and piano, mov. 2
  • Caroline Shaw: Allemande from Partita [video]
  • Takashi Yokimatsu: And Birds Are Still…

Homage. Rather than create a set of variations on a familiar tune, create an “homage” to an existing musical work without including it directly. You may wish to begin by creating a variation on the original work that is so distant from its source that the origin is (almost?) unrecognizable and use that as the first or last section of a larger piece. Your piece should not focus on a large span of melody (it may instead focus on a tiny borrowed fragment) nor should it include a full chord-cycle or bass line (you may instead borrow a subtle, two or three-chord pattern). Make your work amazing in some way that the original was.

Continuation challenges

?  Continuation Challenge 1. Compose a miniature for piano that begins with this fragment and continues in the same style.


?  Continuation Challenge 2. Compose a miniature for piano that begins with this fragment and continues in the same style.


?  Continuation Challenge 3. Compose a miniature for piano that begins with this fragment and continues in the same style.

Design Your Own Challenge

You have the option to propose a challenge to your professor — make it include special goals and/or limitations in the spirit of those listed here.