Composition Assignments

Each assignment will focus on one (or perhaps a few parameters), but over the course of the semester the consideration of parameters is cumulative. For example, in Unit Two, when we concentrate on rhythm, I'll still grade you on your handling of the parameters studied in Unit One.

Expect to complete one assignment for each class meeting. Each late assignment is penalized one letter grade for each calendar day it is late; no assignment will be accepted more than three days late.


Composition (putting music together) and analysis (taking music apart) are closely related processes; insights gained from the former can be applied to the latter, and vice versa. The point of the assigned listening is is not simply to let the music wash over you and decide whether or not you like it, but to listen attentively to how it is put together. If you hear something that you like, you can then formulate a clear sense of how to achieve similar effects in your own music. (Conversely, if you hear something that you hate, you can then formulate a clear sense of what to avoid.) Classroom discussions provide a forum for sharing insights with your peers, and also for demonstrating to me that you're thinking about how music is put together.


Even if you have no intention of performing publicly an improviser, the experience of improvising can significantly enhance your development as a composer. This is partly because it offers you instantaneous feedback: you can try an idea, and immediately hear how well it works. It also provides a way to tap into your (mostly unconscious) musical intuitions, which at this point in your development are probably more sophisticated that your (strictly conscious) musical calculations. (This is arguably true even for composers at later stages of development—i.e., good music represents a problem of nonlinear, organic complexity, rather than a problem of linear simplicity or stochastic, disorganized complexity.)

Each class session will feature at least two bouts of improvisation: one for the entire class, and one for a small group based on a rotating roster. Everyone will be designated as an improvisation leader for three or four class sessions. The leader assumes responsibility for the overall success of each improvisation, nudging the other players when necessary to improve the musical interest.


Much as analysis offers insights on aesthetic issues, experience as a performer will help to sharpen your appreciation of pragmatic concerns: how much information do you need to give the performer? When does specification of detail become confusing and counterproductive? What's the clearest, most legible format for your instructions to the performer?

In classroom performances and in the final concerts, you typically will perform other students' compositions, not your own. Therefore, it's important that you always submit (n + 2) copies of each completed homework assignment (where n is the number of performers): one for you, one for me, and one for each performer.

Journal Entries

Write a paragraph or two about each listening selection, with particular attention to the specified parameter(s). Likewise, write a paragraph or two in reaction to all of the supplementary readings. Be sure to bring two copies of your journal entries: one to submit to me, and one for your own reference during classroom discussion.

Please note that the listening selections are not listed in the syllabus; instead, they appear as .mp3 files on the subject's Stellar site:


There will be five quizzes; each will be in two parts. The first portion will test your recognition of the assigned listening (I'll ask you to name the title, composer, and performer, as applicable). The second portion will test your knowledge of the terms and concepts from the assigned reading. Each quiz will last about 15–20 minutes.

Final Project

You will compose a trio for three performers whom I will choose for you (more or less at random) from the class. The piece should last about three minutes, and your score must take into account the abilities of your assigned performers, especially with regard to using notations that are meaningful to them.

Up to six students may take the option of writing for the entire class as a large (untrained!) chorus, or large (untrained!) percussion ensemble, or either such large group in combination with one or two solo instrumentalists.

Report on the Final Project

In addition to the score of your final project, you'll submit a report in which you describe what you were trying to achieve, how well you feel you achieved it in your score, how well you feel your performers realized your intentions during the concert, and how you might revise your score to get better results next time.


Students use a draft of Professor Robison's forthcoming textbook Putting Music Together, which is not yet available to the public. This book is supplemented by additional readings.


Composition assignments 20%
Participation in classroom discussion 10%
Participation in classroom improvisations and performances 10%
Participation in final project performances 5%
Journal entries 5%
Quizzes (20 Sept, 4 Oct, 25 Oct, 8 Nov, 29 Nov) 10%
Final project (due 15 Nov) 15%
Report on final project (due 1 Dec) 5%
Final examination 20%