Music Composition Pedagogy

So recently I have been very busy with different things in my life. We are getting ready to move to California in the next couple of months because I am getting out of the Army very soon. This means I have been busier than normal and unfortunately have not been able to sit down and write a meaningful post. As things start to ramp up, I might not be able to keep up a great schedule over the next two months or so,  but I assure you, I have great plans for

Composing Systems, Pedagogy and What to Do…

One of the things that I like to do is read a lot about composing music. This ranges from music theory books to biographies about composers and teachers. Recently I have started getting into several different subjects. First, I found the Schillinger System of Musical Composition Books at my local university library. They are interesting, but a bit hard to follow. If you’ve never heard of the Schillinger System, I’ll explain in a little bit. I also read an article that compares the pedagogy styles of Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg doesn’t really need to be talked about much because I think his reputation precedes him. He taught composition for most of his life, and wrote quite a lot on the subject.

Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger was a french composition teacher who is known for having some very famous American students, including Aaron Copeland and Quincy Jones (no wonder I like Michael Jackson’s music so much). Click here for a full list of her students. Nadia Boulanger unfortunately never really put down anything meaningful in terms of a manuscript on her teaching pedagogy although she had approached the G. Shirmer music publishing company asking to. This did no happen though, and we are only left with snippets here and there, and anecdotes from her students.

After reading the articles about here you get the impression she was a very tough teacher, but knew exactly what to do with here students to get them going in the right direction. The same goes for Schoenberg.

Discipline and Counterpoint

One of the main things I picked up from the article was the discipline they required from their students. Particularly, both teachers required their students to be proficient in counterpoint. Schoenberg went as far as to write his own textbook on counterpoint that he could use in his classes. Nadia Boulanger’s students said she was extremely knowledgable about counterpoint, especially with the music of Palestrina.

So why the emphasis on counterpoint? Allow me to digress for just a moment. I hear a lot about the arguments for and against traditional education in music. By traditional, I really mean learning the way people learned, say, 100 years ago. This is basically an emphasis on the common practice period with classical tonal music at its center. The points for tend to focus on the necessity to learn the rules before you can break them, and give yourself a vantage point from which to develop. This is the vertical viewpoint, or the view that we have come in a straight line from plainchant through Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg (You insert you favorite composer). This article from Dan Becker goes into detail about it. The article is a few years old, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The viewpoint of the opposition is basically that we live in a “horizontal world” where we are influenced by so much more than just the classical music behind us.

This is true. Just taking a look at whats on my computer, I have the standard set of classical composers, I also have Jazz, from Bebop to Stuff being released today. I have some Tupac, Earth, Wind and Fire, Chicago, and let’s not forget Pink Floyd.

I, like most people, have varying tastes in music. So why focus on something as hum drum as counterpoint?

Focus, Mental Agility and Control

There are few things that require as much focus as counterpoint. Trying to write four different voices, all with independent melodies, that fit within the “rules” is tedious, can be boring, and unfortunately doesn’t always come out smelling like roses. But the mental weight lifting you get from this is invaluable. Now I must profess, I am not great at counterpoint… not yet at least. When I was a music major, I took five semesters of theory class, and enjoyed it. But it was basically all harmony, and not counterpoint. I switched to History as a major prior to the counterpoint class, and hence, never really picked it up. But I am making up for that now. And it is not easy.

What I particularly like about learning counterpoint is it’s ramping up in difficulty from relatively simple, to insanely complex. You start off with learning to compose a single line melody against a Cantus Firmus or fixed melody. This, although tedious has proven not to be too difficult. From there, you go through the different species, progressing from 1st species or 1 note against 1 note, all the way to florid which is like a culmination of all the species. But following this, everything gets much more complicated.

I am Learning Counterpoint

So with all this being said, the point of this article is that I am going to be focusing intensely on learning counterpoint. You have to start somewhere so I am really starting with 16th century counterpoint in the style of Palestrina. I will be posting lessons each week on what I am learning and hopefully you can follow along with me. Until then, just enjoy this little ditty from Palestrina.


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  1. Jim Harris says

    Madame passed out a group of cadences to her students. When you
    thoroughly understand these in all keys, then you may begin.

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