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Music Composer Courses and Degree Programs

Music composers create and arrange the musical scores that musicians play. Many schools offer composition and other music courses as part of degree programs for students studying music or another subject.

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Essential Information

Individuals desiring to start a career as a music composer may not need to complete a formal postsecondary educational program, especially if they plan to compose popular music. However, someone interested in composing classical music may need a related degree. Programs in music composition are available at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree levels. Schools usually require that students have musical experience and submit an audition in the form of sample music scores as part of the admissions process.

Composition degree programs often include activities that give students experience composing music and giving performances. For example, students usually learn to play an instrument or sing, and they often do recitals and other performances throughout the program. Composition seminars and one-on-one lessons with an experienced composer may also be included. It is common for students to complete a comprehensive portfolio of the scores they have composed during the program.

List of Music Composer Courses

Actual composition course curricula vary from school to school; while some courses focus on the creation of music from a Western standpoint, others incorporate more of a world music approach. The courses described below are usually included in any music composition degree program.

Music Fundamentals

This introductory course provides the basic building blocks of music. Students learn about keys, intervals, triads, basic tonal theory and rhythm. The fundamentals of melody and harmony and a rudimentary study of musical notation are introduced. From here students are prepared for more advanced classes in music theory and composition. Ear training practice is often introduced at this point, including learning to recognize major and minor triads and intervals.

Music Theory I

A continuation of the music fundamentals course, this class delves deeper into the elements of Western music, including scales, melodic principles, counterpoint, voice leading and diatonic harmony. Some schools incorporate non-Western music at this point. Cadences and phrase structure are introduced, along with 4-part writing for instruments and voice. Ear training practice is often covered in this class as well.

Music Theory II

This course covers a more diverse array of music and more complicated concepts, such as extended chords, altered chords, binary and ternary structures and modulations. Ear training practice continues, and students learn about chromatic harmony in depth, including augmented and Neapolitan sixth chords.

Music Composition - Various Levels

Students start out by composing melodies based on a vocal model, using what they have learned about tonal harmony. As the student writes, he or she begins to add chromatic harmony and counterpoint, eventually writing for larger forms, such as large instrumental ensembles and orchestras.

Music Composition Degree Programs

Music composition degree programs are offered at the bachelor's, master's and doctorate degree levels. Students must become grounded in a wide variety of musical areas, such as theory, music history, music reading, ear training and playing an instrument, including voice, before they begin to compose music. While some bachelor's degree programs require incoming freshmen to already have composed music, there are other schools where this is not the case. At the master's degree level, music composer courses and programs are more advanced. Ph.D. students generally have more freedom to create and study their area of interest in more depth.

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