Composition and Theory


Theory Requirements for Undergraduate Music Majors

Please refer to individual programs in the Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Arts in Music, and the Music Minor for required coursework in music theory. (see Music Degrees and Requirements Overview)

Advanced Courses in Music Theory

contact Dr. Kris Bryden or Dr. Julie Sturm

In addition to core and upper division courses in music theory, the composition-theory faculty may be available to mentor qualified students interested in advanced analytical projects through Music 490B/590B, Independent Study (Theory). There is no undergraduate degree with a concentration in music theory. Selected 400-level courses in Music Theory carry credit toward graduate degrees.

Composition Studies (Undergraduate)

contact Dr. Christopher Hopkins

About Majoring in Music Composition at ISU 

Applied study in music composition is offered as a concentration for the Bachelor of Music degree. Students in the program have private tutorials in composition that prepare them to compose music in advanced musical forms modeled on Classical Music traditions with extensions into twenty-first century concepts and instrumentations. 

Composition Requirements

Students study composition in two stages, each of which requires an audition. The first audition is for acceptance into composition studies in private tutorials (290C) in which one learns to compose in fundamental forms at smaller scales. These studies at the fundamental levels take place over four semesters. At the end of the fourth semester, at the time of the continuation exam (see below) students will audition for acceptance into advanced studies in composition (490C) composing now in larger forms with more advanced instrumentations to prepare a senior recital of original compositions. 

Both auditions are in the form of a portfolio of compositions that demonstrate preparedness for study at the required level. See the Narrative Guide below.

Performance Studies Requirements

Given the Classical Music model of composition studies, students are also required to develop advanced skills in music performance, and must audition for private tutorial study in an instrument or voice at the level required for a Bachelor of Music in Music Performance. All students who are accepted to the composition concentration continue their studies in performance throughout their program of study, and must pass a continuation examination in performance in addition to auditioning for advanced study in composition. Students who have passed the second audition into advanced composition studies in the composition concentration will not be required to produce a senior recital in performance, as the required senior recital will be in composition. Many students choose to continue in both concentrations, in which case they produce two complete senior recitals, one each in composition and performance.

Programs of Study

The course requirements for the Bachelor of Music are here. To view the specific requirements for the concentration in composition search for "31 Composition". 

A Narrative Guide through Undergraduate Composition Studies

Initial Audition Portfolio Requirement for Composition Studies 

To be accepted to studies in composition (Music 290C) you need to submit a portfolio of compositions as an audition. This is in addition to your audition to the Bachelor of Music program as an instrumental or vocal performance major. 

You should prepare a portfolio of work, as either electronic documents or copies of manuscript (keep your originals), and submit this directly to the composition faculty as attachments to email or link to file sharing services such as Dropbox. The compositions must be notated as a musical score. Recordings are helpful in the evaluation of the compositions, and MIDI realizations of instrumental parts are acceptable.

First -or second-year transfer students must submit an audition portfolio and be accepted to the concentration in instrumental or vocal performance. Students will be advised as to the amount of course work in composition (290C) that should take place prior to creating the fourth-semester audition portfolio for the concentration in composition. Transfer students who have complete two or more years of college study in composition may contact the composition faculty directly for evaluation of their portfolio and transcripts to be accepted directly to the concentration in composition. 

See Frequently Asked Questions (below) for more information about the initial audition portfolio.

Preliminary Studies (Years 1 & 2) 

For the first two years as a composition student you will in effect have a concentration in an instrument or voice, working simultaneously in composition studies (Music 290C). These composition studies establish a foundation in techniques of composing, focusing on the fundamental forms of instrumental and vocal music. Your studies may also include work in computer music composition.

From these studies, three or four of your compositions will be selected to become your audition portfolio for acceptance to the concentration in composition. This portfolio will provide evidence of your preparation to work in larger forms for a greater variety of instrumentations. Your portfolio will be reviewed at the time of your continuation exam (see music major requirements). 

The Concentration in Composition (Years 3 & 4)

Once officially accepted to the concentration in composition you will work in Music 490C, in which you will expand your methods of composition while further developing a unique compositional voice. You will be expected to critically examine historical and contemporary models of composition, and to rehearse and conduct your own works. You will produce a recital of 4-5 of your original compositions, written during the period of study for the degree and approved by the composition faculty.

Most composition students also continue their performance studies, often also giving a performance recital to earn a double concentration for their Bachelor of Music degree.

Composition Studies (Graduate)

Composition is available (by audition) as an area of study within two interdisciplinary programs: Interdisciplinary Electronic Arts Cluster (Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies) and Human-Computer Interaction. Students enroll in either 590C (acoustic composition) or 590I (electronic music).

Other Opportunities in Composition 

Students with exceptional talent in composition but who will not be a composition major may audition for Music 290C, subject to faculty availability. These students must work in composition at the same general level as those who are working to audition for a Bachelor of Music in concentration in composition.

In addition to courses in composition, the ISU Music Department offers courses in creative digital music and computer music, in which composition plays a significant role. An open-access 24-workstation lab provides software for notation (Sibelius/Finale), MIDI and audio sequencing (Pro Tools), audio editing/mixing (Audition, Pro Tools), and computer music programming (Max, Processing), along with an impressive suite of virtual instruments, all of which have direct application to music composition. See Music Technology

Students interested in becoming arrangers and song writers should consult the course offerings in music theory and music education.

Frequently Asked Questions (Composition) 

What should I include in an audition portfolio for Music 290C?

While evidence of talent in composition may be shown in many ways, a normal portfolio for composition consists of music committed to notation in a musical score. The typical portfolio has three brief (2-6 page) compositions, but if the compositions are longer and for larger ensembles then a good portfolio could include just two compositions. Where there are recordings to go with the compositions, perhaps computer-rendered models or audio recordings of playing scores from a keyboard instrument, these are not required but are helpful. 


How should I submit the portfolio?

Please prepare you scores as PDF files, either produced with notation software or scanned from manuscript. You may mail photocopies to the department of music, but this will slow the process of review. Audio recordings may be sent as as MP3, or AIF, or WAV. If your audio files are larger than 20 MB, do not send by email but use a file sharing service such as Dropbox or SoundCloud. If you prefer, you may send an audio CD, but this may slow the process of review. Send directly to Dr. Hopkins.

I primarily improvise. Why do I need to submit notated scores?

Composition begins with improvision of some kind, either directly on an instrument or by means of pure imagination. But composition is different than improvisation in how it ultimately develops musical ideas, and discussion of such techniques is best done with reference to notated scores. This is why a portfolio of compositions notated in musical score is a requirement to begin study in composition. I suggest that you notate your improvisations, and try to develop them in a set of variations. This will give you an idea of how your improvisations can become compositions of the kind emphasized in our degree program. 


I have written several songs and produced my own album. Can I use this as an audition, and earn a composition degree emphasizing songwriting?

First, we do not offer a program or coursework in songwriting. If you are interested however to obtain a fuller experience in music composition, that would emphasized writing music with the artistic complexity characterizing Classical music, then do include a statement of this with the audition portfolio and we will evaluate the portfolio strictly on the basis of a projection toward success in our degree program. You may continue your work in songwriting, and create a career of this after obtaining the degree in composition, but songwriting will not be a subject taken up in your composition courses or included in your recital pieces. 


Special note about building a song-writing career: 

It's really common to think about obtaining a degree in music composition as the path to a career in songwriting. However, if you want to break into the music entertainment industry the best path is to get into a music industry program in one of the large entertainment centers such as Los Angeles, Nashville, Miami, New York, or in a major metro like Boston or Minneapolis that has a similar concentration of recording studios and production houses. These programs often have song writing and arranging courses along with essential courses in music business. In this career path there is a significant need to be near the action, and to get apprenticeships and ghost-writing opportunities along with your formal schooling.

I know that Finale and Sibelius music notation software is provided in the music computer lab. Am I required to use notation software, and in particular one or the other notation software, for composition?

No. You do not need to use any computer technology to assist your process of composition. If you have good facility at the keyboard enough to play multiple parts from score, then you can bring in your work to composition classes this way, with a hand-written score. It is normal however to learn to be proficient with Finale or Sibelius, as this provides an aural model of your composition to play in class as well as to provide a much more facile way to prepare professional quality scores and parts quickly. 

The first semester theory sequence provides the basic instruction for using Finale. However, Dr. Hopkins prefers students working toward a concentration in composition to use Sibelius, as this has a better flow as a composition environment and more easily customizable advanced features. Unless you already are very proficient with other music software, you should plan to learn the software supported at ISU. 

I want to be an electronic music composer. Can I take composition and just compose electronic music?

No. For you the option is to take music technology courses and develop your basic skills in electronic music this way, primarily through completing Music 346 and 446. If you show particular skill in computer music and have created interesting creative projects, you may submit a portfolio of these as an audition for Music 490I Electronic Music and focus on electronic music composition. This opportunity is subject to availability of the instructor. 

If you are not interested in the Bachelor of Music degree, you may instead be interested in the Minor in Music Technology, which has a strong emphasis in creative projects in composition and performance.