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 the core and upper division courses in music theory, the composition-theory faculty may be available to mentor qualified students in advanced analytical projects. Permission of instructor is required for registration in Music 490B/590B, Independent Study (Theory).

Selected 400-level courses in Music Theory carry credit toward graduate degrees. Graduate students with undergraduate coursework in theory from other institutions should consult the theory faculty to evaluate meeting course prerequisites prior to registration.

Composition Studies (Undergraduate)

contact Dr. Christopher Hopkins

Majoring in Music Composition at ISU 

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

Over the first two years, students engage in preliminary studies that focus on developing basic skills in composition. This stage of study requires completion of assigned technical exercises and score study in addition to original composition. This first stage concludes with submission of a portfolio of work that demonstrates preparation to continue into more advanced studies.  Over the final two years students compose in more advanced forms with the expectation to work more independently to develop a higher degree of originality in musical style. Score study at this stage will be assigned according to the needs of the particular composition project. The program of study culminates in a senior recital of original compositions that is organized by the student and presented publicly in the departmental concert series.

Performance Studies Requirements for Composition Majors

Given the Classical Music model of composition studies, students are required to audition for concurrent studies in an instrument or voice at the level required for the concentration in music performance. Composition majors will continue studies in their instrument throughout their program of study, and must pass a continuation examination in both composition and performance. Composition majors are required only to produce their senior recital in composition. However, many students choose to continue in dual concentrations, in which case they produce two complete senior recitals, one each in composition and performance.

Expectations on Completing the Program

A bachelor of music with a composition emphasis is not normally considered a terminal degree that leads directly into a career as a professional composer upon graduation.  Students should anticipate a commitment to further studies in a graduate degree or professional apprenticeship following graduation.

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 "34 Composition". 

Transfer Students

If you are a transfer student from another program in composition, it is essential that you contact the composition faculty directly for evaluation of your current portfolio of completed compositions. You will be advised as to your acceptance in composition studies in either Music 290C or 490C.  You may transfer credits for work in composition classes, but these cannot replace the initial or continuation audition requirements. 

A Narrative Guide through Undergraduate Composition Studies

STEP ONE: Preparing the Audition Materials for Composition Studies

An audition for composition studies is required in addition to your audition to become a music major.  Prepare a portfolio of your best current work in composition and submit this directly to the composition faculty via email as electronic documents.

The typical portfolio has three brief (2-6 page) compositions, but if the compositions are longer and written for larger ensembles then a good portfolio could include just two compositions. Where there are recordings to go with the compositions, these are helpful but not required. 

Prepare your scores as PDF files, either produced with notation software or scanned from manuscript. Send corresponding audio recordings as MP3.  Video recordings of live performances are acceptable, but send as a link through a file sharing service such as Dropbox or link to a sharing service Vimeo or YouTube.

Send directly to Dr. Hopkins.  He will notify you of provisional acceptance to composition studies pending your acceptance to ISU and audition in performance.

Refer to the Future Student Information page for how to audition in the required performance studies. 

STEP TWO: Your Preliminary Studies in Composition (Years 1 & 2) 

For the first four semesters as a composition student you will be guided through foundation studies in composition. You will learn techniques of thematic development and counterpoint, and will expand your vocabulary in rhythm and harmony in the context of forms such as sectional variations, a sonata movement, and song cycle. During this preliminary stage of study, it is important that you develop basic technique of composition, so your original work will be done within a more guided context. 

You will work with your fellow music students to produce performances of the compositions you produce in composition lessons.

STEP THREE: Preparing the Continuation Audition

From compositions you produce during your first four semesters, you will select three or four of these to become your audition portfolio for acceptance to advanced studies in composition. This portfolio will provide evidence of your preparation to work in larger forms with a greater variety of instrumentation. Your portfolio must be submitted in time to be reviewed prior to your continuation exam in performance.

You also take the continuation exam required of all music majors.  Your applied music instructor will specify the requirements for this exam.

STEP FOUR: Advanced Studies in Composition (Years 3 & 4)

Following a successful continuation exam and second audition in composition, you now work with greater independence regards style and form, and work specifically toward production of your senior recital.  Composition takes up the larger portion of your musical studies, as reflected by earning twelve credits as opposed the four in preliminary studies.  Consequently, greater productivity and depth of creative reworking of materials and form is a firm expectation. 

You will produce a recital of 4-5 of your original compositions, which should include your own involvement in the performances. If the recital includes computer music compositions, these need to be presented in the context of the recital itself, rather than simply being made available online. The normal expectation is that all the compositions performed on your senior recital will have been written in your final two years of composition lessons.  Your composition recital program must be approved by the composition faculty.

Following up

During your advanced studies, you will be advised about strategies for successful acceptance to graduate studies and professional apprenticeships.

Composition Studies (Graduate)

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

Other Opportunities in Composition at ISU 

Students with exceptional talent in composition but whose degree programs have another major or emphasis may audition for Music 290C, subject to faculty availability. These students must work in composition at the same level as those who are working for concentration in composition. Although in this case of a non-major it would not be required concurrently to study a musical instrument, it is nonetheless a requirement of composition study in general that a student has had significant experience playing a musical instrument beyond participation in secondary school or collegiate ensembles (private lessons, having performed solo literature).

In addition to courses in composition, the ISU Music Department offers courses in creative digital music, sound synthesis for electronic music, and computer music programming, 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

Frequently Asked Questions (Composition) 

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

Composition begins with improvisation of some kind, either directly on an instrument or by means of purely imaginative thought. But composition as taught in the Classical Music mode, is different in how it ultimately develops musical ideas outside of the real-time performance. It’s a technique that relies on communicating through 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 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?

You are not required 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, and play from 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 is 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. 

Finale Notepad, MusScore, and Sibelius First do not have the advanced scoring features that are necessary to use in composition lessons.  Take advantage of the resources available to you in the music computer lab!

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

The short answer is no.  Your best option at ISU 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 advanced electronic music composition. This opportunity is subject to availability of the instructor. You may instead be interested in the Minor in Music Technology, which has a strong emphasis in creative projects in composition and performance.

I have written several songs and even produced my own album. Can I use these as an audition, and work toward a composition degree emphasizing songwriting?

We do not offer coursework in popular songwriting. You should consider why it is in the first place that you are thinking to do degree work in music composition, when this really is not necessary for persons with gifts in songwriting to become successful songwriters. The most direct path into a songwriting career, beyond simply learning from lots and lots of doing, is to become knowledgeable about music more generally, so that you understand better the music you hear and can draw from this more productively into your own imagination and experimentation.  There is a Bachelor of Arts in Music degree, as well as a Minor in Music, both of which would supply musical studies that could help your songwriting while also obtaining the personal growth experience afforded by the college degree.  The minor easily combines with a major in another subject that interests you and which could support additional career options.

Another option to consider is to become more knowledgeable about business.  While home-grown music productions certainly can make it big, to develop a sustained career it would be wise to know both the creative and the business side of things.  For a collegiate music business program, there is no substitute for being already in the action, with the opportunities afforded by a large entertainment industry center such as Los Angeles, Nashville, New York City, or in major metros like Boston or Miami that have special collegiate programs related to the music industry (songwriting and arranging, recording and live sound, music business).

Will a degree in composition from ISU prepare me for a career as a media composer, writing music for film and video games?  A lot of this seems like Classical Music to me even though it is not about writing for concert performances.

The composition degree at ISU can prepare you musically, but not to be fully ready professionally for a career in the entertainment industry.  There have been students working in the ISU’s composition program with a goal to become film and video game composers, and who have then gone on then to graduate programs that emphasize preparation for the entertainment industry.  They learned in the Classical Music tradition to become a solidly skilled composer, and learned the creative side of using music technologies (electronic music and programming). However, it should be clear that study of composition at ISU is not a direct path, and that eventually the more specific methods of working in composing for entertainment media will need to be learned in a more specialized program or simply on the job.  For many if not most persons, especially those working remotely (perhaps online) away from the entertainment centers, the career is freelance, from one contract to the next, not really a full-time career.  However, many media composers succeed in developing a fulltime career by being broadly versatile, working also as sound editors, game programmers, and recording engineers, especially when they reside and work in major entertainment centers that provide frequent opportunities for meeting producers and collaborating with other media composers.