The Ins and Outs of Teaching Composition: 1957-2007

October 1, 2009

Thinking about the ins and outs of the teaching of composition during the past fifty years meant continuing a lively internal and external dialogue: What do composers need to know, and when do they need to know it? And, given the rock of the pop industrial complex on one side, and the hard place of our musical museum culture on the other, how can we help our students negotiate the narrows between them and blast out new channels? In addition to reporting on my own ruminations and research, I include comments from interviews I conducted for this project with four major composer-teachers: Paul Lansky,1 Bernard Rands,2 Roger Reynolds3 and Judith Lang Zaimont.4

I am going to set the stage by considering the growth of composition programs, the shifts in their demographics, and the evolution in course offerings. I will then turn to two fundamental and sweeping agents of change in our discipline: the tsunami of technology and the seismic shifting of ideologies. Both undergird our notions of what music can and should be. Both have had profound influences on the teaching of composition. And both speak to changes in the permeability of the academy to the world beyond.


1. Background Statistics

I thought it would be useful and simple to find statistics for the start date of graduate programs in music composition and for changes in diversity and gender in the demographics of students and faculty. No such luck! Neither The College Music Society, nor the National Association of Schools of Music, nor the Center for Research in Black Music could provide what I was looking for, though all, and especially Robby Gunstream at CMS, were helpful. Well, I thought, let’s see whether direct queries to a sampling of departments and schools of music would yield better results. Surely, we all know our own programs. Wrong again! While I am grateful to the many colleagues who did their best to answer my queries, and list them in my acknowledgements, there are many lacunae and most information was anecdotal.


a. Number and Makeup of Programs
The College Music Society does provide a listing of graduate programs, since the early 1970’s, in the Directory of Music Faculties in Colleges and Universities, US and
Canada.5 Even without exact figures, we know that the number of such programs was tiny in the 1950’s. And, if we compare the numbers of PhD and DMA programs in composition in the US even between the later dates of 1986-886 and 2006-07,7 the upward trend is still noticeable. Indeed, there has been an increase of approximately twenty percent, from fifty-eight to seventy-one programs during this period.


Figure 1: Doctoral Programs

1986-88 Composition



DMA 36
2005-2006 Composition
PhD 27
DMA 44


Researching the demographics of composition programs proved even more difficult. There is a rich project here awaiting an interested researcher! Although I do not have specific statistics on the changing demography of students in graduate programs, all of the composition faculty I contacted attested to a substantial rise in the number of women completing doctoral degrees in composition. It is instructive to glimpse the percolation of this change through a current sampling of faculties that offer the doctorate in composition. Of twenty-seven schools examined, and shown in Figure 2, twelve have no women faculty, six have between eleven and twenty-five percent women, seven have between 33 and 37%. Only one has parity, and one (Stonybrook) has seventy-five percent women! Only three of these programs have more than one woman composer, no matter what the total number of faculty composers.


We know that the number of composers graduating from the academy has exploded. And we have an idea of the changing gender demographic, as well its reflection in composition faculties. But work still needs to be done to solidify this data and to detail exact changes in the diversity of both student and faculty populations.


b. Coursework

We also know that the content of these programs has changed remarkably. Individual instruction has changed the least, although even here the situation is dynamic. All those I interviewed, and I agree that there is still an important role for individual instruction, especially at the graduate level. But within graduate programs there is divergence in current practice. For example, at UCSD Roger Reynolds reports that all first-year graduate students participate in a composition seminar, taught by all faculty on an annually-rotating basis, rather than having individual lessons. At the end of each quarter, student pieces are performed and discussed, with success measured in relation to the student’s stated goals.8 At Princeton, in contrast, Paul Lansky reports that graduate students can sign up for lessons as they need them with any member of the faculty. He said that the goal is to provide students with a variety of perspectives and to ensure that there is no “psychological dependency on a particular teacher.”9 To the contrary, Bernard Rands mentioned the importance of individual teaching because “you can privately be very critical.”10 He also mentioned the importance of mentoring that goes with getting to know students individually. At the University of Virginia, graduate students generally meet once a week with a given faculty member each year, rotating among the faculty on an annual basis. We also have periodic gatherings at which students and faculty share work.

This seems to be an area where there is room for innovation. Margaret Barrett, in her interesting study Create collaboration: an ‘eminence study of teaching and learning in music composition, speaks of the “‘thought communities’ on which composers draw, and of the relationships that hold between teacher and student, as well as the role of these relationships in the ongoing development of all participants in the teaching and learning process.”11 Although her article focuses specifically on the kind of creative collaboration between teacher and student, this process also occurs among the students themselves. A new mix of individual and group meetings might better support this result. The attitude towards the relationship between faculty and individual students has itself changed, with a greater focus now on student goals. All of the interviewees agreed on this, as does Barrett’s study. Zaimont said, in reference to her teaching at both Peabody Conservatory and the University of Minnesota, “we find out what the student’s goals are first, and then assist the student to broaden horizons and to achieve those goals, whether they are final or stepping-stone goals.”12 Roger Reynolds also notes that at UCSD the faculty felt that their function should be “to help people do what it is they wanted to do, “and to ask, what are you doing and why are you doing it?”13 The aim was to help them reach those goals more successfully, rather than have them meet fixed criteria.

What about other courses at all levels? Here, the changes since the late 1950’s, and especially since the late 1980’s, are massive, as revealed by a quick look at course offerings at Bates College,14 New England Conservatory15 and the University of Virginia.16 Starting with a mere handful of courses, the expansion in course offerings and requirements shows a major diversification of content. These changes embody the increasing role of new technology and the shift from a canonic Western European orientation to a more permeable global one. Of course these developments have moved at differing rates and to varied effect depending on particular institutional cultures.


2. Technological Stirrings

To probe these curricular changes in more detail, I will first consider new technologies as an agent of curricular change. From the late nineteen-fifties, this tsunami of technology continued to build, carrying with it stadium concerts of rock musicians—think the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 or of Woodstock in 1969. Think of the electric guitar, heavy-duty amplifiers, and Buchla, ARP and Moog synthesizers. Think of Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson’s Illiac Suite, completed in 1956. Think of Max Matthews and his revolutionary MUSIC4 program, created in 1958; or of the opening of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Studio in 1958; or, of John Chowning’s invention of FM synthesis in 1967, and how Yamaha popularized it with the iconic DX7. While still relatively rare, enough composers were working in this field that the International Computer Music Association was formed in 1974.

What did these new technologically driven elements mean for the teaching of composition classes? Moog, ARP and Buchla synthesizers started appearing in composition programs in the late sixties and early seventies. Many of us were thrilled at the boundless possibilities beckoning from just beyond the horizon. Advances in recording equipment made possible the founding of the San Francisco Tape Center by Mort Subotnik and Ramón Sender, later run by Pauline Oliveros after its move to Mills College in 1966. It also enabled the creation of the World Soundscape Project by R. Murray Schaefer and his colleagues, and so much more. Yet, changes in required, or even available, classes in the sixties and seventies were modest. Most of these technologies were still expensive and rare. But the spread of PC’s and the invention of MIDI in the 1980’s jumpstarted the rapid addition of new courses. It was in 1987, for example, that I founded the Virginia Center for Computer Music at the University of Virginia. While it is true that fluctuating compositional choice points and the inclusion of the sounding world already had a substantial compositional tradition, advances in recording technology and computing afforded a whole new range of opportunities. The control available for the micro-sculpting of sound, whether through direct digital synthesis or processing of sampled sound, was astonishing. And, the opportunity to develop algorithms derived from fields as divergent as genetics, mathematics, statistics, and cognitive science involved fundamentally new conceptual approaches. Increase computing power has also made possible the sonification of processes that were previously completely opaque, as in astronomer Mark Whittle’s sonification of the big bang!17

As this tidal wave continued to swell, it supported the development of new compositional modalities, moving beyond the tape and electroacoustic music to interactive media, multichannel audio, interactive dance, web-based music, virtual reality music and more. The results have shaken the foundations not only of composition, but also of the broader field. The possibility of students being equally educated in traditional approaches and these shape-shifting new areas has faded fast. Cultural motivations are driving these changes, and we need to collectively chart a response to them. More immediately, though, new technologies have led to the creation of genres with substantial repertories in acousmatic, electroacoustic, interactive, ecoacoustic and soundscape composition. And yet, all is not bliss. Many of our students come from pop music backgrounds, and their ensemble performance experience, if any, is limited to playing electric guitars or drums in bands. Their score-reading skills are often very weak. In fact, the primary instrument of some of our students is the laptop. As a result, many fall back on loop-based composition. It is what students often bring from pop and dance music, and sequencing programs make it easy. Of course, one might argue that this at least gives more students a path into composition. And often pop and dance music have substantial intricacy. But, these limitations also can lead to stunted imaginations.

Related to this, Zaimont lamented that many of her students “no longer know how easily to hear from the page. They don’t hear what they write unless they verify it in a sound medium. They come in with something lightly sketched on the page, and want me to listen to the CD. I want to see on the page how they marshall the elements together, how they work with conflict or agreement; how they deal with matters of form over the long term. The great thing a score can do is give you bold perspective, and it means you don’t have to travel like a flatlander, starting the piece at the beginning . . . you can grab the piece at any point.”18 Rands also mentioned that many of his students only composed on a computer, and that immediate aural feedback and structural design mediated by the machine have become much more prominent. Lansky added that virtually all of his students pair their music with some kind of technology and sees the immediate feedback as a boon. And Roger Reynolds said “Technology has got to be a central feature of the awareness of our students,” yet he also added “It may be that the demands are such that to do these varied and extremely complex tasks is really more than a human being is likely to be able to manage.” And in the context of job interviews for composers, “We always ask ‘What will you sacrifice? No one has an answer.”19

But answers have been developing on the ground. Some academic programs, especially conservatory-based ones, continue to require a preponderance of traditional coursework, with digital music as an add-on. Others, including our program at the University of Virginia, now offer multiple and variegated paths through the undergraduate major. One may claim that this in effects splits our discipline. I believe it does, and perhaps it must. It is increasingly unlikely that we can educate students equally in the traditional practices of acoustic composition, as well as in the realm of these new media. The topics of study to support the use of new musical technologies range from acoustics and computer programming to architecture. Yet composers are expected to be aware of the contexts in which they are working, to have a thorough grounding in the music of the Western tradition, and of the historical and theoretical developments that have landed them where they are. A daunting challenge!

Reflecting this, some graduate programs have focused more on computer music; others on new media as a whole. At the University of Virginia, we have opted for a combination of acoustic and digital media in our new PhD program in Composition and Computing Technologies. There are also graduate programs in film composition, composing for visual media, and many more. It is inevitable that none of us can manage it all. It follows that we, as composers and faculty members, must rethink what it means to be an educated composer in relation to diverging paths. And, we must acknowledge that we cannot simply retread traditional topics as they existed in the 1950’s, or even 1970’s, when the musical world was so much more compartmentalized and the totality so much smaller.


3. Shifting Ideologies

The technologies discussed above also led to greater awareness of music from around the globe. This awareness contributed to the push against hegemonic and patriarchic western traditions, already percolating through many liberal arts departments. Feminist and post-colonial criticism have both contributed to the opening up of our sense of repertoire worth consideration, and to the questioning, at times breaking, of traditional canons. As a result, the study of the “piece as a world” that was common in the 70’s, gave way to the “world in pieces” by the nineteen-nineties. Relativism triumphed in postmodernism. And Modernism has become Modernist, with the hissing sound of that “s” seeming to suggest distaste. Many musicologists and theorists have shifted their study from the over-cultivated fields of European art music traditions to the relatively untilled fields of popular and vernacular music. This shift has moved the focus away from current concert music as well. And, it has moved our students’ education, especially in liberal arts music departments, towards cultural studies. Peter Dunbar-Hall, in his Colliding Perspective: Music Curriculum as Cultural Studies, incisively makes the case for the understanding of music in its cultural context.20 I agree that this type of understanding is crucial but I am concerned that in the move to consider cultural context, we sometimes loose sound of what it is we’re trying to situate.

And yet, in some ways, this ideological shift is incomplete. There have only been sporadic efforts to consider the kinds of curricular changes that Susan Parenti and her colleagues suggested in her 1996 Perspectives of New Music article “Composing the Music School: Proposals for a Feminist Composition Curriculum.” The goals include (1) “Interrogating imagery (2) Investigating language (3) Creating community and service (4) Designing imaginary and real, spaces and, lastly, (5) Seeing the composer as the fool, and not the king or queen in the court.”21 They are not just asking us to situate music in its cultural context, but to actively change that context. The larger goal is to critically examine rather than simply rehash inherited models and the ways we think about them. Further, they urge us to reclaim relationships between composers and their communities, to find ways to act local while being open to the global. The ripple effects of these ideas can be felt, though variably and incompletely. The teaching of composition has become more permeable to global and vernacular traditions. Many composers wear their rock-band pasts proudly! And, where composition teaching used to focus exclusively on ideas from the European tradition, now ideas flow in multiple directions. There are now undergraduate and graduate courses, and even degree programs, that focus on improvisation and jazz. And we feel the influences of musics stretching from Africa and India to East Asia, as well as that of American vernacular music.

Zaimont captures one of the problematic consequences of this shift when she states, “One big change is that you can’t count on ready reference to certain works of the past.” She finds that this “changes the starting point for writing for a specific instrumentation. What you know already for that medium is important. You find you have to fall back a step to shore up what they are not acquainted with . . . the canon no longer applies much.”22 And, as types of musical design and sonic content have come to feel more like a choice and less part of an inevitable, dialectical progression, the valuation of musical results has become ever more complicated. Neil Postman, in his still-relevant book, Technopoly, points out that Western Europe developed its responses to the printing press over a period of two-hundred years. Our responses to galloping technological development are happening on the fly.23 It is hardly surprising, then, that creating educational standards in a period of such technological and ideological change presents a complex challenge. Nonetheless, it is one we have, collectively, to meet.


4. Outlook

What does all this mean for the teaching of composition? In addition to rethinking the education of composers in our programs, we also need to help them sort through the opportunities that are available during-and-post graduation. Again, numbers are telling. While neither ASCAP nor BMI could give me figures for the late fifties, BMI’s Ralph Jackson estimated a mere one-hundred-fifty registered with BMI at that time.24 Fran Richards, at ASCAP, did not have access to figures from that time,25 but both report that the numbers have exploded and today there are some fifteen thousand concert composer members of the two organizations. This makes vivid the dramatic increase in competition for both employment and performance opportunities. While in the academy, students should be encouraged not only to respond to score calls, of which there are more than ever dedicated to young composers, but should also be called upon to curate and mount concerts, as well as organizing colloquia, and guest artist visits. And, as they prepare to graduate we can help them think through their options.

Let’s start with the outlook for jobs in the academy. I used to believe that jobs combining composition and new technologies were increasing, and those involving composition and theory were decreasing. I was wrong. At least between the 1980’s and 2007, “theory only” positions trump those in composition and/or new technologies, as shown in the following graphs. These are based on numbers provided by The College Music Society.26 As we can see, from the graph in Figure 3, the number of jobs in composition, new technologies and theory, in total, rose, from 1985 through 2001, with a slight drop-off since 2001. However, as demonstrated in Figure 4, the largest number of jobs was in music theory, and the biggest decline was in composition/theory. Although I remain convinced that the combination of composition and new technologies holds great promise for the future, during the period from the late 1980’s until 2007, theorists had greater job opportunities in the academy than composers.


Figure 3: Job Growth


Figure 4: Job Types
















How worrisome that music theory, to which composers have contributed so much, should be increasingly divorced from the creative wellspring of composition. And how striking a shift this is! Moreover, how ironic to remember that Milton Babbitt, composer and theorist par excellence, said, in relation to the situation in the 1950’s:

There was no real theoretical work going on in any sense that any of us would use the term, as structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionalist, or formal theorists would use the term; there was nothing available of any kind whatsoever. There was no hope to get any kind of theoretical article published in this country—twelve-tone, Schenker, or anything else.27

The training of composers has been, and often still is, tightly linked to that of theorists. Indeed, four current American doctoral programs are still identified by the title Theory/Composition. Joseph Dubiel’s essay, Composer, Theorist, Composer/Theorist, speaks tellingly to this issue, first debunking the reasons why some people have trouble thinking of composers as theorists, and then by demonstrating his own embodiment as both.28 But clearly, there are some who, as Dubiel notes, find a problem in this combination.

What does this mean? I worry that the problematic divide seen by the ancient Greeks between what is construed and valued as “abstract” and what is devalued as “applied,” may be to blame. We inherited from them the germ of the notion that composers in general are not “intellectual” in the way that theorists are; or that those composers engaged in new technologies work in the merely technical, rather than the conceptual domain. This notion is of course reified in the traditional European separation of practitioners (composers and performers) in the conservatory and conceptualizers (historians) in the university. While a much wider variety of institutional organization can be found in America, the underlying assumptions are not uncommon. As composer members of the academy, this is something that merits our concern, and our effort in setting the agenda for the future.

The situation for job opportunities within the academy will, even in the best case, not absorb all of our composition graduates. However, there are now opportunities outside the academy that either did not exist, or were in their incipient stages during the 1950’s. These include sound design, film music, music for videogames, for television and for other commercial outlets. And there are opportunities for acoustic music, ranging from traditional concert music channels, to music for civic and religious use. There are also categories, such as band and choral music, where the appetite for new music remains substantial. And, perhaps in response to the high level of competition and in a move towards collaboration and community connection, a new breed of composer/performer collective has also arisen, including such groups as Common Sense, The Now Ensemble, and counter)induction. They are supporting each other and creating new ways to interact with their communities.

In the end, a mixed picture emerges, with technological change and ideological shifts carrying both correctives and challenges to the previously insulated academy. We can decry the changes, agreeing with Stockhausen, who, in his letter to the International Music Council in 1984, and in his response to their questionnaire, says that the current state “ . . . has never been as bad in the entire history of music.”29 Or, we can celebrate these changes for the new compositional spaces they open, for the cultural awareness they stimulate, and critically embrace them. I choose the latter.



I would like to thank University of Virginia Music Librarian Erin Mayhood; Uniersity of Virginai Professors Michael Kubovy and Fred Everett Maus; Robby D. Gunstream, Executive Director of The College Music Society; the staff of The College Music Society; and Mark Marion of HEADS. I would also like to thank the following colleagues who helped track down statistics regarding start dates and demographics of music programs: Martin Bresnick, Edmund Campion, Chris Chafe, Evan Chambers, Joseph Dubiel, David Felder, Brad Garton, John Gibson, James Mobberly, Erica Muhl, James Parakilas, Russell Pinkston, James Paul Sain, Steven Stucky, Jay Alan Yim, and Scott Wyatt. And of course thanks to Paul Lansky, Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds and Judith Lang Zaimont for their willingness to participate in the interviews.



Barrett, Margaret. “‘Creative Collaboration’: an ‘Eminence’ Study of Teaching and Learning in Music Composition.” Psychology of Music 34, no. 2(2006): 195-218.

Cocke, William. “Is This What the Big Bang Sounded Like?” National Geographic News. <>;.

Dubiel, Joseph. “Composer, Theorist, Composer/Theorist.” In Rethinking Music, edited by Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist, 262-83. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dunbar-Hall, Peter. Colliding Perspective: Music Curriculum as Cultural Studies. Music Educators Journal 91, no. 4 (2006): 33-37.

Gunstream, Robby. Email communication with the author. November 9, 2007.

Jackson, Ralph. Telephone conversation with the author. October 3, 2007.

Lansky, Paul. Telephone interview with the author. August 19, 2007.

Parenti, Susan. “Composing the Music School: Proposals for a Feminist Composition Curriculum.” Perspectives of New Music 34, no. 1(1996): 67-72.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Rands, Bernard. Telephone interview with the author. August 30, 2007.

Reynolds, Roger. Interview with the author. August 21, 2007.

Richards, Fran. Telephone conversation with the author. October 3, 2007.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz. “To the International Music Council.” Perspectives of New Music 24, no. 1 (1985): 38-44.

Zaimont, Judith Lang. Telephone interview with the author. October 10, 2007.



1Lansky, interview.

2Rands, interview.

3Reynolds, interview.

4Zaimont, interview.

5Gunstream, email.

6Directory of Music Faculties, 10th ed., Boulder, CO: The College Music Society, 1984-86.

7Ibid., 27th ed., Boulder, CO: The College Music Society, 2006-07.

8Reynolds, interview.

9Lansky, interview.

10Rands, interview.

11Barrett. “‘Creative collaboration’”.

12Zaimont, interview.

13Reynolds, interview.

14Bates College, The College Catalogue, 1957, 1967, 1977, 1987, 2007.

15The New England Conservatory Academic Catalog, 1957, 1967, 1977, 1987, 2007.

16The University of Virginia Record, 1957, 1967, 1977, 1987, 2006.

17Cocke, “Is This What the Big Bang Sounded Like?”

18Zaimont, interview.

19Reynolds, interview.

20Dunbar-Hall, Colliding Perspective.

21Parenti, “Composing the Music School.”

22Zaimont, interview.

23Postman, Technopoly.

24Jackson, conversation

25Richards, conversation.

26Statistics provided by The College Music Society from analysis of the Music Vacancy, via email communication between Robby Gunstream and the author, August 27, 2007.

27Milton Babbitt, Marion Guck, Fred Everett Maus, unpublished interview from August 1987, email communication to the author September 28, 2007.

28Dubiel, “Composer, Theorist, Composer/Theorist.”

29Stockhausen, “To the International Music Council.”

2516 Last modified on October 1, 2018