Contemporary Techniques in Music Composition 1

Author: Marti Epstein   •   Course Code: OCOMP-285

Are you interested in developing and enriching your unique, compositional language? Through the study of modern twentieth century compositional techniques, this course will help you construct your own melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language. Additionally, you will have an opportunity to explore extended techniques such as prepared piano, wind multiphonics, and found percussion. With the knowledge attained in this course, a you will grow own unique voice to write music for visual media, concerts, recitals, or personal enjoyment.

This music composition course begins by looking at new ways to think about organizing pitch, with a focus on melodic writing. Next, modern harmonic concepts are introduced, followed by new ideas about rhythm and form, and ending firmly in the mid-twentieth century with innovations in instrumental technique and acoustic sound production. Each topic is accompanied by an examination of musical examples by some of the giants of the twentieth century, including Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varese, Bela Bartok, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Ruth Crawford, and Toru Takemitsu.

Through writing exercises, analysis, and observation, you’ll learn techniques historical context. Experimentation is encouraged and should always be your first priority when searching for your individual style. In addition to the exercises for each lesson, there are four larger projects in which you are expected to write a more substantial piece of music incorporating concepts that you have learned.

At the end of this music composition course, you will be able to:

  • Compose using non-tonal scales such as whole tone, pentatonic, octatonic, and invented scales
  • Create richer pitch material through experimenting with other modes and folk music
  • Compose using interesting interval sets
  • Begin to explore pre-serial techniques
  • Experiment with using familiar harmonic structures like triads in new ways- non-functional harmony, new voicings, and triadic layering
  • Compose using non-triadic harmonic structures like quartal and quintal harmony, chord clusters, and harmonies made from mixtures of different intervals
  • Experiment with meter and rhythm
  • Create their own formal structures, moving away from the traditional classical forms such as sonata, rounded binary, etc.
  • Experiment with chance, indeterminacy, proportional notation and graphic scores
  • Compose using both traditional and found percussion instruments
  • Explore extended techniques for winds and strings
  • Learn about the safest ways to prepare the strings of a piano
  • Use these techniques to create a unique, individual compositional voice

Lesson 1: New Scales

  • Authoring
  • Whole Tone Scales
  • Quiz: Voiles by Claude Debussy  
  • Pentatonic Scales
  • Analysis: Quiz: Voiles by Claude Debussy
  • Octatonic Scales
  • Exercise: Compose a Melody Using the Octatonic Scale
  • Invented Scales
  • Exercise: Invented Scale Melody

Lesson 2: New Modes

  • Authoring
  • Modes of Limited Transposition
  • Analysis: Abime des Oiseaux
  • Mode Mixture
  • Analysis: Finger Exercise by Bela Bartok
  • Folk Influences
  • Quiz: Romanian Dances by Bela Bartok  
  • Igor Stravinsky

Lesson 3: Interval Structures

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Interval Sets
  • Analysis: Abime des Oiseaux
  • Exercise: Interval Set
  • Arnold Schoenberg’s Early Works
  • Quiz: "Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke”  
  • Exercise: Interval Sets for Two Instruments
  • Pre-Serialism
  • Quiz: Pre-Serialism  
  • Analysis: Endgame 

Lesson 4: New Verticalities

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Triad Extensions
  • Tertian Harmonices in Non-functional Relationships
  • Analysis: La Cathedrale Engloutie
  • Exercise: Tertian, Chordal Language
  • Triad Voicings and Voice-Leading
  • Exercise: Voice Leading
  • Triad Layering
  • Exercise: Triad Layering

Lesson 5: Other Vertical Intervallic Structures

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Quartal Harmony
  • Analysis of “The Cage” by Charles Ives
  • Exercise: Compose Using Quartal Harmony
  • Quintal Harmony
  • Exercise: Compose Using Quintal Harmony
  • Secondal Harmony and Clusters
  • Exercise: Composing with Chord Clusters

Lesson 6: Harmonic Movement

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Parallelism and Harmonic direction
  • Harmonic Stasis
  • Cadential Devices

Lesson 7: Rhythmic Devices

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Mixed Meter
  • Rhythmic Complexity
  • Additive and Subtractive and Non-Retrogradeable Rhythms
  • No Meter

Lesson 8: Formal Devices

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Fibonacci Series, Mosaic Form
  • Moment Form
  • Cagean Rhythmic Structures

Lesson 9: Aleatory

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Chance
  • Indeterminacy
  • Proportional Notation
  • Graphic Notation

Lesson 10: Percussion and Found Instruments

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Standard Percussion Instruments
  • What’s in Your Kitchen?
  • Percussion is All Around You!

Lesson 11: Prepared Piano

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Inside the Piano
  • Simple Preparations
  • More Complex Preparations

Lesson 12: Other Extended Techniques

  • Authoring Introduction
  • Harmonics
  • Multiphonics
  • String Extended Techniques
  • Winds and Brass Extended Techniques

Marti Epstein

Author & Instructor

Marti Epstein is a composer whose music has been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, The Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, Ensemble Modern, and members of the Boston Symphony. She has completed commissions for the Foxborough Musical Association, the Fromm Foundation, The Munich Biennale, the Iowa Brass Quintet, the CORE Ensemble, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, Longy School of Music, the Ludovico Ensemble, Guerilla Opera, the Radius Ensemble, and the Callithumpian Consort. In 2005, she was a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant. Marti has been a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center (1986, 1988), and has been in residence at the MacDowell Colony (1998, 1999).

Marti is on the Steering Committee for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project Scoreboard and was Composer-in-Residence for the Radius Ensemble in 2009 and 2010. BSO English horn soloist Robert Sheena and the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble under the direction of Eric Hewitt have recorded "Bloom", her concerto for English horn and Wind Ensemble. Cellist Rhonda Rider recently premiered and recorded "So Near, So Far", a piece Marti wrote for Rhonda’s recent residency at the Grand Canyon. Marti’s new string quartet, Hidden Flowers was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center for the 2012 Festival of Contemporary Music 2012, where it was premiered in August 2012. In November 2015, Marti will be releasing Hypnagogia, a CD of her chamber music. Marti is Professor of Composition at Berklee College of Music and also teaches composition at Boston Conservatory.


Completion of Music Notation and Score Preparation Using Finale or Music Notation Using Sibelius and Music Theory and Composition 4 or equivalent knowledge and experience is required.

Required Textbooks

None required

Software Requirements

  • Notation Software (optional)

Mac Users

  • OS X 10.9 Mavericks or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Windows Users

  • Windows 7 or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Hardware Requirements

  • Multiple hard drives (at least three) or other storage media for backing up projects
  • 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)
  • 500 MB hard drive space
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Webcam
  • Internet connection with at least 4 Mbps download speed ( to verify or download the Speedtest by Ookla app from your mobile app store)


Got a question? Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at We can also answer basic questions in the comments below. Please note that all comments are public.

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