Music Theory and Composition 1

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Authored by Suzanne Clark, Kari Juusela


Course Code: OCOMP-110

Next semester starts April 5

Level 1

Level 1

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


In this music composition course, you will gain a solid understanding of music fundamentals while building your own musical language. You will receive a detailed look at the major and minor keys, as well as tools to help you comprehend scales and chords so that you can use them in your own music. An understanding of basic music theory will support you in all of your musical endeavors, eventually making the application of advanced topics much easier.

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This course will to take you from rhythm and phrasing, through to scales and tonality, and then conclude with intervals and chord building. This course will also examine notational systems and the specifics of notating music, teaching you to put your own music into a form that will be transferable to others in the field. Advanced topics in this music composition course include modes, chord scales and tensions, as well as modal interchange and melodic and compositional techniques. In addition, there will be a focus on writing for the rhythm section.

One unique feature of the curriculum is its blend of both traditional and contemporary harmony, allowing you to receive a historical understanding of current topics—as well as an increased mastery of these topics.

On a weekly basis, you will be asked to engage with your classmates and instructor as you work your way through each lesson. To help you thoroughly experience and understand the material, you will be given activities and exercises to complete for each topic. There will also be weekly compositional assignments, giving you the opportunity to practice writing, with approximately half of these assignments scored to a visual media clip.

By the end of this course, you will be able to:

  • Identify and apply the melodic elements of motif, melodic phrasing, repetition, diatonic sequence, melodic cadence, antecedent/consequent, scale-tone tendencies, and open and closed phrasing
  • Identify and construct major, harmonic minor scales, and use of chord scales
  • Build and recognize triads, power chords, 7th and other four-note chords
  • Use harmonic function and voice leading and apply them to your writing with concepts of triadic, 7th chord, inversion, and tension substitution voice leading in contemporary and classical styles
  • Create, identify and label major and minor key harmonic phrases based on harmonic function and hierarchy of pitch
  • Write for drums and bass by being able to identify, notate and construct the components of a basic drum set groove and construct a variety of bass and drum groove styles
  • Apply theoretical analysis to contemporary music and traditional classical music using Baroque period figured bass
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors
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Lesson 1: Introductions, Resources, and Rhythm

  • Pulse and Meter
  • Basic Rhythmic Patterns
  • Imaginary Bar Line
  • Rhythmic Phrasing
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 2: Melody and Tonality

  • Treble Clef and Accidentals
  • Tonality and Major Key
  • Leger Lines
  • The Movable “Do” Solfege System
  • Motif and Melody
  • Music Transcription
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 3: Intervals, Scales, and Keys

  • Melodic and Harmonic Intervals
  • Interval Qualities
  • The Bass Clef
  • Grand Staff, Interval Gymnastics, and Compound Intervals
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 4: Triads – Building Upon Intervals

  • Triads, Sus4 Chords, and Power Chords
  • Chords Symbols
  • Diatonic Triads in Major Key
  • Contemporary and Classical Harmonic Analysis
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 5: Chords in Motion

  • Harmonic Function and Progressions
  • Triadic Voice-leading
  • Figured Bass
  • Harmonizing a Melody with Triads
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 6: Minor Key

  • Relative Minor
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Harmonic Analysis in Minor Key
  • Harmonizing a Minor Key Melody
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 7: 7th Chords and Voice-leading

  • Building 7th and Other Four-Note Chords
  • Diatonic 7th Chords in Major and Minor Key
  • Harmonic Function and Voice-leading of 7th Chords in Contemporary Harmony
  • Classical Voice-leading and Figured Bass for 7th Chords
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 8: Writing for Drums and Bass

  • Drum Set Notation and Application
  • 4-String Bass Notation Application
  • Writing for Drum and Bass
  • Drum and Bass Groove Styles
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 9: Major Key Chord Scales

  • Relative Major Key Modes
  • Major Key Chord Scales and Diatonic Tensions
  • Major Key Modes and Chord Scales
  • Melody, Use, and Analysis of Non-Chord Tones in Traditional Harmony
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 10: Modal Interchange

  • Parallel Modes
  • Modal Interchange
  • Voice-leading with Inversions
  • Voice-leading and Tension Substitution
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 11: Musical Composition Applied

  • Hybrid Chords
  • Introduction to Song and Instrumental Forms
  • Score Layout
  • Building Compositions
  • Notation Corner

Lesson 12: Blues

  • The Blues Melody and Lyric
  • The 12-Bar Blues and Form
  • Blues Scale and 7th Chords
  • Blues Scale and Tensions


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

  • Ability to read notated music 
  • Ability to record MIDI in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
  • Ability to sync your compositions with various short video clips and export as MP4 file

Required Textbook(s)

  • None required

Software Requirements

Hardware Requirements

  • MIDI keyboard highly recommended
  • Audio interface highly recommended
  • A printer so that you can print out music examples used in the course
  • Scanner/phone camera to copy and export handwritten materials
  • Manuscript paper with 8 or 9 staves per page

After enrolling, please check the Getting Started section of your course for potential deals on required materials. Our Deals page also features several discounts you can take advantage of as a current student. Please contact for any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in live chats. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of  Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software (available in the course when joining your first chat)
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal Microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Suzanne Clark


Suzanne M. Clark is an Associate Professor in the Harmony Department at Berklee College of Music and also teaches in the Songwriting Department and courses for Performance Health.

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In 2010, Suzanne was the recipient of the Don Wilkins Curriculum Award, having authored five courses, including The Music of the Beatles, The Solo Careers of the Beatles, The Creative Flame, Integral Tai Chi, and Playing in the Key of Chi: Qigong for Musicians. She also teaches the Music of John Lennon. In 2014, Suzanne was featured in USA Today and on New England Cable News for the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. She also guest lectured on John Lennon for a Harvard University program.

Suzanne is a bassist, and throughout the years has played and recorded in a variety of genres including jazz, musical theater, world and contemporary music. She has performed and given clinics in New England, Pennsylvania, New York, and the Caribbean and Sweden. She was a guest lecturer at Northwood University's Creativity Conference where she focused on musical creativity. Currently, Suzanne also teaches an online graduate course, Seminar in Creativity, which focuses on creative blocks of creative artists and is based on research and studies related to her MA in Critical and Creative Thinking. Read Less

Kari Juusela


Kari Henrik Juusela is a Finnish-American composer, performer, and educator who presently serves as dean of the Professional Writing and Music Technology Division at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition to writing music in styles ranging from pop to contemporary classical, he enjoys playing and recording the cello, bass, guitar, piano, table, and the Finnish Kantele. 

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His compositions have won numerous awards from such organizations as the Vienna State Opera, the International Trumpet Guild, the London Chamber Music Society, the Composer’s Guild, GASTA, and ASCAP. He has also won the International Red Stick Composition Competition, the American Songwriting Awards Contest, the San Francisco Art Song Competition, and the Aliénor Harpsichord Composition Contest. His works have been performed at many important venues including Carnegie and Tchaikovsky Hall by internationally acclaimed ensembles and performers, as well as by numerous rock, pop, and jazz groups. He is the author of over 20 college-level courses and is the author of the Berklee Contemporary Dictionary of Music.

Dr. Juusela holds degrees from the University of Maryland, Georgia State University, and Berklee College of Music. His music is published by ISG Publications, MuusJuus Music, and Yelton Rhodes Music, and is recorded on ERM, Beauport Classical, Lakeside Records, Capstone Records, and MuusJuus Music. Read Less

Eric Byers


I am a guitarist, arranger, composer, and educator. I perform, write, and record in a wide variety of styles, including jazz, classical, pop, rock, bluegrass, R and B, Brazilian samba and choro, and some Afro-Latin music. Eric Byers was a founding member of Galak Tika, a Balinese gamelan (percussion orchestra) based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned his B.M. in Jazz Performance from Duquesne University and my M.M. in Jazz Performance from New England Conservatory.

George W Russell Jr.


A native of Pittsburgh, PA, inspirational Jazz Pianist George W. Russell, Jr. is a performer, a composer, and an educator. His performances range from a solo piano, to a groove-oriented jazz trio, to a soulful, fresh-sounding larger ensemble that arouses the listener's intellect and, most importantly, touches their soul. His playing is filled with passion, fire, soul, and most of all, spirit.

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Currently George is the Chair of the Harmony and Jazz Composition Department at the Berklee College of Music. Prior to becoming chair, he served as a professor of Harmony and Piano at Berklee. George has been awarded the Ted Pease Award for Excellence in Teaching, along with the Curriculum Development Award for the Writing Division. George has also been recognized with the highest award that Berklee gives to faculty, the Most Distinguished Faculty Award.

He graduated with his B.S. from Duquesne University and his M.M. from the New England Conservatory of Music. Russell has performed with Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Ernie Isley, Cecil McBee, Semenya McCord, Bob Moses, Tiger Okoshi, Billy Pierce, Richard Smallwood, Stan Strickland, and Lenny White. Read Less

Melissa Howe


Dr. Melissa Howe is a violinist whose interdisciplinary training in music theory, cognitive psychology, and education has served as the foundation for a multi-faceted career in the arts. Howe served on Berklee’s Boston campus as faculty for many years in the Composition, Ear Training, and String Departments. Her performances span a wide range, from  food opera to  video game string quartet to Björk, Harry Belafonte, and Bruce Springsteen, as well the superlative orchestras of Boston’s leading arts organizations. Currently serving as Chief of Staff in the Office of the President, Dr. Howe works tirelessly to support innovation and excellence at Berklee.

Gabriele Vanoni


Gabriele Vanoni was born in Milan, Italy in 1980. He obtained two Bachelor’s degrees in Piano and Composition at Milan Conservatory, followed by a Ph.D. in Music Composition at Harvard University. His compositional interests range from acoustic music to live electronics. His works have been widely performed in Europe and the Americas, in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Biennale di Venezia, ManiFeste, Moscow Conservatory, June in Buffalo, IRCAM, NYU, BIT Teatergarasjen in Bergen, and Accademia Chigiana di Siena, among many others. Likewise, various soloists and ensembles have now been involved in performing his music, such as the Ensemble Intercontemporain, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Talea Ensemble, Moscow Studio for New Music Ensemble, Ensemble L’arsenale, Mario Caroli, Diotima Quartet, Les Cris de Paris, Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, and many more. Gabriele was also awarded several prizes and mentions in local and international competitions. In addition to his activity as a composer, he served as the artistic director and founder of Suggestioni, a festival of Italian music in the United States. He also holds a degree in Business for the Arts, Culture and Communication from Bocconi University.

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After two years in Paris attending Cursus 1 and 2 at IRCAM, he moved back to the United States where he is currently an Assistant Chair in the composition department at Berklee College of Music. His recent commissions include a piece for the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan (Nutrire La Musica) and a new piece for accordion and string orchestra. Read Less


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