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Contemporary Music Theory

Tarleton State University

Instructor:  Dr. Vicky V. Johnson 


vjohnson@tarleton.edu   254/968-9238  Office: 122


MUSC 3249  Course Outline


  Syllabus    Links    Compositions    Finale

Week #


Note:   This is an organic document!  It will change. 

You are responsible for what is on this page, not a copy you made at the beginning of the semester.

The dates given in the right column are the due dates, not the day we will work on assignments in class.


If there is ever a problem with an assignment (technology problem, don't understand it, can't find it, etc.) do not wait until the due date (or time) to explain your problem.  This class is offered every OTHER spring semester.  You can't afford to fail it, so don't get behind.

Staff Paper  

Staff Paper/Keyboard



 Assignment Notes:

  1. I will not accept assignments done in ink.

  2. Please do not use miniscule notes or printing. 

  3. If something is not clear to you, ASK ME.  My schedule is on my door (122) or use the email hyperlink at the bottom of the page.

Week 1   

(beginning August 28)


Note: There are 28 class meetings this semester.  Each one counts 3 points (points come off the top, so you get the extra 16).  Tardies deduct 1 point each.




Overview of 20th Century Music

How do you make music "modern"?

When music became modern


Define music


Chapter 1: The Twilight of the Tonal System


Chromaticism out of control?

The decline of tonality


What is the composer thinking?



12-tone YouTube

Nuages gris (Gray Clouds): Liszt

Chromatic Mediants (p. 2)

See "How to" below

"I Want to Hold Your Hand"

C:  C  G7  Am  E

C  G7  Am  E

F  G7  C  Am

F  G  C

Where is the chromatic mediant relationship?

Exercise:  board work - build chromatic mediant and double chromatic mediant chord relationships



Assignments Due:




Put this webpage link on your desktop


I.  The challenge for the survival of 21st Century Art Music

  1. Concert halls have become museums
  2. Audiences are aging and younger generation has little interest in art music.
  3. Composers have and still are alienating audiences
  4. Performers, conductors and educators are watering down the repertoire in order to attract new audiences

II. The Solution
  1. Composers need to get back to writing "mainstream literary music" and competitions need to reward composers writing in this style
  2. Performers and conductors need to program "mainstream literary music"
  3. Educators need to teach the value of "mainstream literary music" and not equate it with "vernacular" music.
  4. Audiences need to be educated by performers, composers, and conductors speaking to them about the music.
  5. Government funding for performing and creating "mainstream literary music" should increase (Dr. Sy Brandon, Composer)


Sometimes the purpose of harmony/dissonance is voice-leading

Omnibus progression:  chromatic lines moving in opposite directions

"omni" all (all of the notes?)



Chipping away at the "rules"!


Chromatic mediant relationships

Tritone relationships

Real sequences

Brief tonicizations

Suspended tonality

Nonfunctional chord successions

Voice-leading chords

Unresolved dissonances

Interval cycles (moving by intervals that divide the octave equally; think diminished or augmented thirds)


Example:  Liszt:  Grey Clouds

How many of the above do you hear?


Week 2   

(beginning September 4)


No class on Monday for Labor Day



Chapter 2:  Scale Formations in 20th-Century Music




Poor Wayfaring Stranger (D#)

Amazing Grace (C#)

Nobody Knows (A#)



Octatonic scales


Modes (Scorch)



Make your own scale


Microtonal instrument


Pitch Inventory

Exercise Part B: Analysis p. 33


Assignments Due:




Read Chapter 2





Assignment 1





How to find Chromatic Mediants:

  1. Find all mediants (M3 and m3 above the root of the original chord and M3 and m3 below the root of the original chord)

  2. Build "like" chords (If the original chord is major, the 4 chromatic mediants will be major; if the original chord is minor, the 4 chromatic mediants will be minor)

How to find Doubly Chromatic Mediants:

  1. Look at the 4 chords you have above and change the quality (major to minor, or minor to major) Doubly Chromatic Mediants must be the opposite of the original chord (major or minor)

  2. Of these chords, only 2 will work because NO notes in the resulting chord can be the same as the original chord.






Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, IV

Debussy: Preludes, Book 1, No. 6, "Footprints in the Snow" ("Des pas sur la neige")

Zwilich: Piano Trio

Debussy: The Joyous Isle (L'isle joyeuse) mm.145 @ 44sec

Grieg: "Shepherd Boy," Op. 54, No. 1

Scriabin:  Prelude, Op. 74, No. 5





Casella: Eleven Children's Pieces, "Siciliana"

Debussy: Preludes, Book I, "Sails" (Voiles") mm.38-44@1:52

Lutoslawski: Livre Pour Orchestre

Week 3   

(beginning September 11)



Chapter 3:  Vertical Dimensions

Modern Harmonizations of "O Sacred Head"


Non-tertian Harmony

Extended Tertian Harmony

Debussy: Preludes, Book 11, "Heaths" ("Bruyeres") 


Prokofiev: Sonata for Flute and Piano Op. 94




Added Notes


Debussy: Preludes, Book 1, "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" ("La fille aux cheveaux de lin"), m. 23-24@1:16 


Split Chord Members


Copland: Vitebsk 

Open 5th Chords

Orff: Carmina Burana, "Veris leta facies" 



Quartal and Quintal Chords

Copland: Piano Fantasy, mm.20-24@0:45 

Secundal Chords

Ives: Piano Sonata No. 22(Concord), II 


Mixed Interval Chords

Example, p. 57

Whole-tone Chords

Scriabin Etude Op. 56 No. 4



Stravinsky: Petrushka, Second Tableau @0:35 


Chapter 4:  Horizontal Dimensions


New stylistic features of post-tonal melody


wide range

large leaps

Boulez: Le marteau sans maitre, III



Bartok: Music for String Instruments, Percussion, and Celesta, I 


less vocal (angular) melodies

Boulez: Le marteau sans maitre (The Hammer without a Master), IX 


Romantic influence remains

Walton: Violin Concerto, I


Melodic organization

still use traditional compositional devices (repetition, repeat, sequence, diminution, augmentation, etc.), but also new devices:


Motives (pitch class cells)

a collection of intervals, usually 3 or 4 notes

Webern example in textbook


12-tone melodies (score p. 73)

Schoenberg: Wind Quintet, Op. 26, III




5ths, octaves

Barber: String Quartet No. 1, Op 11, II (Adagio)  at 4:00


Chordal parallelism/harmonic parallelism/planing

Bartok: Piano Concerto No 2



Former reasons for dissonance: tension requiring resolution or decorative


Now, the "emancipation of the dissonance" (Schoenberg)


Stravinsky: The Soldier's Tale, "Great Chorale"


Tintinnabuli Technique

Part: Magnificat Antiphons, "O Konig aller Volker"



Assignments Due:



Read Chapter 3




Assignment 2

Note:  Please use enharmonic spelling for simplicity and don't use a key signature for these exercises.



Read Chapter 4











It is conceivable that what is unified form to the author or composer may of necessity be formless to his audience.

~ Charles Ives



Heads up!

Be thinking about your first composition assignment.

Due:  Week 5






Week 4   

(beginning September 18)


Chapter 5: Harmonic Progressions and Tonality




Debussy: Preludes, Book I, "The Engulfed Cathedral"



establishing a tonal center through non-traditional means


Britten: Serenade for Tenor Solo, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31, "Sonnet" m.33@3:30



Debussy: Preludes, Book II, "Fireworks" ("Feux d'artifice") m.91@3:50

Ives: Variations on America @3:20





Boulez: Le marteau sans maitre (The Hammer without a Master), IX



Using a diatonic scale without functional tonality


Stravinsky: Serenade in A, I m.52 @ 2:20



Piano Puzzler





London Bridge


Ain't Misbehavin'

This Land Is Your Land

Skip to My Lou

Silent Night

Happy Birthday




Hey Jude


Home on the Range

Nowhere Man



Aaron Copland

Auld Lang Syne

Oh Shenandoah

Happy Birthday



Bela Bartok

Jingle Bells

This Old Man

Camptown Races



Richard Strauss

I've Been Working on the Railroad






Every Night When the Sun Goes Down




Assignments Due:



Read Chapter 5




Assignment 3



For the creative spirit, limits are useful.

~ Leon Fleisher


Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Cadenza)

Week 5   

(beginning September 25)



Assignments Due:



Composition 1: Debussy


Finale file is due one hour before class time


Week 6   

(beginning October 2)



Chapter 6:  Developments in Rhythm


Perceived rhythm

Webern: Variations for Piano, Op. 27, II

Chopin: Prelude Op. 28


Changing time signatures


Nontraditional time signatures



Bartok: String Quartet No. 3, II

Mvt II at 5:00

2nd example after 7:30



Berio: Sequenza I

(Proportional notation)


Schwantner: And the Mountains Rising Nowhere


Added values


Nonretrogradable rhythms


Tempo modulation



Carter: String Quartet No. 1

at 1:00


Serialized rhythm

(stay tuned)



  1. Create a "color" by selecting a set of pitches (for example, the 5 pitches: B, E, C#, D, G)

  2. Create a "talea"* by selecting a set of durations (for example, the first 6 durations that comprise the rhythm of 'Happy Birthday')

  3. Put them together, cycling both over and over

  4. Eventually, the beginnings of the 2 will coincide again which will complete the 'isorhythmic cycle.'

If the color and the talea have equal parts, that is an ostinato!

*a medieval term for rhythmic pattern (as opposed to a melodic one).



Graphic notation

It is not possible to compose or perform "outside the box"


Artikulation (Ligeti)


Meta HP (Xenakis)


Students write graphic notation


Epitaph for Moonlight

Vocal music


Gravity (Matsumoto)

Open Me (Ewen)


Shepard tone


Shepard tones (detectable)

Audio illusion1

Audio illusion2


Animated Graphical Score of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

Assignments Due:



Read Chapter 6




Added values

Formula for Tempo Modulation

The following formula illustrates how to determine the tempo before or after a metric modulation, or, alternately, how many of the associated note values will be in each measure before or after the modulation:

new tempo


number of pivot note values in old measure
old temponumber of pivot note values in new measure

Thus if the two half notes in 4/4 time at a tempo of quarter note = 84 are made equivalent with three half notes at a new tempo, that tempo will be:





x = 126



3 Stage Format

  1. Determine the regular division of the beat
  2. “Transition” or “pivot” using an irregular division of the beat
  3. Complete the modulation:  the irregular division of the beat becomes the regular division of a new beat (you must maintain the earlier duration, but now it has a new tempo)




Week 7   

(beginning October 9)


Chapter 6:  Rhythm, cont.


Review for MidTerm Exam

MidTerm Exam Wednesday

Assignments Due:



Assignment 4

Review for Exam




Mid-Term Exam

Week 8   

(beginning October 16)

Go over midterm Exam


Chapter 8: 


"A reaction against the style of late Romanticism"


Octet for Wind Instruments (1923) "Sinfonia"



Rite of Spring

Example 2


Example 3


Contrast with Tchaikovsky Swan Lake



Fascinatin' Rhythm

You Get a Line and I'll Get a Pole

I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair

Auld Lang Syne

Fiddler on the Roof/If I Were a Rich Man

Chapter 9:  Non-serial atonality


Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2, Mvmt. 4 ("I feel the air of other planets . . .")


Intro to Set Theory


Set Theory Explained




Using clockface




Assignments Due:


Schoenberg: Three Piano Pieces (1909), Op. 11, No. 2

Pitch-class set analysis


Schoenberg:  String Quartet No. 2, Mvt. 4 (Assez rapide)

Schoenberg:  String Quartet No. 2, Mvt. 1

reminds me of Twilight Zone

Webern:  Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 (1913), V

Crumb:  Madrigals, Book 1 (1956), No. 1


Schoenberg:  Klavierstucke, Op. 11 #1




Interval Vectors


Normal order:  the pitch order that spans the smallest possible interval

Best normal order: normal order or its inversion - whichever one puts smallest intervals to the left

Prime form: resulting series of numbers


Quick Set Theory

(straight to the prime form)

  1. Line up pitches in ascending order and add the octave

  2. Find the largest interval and place those two notes on opposite ends (this is the normal order)

  3. Assign numbers both ways and the best direction wins (this is the best normal order)

  4. Assign numbers to the best normal order (this is the prime form)

Forte numbers


Week 9   

(beginning October 23)



Assignments Due:



Read Chapter 9




Assignment 5



Week 10 

(beginning October 30)


Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

  • tonal music (1895-1910)

  • atonal music (1910-1920)

  • serial music (1920-1951)

(1933 came to U.S. and taught from 1936-1945)

12-tone Greatest Hits




Chapter 10:  Classical serialism




12-tone Technique


The Matrix


Simple 12-tone example


Schoenberg: Suite for Piano (Op. 25), Prelude



Matrix generator



Schoenberg Piano Puzzler






Schoenberg Klavierstudk Op. 33b






Assignments Due:





Handout  (Schoenberg "Tot")

Finish completely for extra credit





12-tone Matrix Construction handout


A set containing tonal cells (row from Violin Concerto, Alban Berg, 1935)



In preparation for serial compositions:


The Owl and the Laser Bat

Awesome demonstration using nursery tunes

Week 11 

(beginning November 6)



Monday and Wednesday:  Piano lab


  12-tone Matrix Construction handout


Week 12

(beginning November 10)


Electronic Music


Theramin on Wednesday!


Experimental instruments

Roli Seaboard Piano



Chapter 13:  Serialism after 1945


Integral serialism


The World's Ugliest Piece of Music


Three Compositions for Piano (Babbitt) p. 266

earliest examples of "total" serialism


Structures (Pierre Boulez) p. 270, 280-81

Read paragraph summary on p. 279


Assignments Due:



Composition 2: 12-tone

Finale file is due one hour before class time



Stravinsky's view of the evolution of music


Some historians feel that the
single most important composition of the 20th Century was

Igor Stravinsky’s

Le Sacre du Printemps

The Rite of Spring

Premiered in Paris in 1913


The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self.  And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

~ Igor Stravinsky


Week 13 

(beginning November 20)



Chapter 14, 15:  Chance, Choice; Minimalism




In Bb


 Happy Thanksgiving!





Assignments Due:




Read Chapter 14 and 15

There will be a quiz



What can be left to the performer's choice?

  1. Instrumentation and/or number of performers

  2. Dynamics

  3. Rhythm (Ex: proportional durations p. 125)

  4. Tempo

  5. Pitch (Ex: general instructions of high or low)

  6. Form (Ex: choosing the order or selecting sections)

Stockhausen (Klavierstuck X) p. 289 (read) and p. 290 (score)


Scores can be

  1. traditional

  2. graphic

  3. text (p. 296)

Read Chapter 14 for other ideas.

Week 14 

(beginning November 27)



Beyond Minimalism:  Amalgamation of techniques

Tavener:  The Protecting Veil

(Score p. 312)


Svyati Boje (1995)

"Holy One"


Setting the Stage for the 21st Century



Assignments Due:


MonCompose an aleatory composition that can be performed in class


Bring examples of 21st century "art music"






Week 15 

(beginning December 4)




Last class day:  Wednesday, December 6


Final Exam Study Guide



Final Exam:  Monday, December 11 at 11:30am



Beauty Amid the Discord:  Music in the 20th Century

some of the philosophy after the fact


Classical Music:  2005 and Beyond


5 Modern Classical Pieces for Pop Listeners

5 Pop Recordings for Classical Fans


Alex Ross



Music and Food



Write your own piece with a partner (12 meas., 48 beats using graphic notation)




Review for Final Exam


Twentieth Century Terms from Kostka

20th Century Music in 16'54"

Who are the Successors?


It really is!




 Mikrokosmos score (Bartok) 

Schoenberg Klavierstucke Op. 11, No. 1 (flash file)

George Crumb  Whale Songs


Piano Puzzler

Satie (March 30, 2005)


Staff Paper  

 Staff Paper/Keyboard

Seating Chart





"Custom reconciles us to everything."

-- Edmund Burke (1729-97; philosopher)



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