Music Composition

Degrees Available

  • Bachelor of Music
  • Bachelor of Arts in Music
  • Doctor of Musical Arts


About the Composition Program

The Composition Program is among the most vibrant and progressive in the country, featuring internationally recognized faculty members who are regularly performed by top orchestras, chamber ensembles, and soloists throughout the world. Because of the program’s emphasis on individuality, the student body is impressively diverse, representing a wide range of stylistic interests, techniques, notations, performance venues and audiences. The school’s Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition provides a special dimension to the program, as prizewinners – thus far John Adams, Oliver Knussen, Kaija Saariaho, John Luther Adams, and Aaron Jay Kernis – spend four weeks on campus, closely interacting with students and faculty.

Students draw upon the excellent resources of the Bienen School of Music, comprising premier researchers and performers, and a music library that houses the largest collection of post-1945 music in the world. Students are also encouraged to take advantage of the many assets of the larger university community, which provides opportunities for collaborative and experimental work and research in other disciplines. Off campus, the thriving cultural community in Chicago offers students a full complement of theater, dance, art, and music, the latter ranging from jazz to experimental to standard repertoire by the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

New music plays a vital role in Northwestern’s musical life. In addition to six concerts by the Contemporary Music Ensemble, the orchestral, band, and choral programs regularly present contemporary repertoire, most recently works by John Adams, Elliott Carter, Olivier Messiaen, Steve Reich, and Frank Zappa. Additionally, the New Music Northwestern concert series features performances by visiting soloists and ensembles of national and international reputation.


Undergraduate Program

The Composition faculty believes that a successful composer is not merely a master of craft and technique, but rather someone with curiosity and a broad knowledge in diverse fields across the arts, sciences, and humanities. An intensive composition curriculum, therefore, is paired with the broad academic and cultural resources available at an elite research university. 

Degree Options
Students construct a flexible course of study that best matches their musical and career goals. Most students pursue the BM, a professional degree, but a liberal arts-oriented BAMus is also available. Many composition majors take advantage of the double degree program, that pairs a degree in composition with a second degree in the arts and sciences, journalism, or engineering; the ad hoc, or self-designed degree; or a double major within the Bienen School of Music, such as the pairing of a major in composition with one in performance. For more information on double-degree programs and ad hoc programs, please visit our Degrees Page.

Course Offerings
In addition to a comprehensive sequence of core music courses, composition majors take classes in orchestration, counterpoint, and analysis, as well as multi-disciplinary electives in music technology, music cognition, and musicology. Courses in the humanities and sciences may be chosen from an extensive list of options in six broad subject areas.

Composition majors regularly take cutting-edge, upper-level courses alongside composition graduate students in subjects such as Extended Techniques, Minimalism, Composing for Dance, Experimental Music, and Free Improvisation. Additionally, all students participate in the Composition Colloquium, a weekly forum where students and faculty present and discuss their current work. The Colloquium regularly hosts guest composers of international renown, such as John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, John Corigliano, David Lang, Helmut Lachenmann, and Tristan Murail.

Performance Opportunities
The performance of student compositions is a central focus of the program. Numerous opportunities exist for collaborative work with graduate and undergraduate performance majors, both in solo and ensemble settings, including

  • three Student Composer Concerts per year
  • a composer in residence program pairing student composers with student chamber ensembles in yearlong collaborations
  • performances and reading sessions by the NU Contemporary Music Ensemble
  • an annual competition comprising readings by the Chamber and Symphony Orchestras with one work selected to be performed by either ensemble on their concert series

After Northwestern
Many graduating seniors have been awarded fellowships and assistantships at the nation’s leading graduate programs in music. Alumni currently hold faculty positions at a number of colleges and universities; others work as conductors, performers, music critics, composers of commercial music, or in administrative positions in chamber ensembles and orchestras; and still others go on to graduate school or employment in a variety of fields.


Doctoral Program

Students in this program are strongly supported in their efforts to build not only technical proficiency but also a unique and original musical voice. As a result, they are surrounded and enriched by colleagues of a wide diversity of perspective. All students are actively assisted in developing relationships with professional soloists and ensembles outside of the University setting, both locally and internationally.

The composition program provides significant support to students for the purposes of travel and logistics for performances, research, and other professional development activities. Funding level is based on merit of the project, with 10-20 proposals funded each year.

Admittance to the doctoral program generally occurs after the completion of a master’s degree, but, in special cases, students enter following the completion of an undergraduate degree.

Note: Graduate students interested in pursuing the DMA degree may enter either after the completion of a masters degree or, for especially gifted students, after earning an undergraduate degree. 

All entering doctoral students receive a full tuition scholarship and a work stipend.

Performance Opportunities
The performance of student compositions is a central focus of the DMA program. Opportunities include

  • three Student Composer Concerts per year
  • performances and readings by visiting artists, who in recent years have included eighth Blackbird, ICE, Robert Black, Mario Caroli, Robert Dick, Graeme Jennings, Seth Josel, Marilyn Nonken, Ian Pace, and Stefano Scodanibbio
  • performances and reading sessions by the NU Contemporary Music Ensemble
  • an annual competition comprising readings by the Chamber and Symphony Orchestras with one work selected to be performed by either ensemble on their concert series
  • 200+ solo and chamber ensemble recitals presented annually by performance students 

Course Offerings

  • traditional counterpoint, orchestration, and analysis
  • cutting-edge offerings on the repertoire and musical thought of our time, such as Extended Techniques, Music of the Last Decade, Minimalism, Composing for Dance, Experimental Music, Musical Space, and Free Improvisation
  • multi-disciplinary courses in music technology, music cognition, and musicology that address contemporary music and aesthetics from a variety of perspectives
  • weekly Colloquium for the presentation and discussion of student and faculty work, and that of visiting composers. Recent guests include John Adams, Louis Andriessen, William Bolcom, Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, John Corigliano, Oliver Knussen, David Lang, Helmut Lachenmann, Alvin Lucier, Tristan Murail, Pauline Oliveros, Erik Oña, Michael Pisaro, Bernard Rands, and Gerhard Stäbler

After Northwestern
DMA program alumni have gone on to establish notable careers as composers, performers, educators, and scholars. Their achievements include

  • performances at major international festivals including Gaudeamus, Huddersfield, ISCM World Music Days, Donaueschingen, SEAMUS, and Wien Modern
  • courses and residencies at Darmstadt, Royaumont, Acanthes, June in Buffalo, DAAD Künstlerprogramm, Tanglewood, and Aspen
  • performances by such ensembles as Ensemble Modern, ensemble recherche, Apartment House, Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart, Champ d’Action, Het Trio, ASKO Ensemble, Ensemble SurPlus, Ictus Ensemble, Ensemble Sospeso, Ensemble 21, the Bozzini, Diotima, and Kairos String Quartets, and numerous soloists
  • teaching positions at colleges and universities throughout the U.S.

Video Performances of Composition Faculty Works

The following videos of performances of compositions by the music composition faculty are from our Davee Media Library, a video, audio, and photographic collection of performances, master classes, and documentaries.

SPEKTRAL QUARTET performs Hans Thomalla's Albumblatt   Video: Albumblatt (2010), Hans Thomalla (January 2012)
A complete performance of the United States premiere performance of Bienen School of Music faculty composer Hans Thomalla's Albumblatt. The performance is by the SPEKTRAL QUARTET from their concert Break Right Through That Line.
     
SPEKTRAL QUARTET performs Lee Hyla's Strin Quartet No. 4   Video: String Quartet No. 4 (1999) (January 2012)
A complete performance of Bienen School of Music faculty composer Lee Hyla's wonderful String Quartet No. 4. This performance is by the SPEKTRAL QUARTET from their concert titled Break Right Through That Line.
     
SPEKTRAL QUARTET performs Jay Alan Yim's The Blue Voice of Air   Video: The Blue Voice of Air (1990), Jay Alan Yim (January 2012)
A complete performance of Bienen School of Music faculty composer Jay Alan Yim's 1990 composition titled The Blue Voice of Air. The performers are the SPEKTRAL QUARTET from their Break Right Through That Line concert. This performance was the United States premiere of this work.















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