Composition and Music Technology

Degrees Available

Bachelor of Music in Composition • Bachelor of Arts in Music in Composition • Bachelor of Science in Composition • DMA in Composition* • PhD in Composition

  • For more information on degrees, ensembles, summer session, study abroad, and complete curricular handbooks, visit our Academics Page.
  • To apply to the Bienen School of Music, visit our Admission Page.

*DMA not admitting for fall 2018

Composition and Music Technology at the Bienen School of Music

The composition and music technology 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, Aaron Jay Kernis, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Steve Reich – spend two to three 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 and music technology 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 the liberal arts-oriented BAMus and BS degrees are also available. Many composition and music technology majors take advantage of the dual 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. Another option that BM composition students have undertaken is combining their composition studies with a minor in music technology. For more information on dual 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, music technology, and analysis, as well as multi-disciplinary electives in 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:

  • Phenomenology of Sound
  • Sound Installation Art
  • Contemporary Opera
  • Content
  • Materials of Music Since 1945
  • The Art of Noise
  • Technology-Based Performance
  • Aesthetics for Composers
  • Composing With Computers
  • Producing in the Virtual Studio
  • Current Compositional Praxis

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, John Luther Adams, Mason Bates, Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, Aaron Cassidy, John Corigliano, Chaya Czernowin, Richard Danielpour, David Dunn, Julio Estrada, Stacy Garrop, Aaron Jay Kernis, Oliver Knussen, Johannes Kreidler, David Lang, Helmut Lachenmann, Paul Lansky, Tod Machover, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Tristan Murail, Andrew Norman, Pauline Oliveros, Matthias Pintscher, Michael Pisaro, Enno Poppe, Bernard Rands, David Rakowski, Steve Reich, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Rand Steiger, Barry Truax, Ken Ueno, Param Vir, Andy Vores, and Amy Williams.

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
  • performances and readings by visiting artists, who in recent years have included eighth Blackbird, ICE, Graeme Jennings, JACK Quartet, Spektral Quartet, dal niente, Lucas Fels, Marcus Weiss, Marco Fusi
  • performances and reading sessions by the Contemporary Music Ensemble an annual reading session of student works by the Symphonic Wind Ensemble
  • an annual opportunity for a student composition to be selected for performance by the Symphony Orchestra on one of its regular season concerts.

In addition, student composers work with guest performers under the aegis of the Institute for New Music.

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.

Note: Graduate students interested in pursuing the PhD degree may enter either after the completion of a master's 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 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
  • performances and readings by visiting artists, who in recent years have included Ensemble Recherche, Eighth Blackbird, ICE, Ensemble Linea, Callithumpian Consort, JACK Quartet, Spektral Quartet, Dal Niente, Graeme Jennings, Lucas Fels, Marcus Weiss, Mike Svoboda, Marco Fusi, Fonema Consort, Third Coast Percussion, and loadbang
  • performances and reading sessions by the Contemporary Music Ensemble
  • an annual reading session of student works by the Symphonic Wind Ensemble
  • an annual opportunity for a student composition to be selected for performance by the Symphony Orchestra on one of its regular season concerts
  • 200+ solo and chamber ensemble recitals presented annually by performance students.

In addition, student composers work with guest performers under the aegis of the Institute for New Music.

Course Offerings

Doctoral student composers regularly take cutting-edge, upper-level courses in subjects such as

  • Phenomenology of Sound
  • Sound Installation Art
  • Contemporary Opera
  • Content
  • Materials of Music Since 1945
  • The Art of Noise
  • Technology-Based Performance
  • Aesthetics for Composers
  • Composing With Computers
  • Producing in the Virtual Studio
  • Current Compositional Praxis

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, John Luther Adams, Mason Bates, Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, Aaron Cassidy, John Corigliano, Chaya Czernowin, Richard Danielpour, David Dunn, Julio Estrada, Stacy Garrop, Aaron Jay Kernis, Oliver Knussen, Johannes Kreidler, David Lang, Helmut Lachenmann, Paul Lansky, Tod Machover, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Tristan Murail, Andrew Norman, Pauline Oliveros, Matthias Pintscher, Michael Pisaro, Enno Poppe, Bernard Rands, David Rakowski, Steve Reich, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Rand Steiger, Barry Truax, Ken Ueno, Param Vir, Andy Vores, and Amy Williams.

After Northwestern

Composition 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 Arditti Quartet, Ensemble Modern, ensemble recherche, Apartment House, Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart, Champ d’Action, ASKO Ensemble, Ensemble SurPlus, Ictus Ensemble, 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 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.



Experience music from the Composition and Music Technology program by searching our Davee Media Library for performances, master classes, and much more!

Questions?

Request information from the Bienen School of Music.