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davidoff

Master's in Computer Music Composition

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I'm strongly considering trying to go back to school to get a master's degree in computer music composition, and I'm wondering if anyone here has ever been through that kind of program before.

It's not so much that I care about the degree as it is that I want to put myself in an environment where I can focus on music pretty much all of the time. I'm sure the time would be invaluable in terms of building a strong portfolio.

My undergrad degrees are in music performance and computer science, and I have a decent portfolio of acoustic works already and can build one of electronic works over the next ten months or so, so I'm not worried about meeting prerequisites.

I know Indiana University, the University of North Carolina, and the Peabody Conservatory all have computer music programs, but I'm pretty much ruling out Peabody, because I went to the computer music department's end-of-semester recital awhile back and it was a real turn-off to the program. I'm sure several other schools have programs, too; I just have to do some more research.

Anyway, I'd love to hear from anyone who's in or has been through such a program: is/was it worth it? What did you like/hate about it? That kind of thing.

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I considered a computer music master's (and was accepted to Peabody's program) but ultimately ended up getting a traditional composition master's (not at Peabody). My undergrad degree was commercial/electronic music with a computer science minor -- pretty similar to yours.

So seriously, why do you want to spend two more years in school? They're going to ask you this when you apply, and "I want to focus on music and work on my portfolio" isn't going to cut it. What happens after you get the master's degree? You'll have a degree and a portfolio, which is exactly the situation you're in right now. Are there particular aspects of music making that you feel you need to work on that you think grad school will address? Do you want to teach? Are you just avoiding the real world?

Grad school, especially at a place like Peabody or Indiana, isn't like undergrad. It kicks your ass. Ask any grad student. You're not going to have any more time to work on your portfolio than you have now. You'll likely have less time for composition. You will be busy with coursework, and reading, and possibly TA duties, and more reading. Specifically, the musical benefits of being in this environment (which is what it sound like you're really interested in) are 1) you have a support network of friends who are doing the same thing you are, 2) you're gaining knowledge about music and encountering new ideas that change the way you think about things, and 3) you have the school's performance resources at your disposal. Numbers 1 and 3 go away after you graduate. Number 2 stays with you and is the most important.

If it helps, the reasons I decided to get a master's degree were firstly that I thought my composition skills for acoustic instruments weren't as good as I wanted them to be and secondly that I was interested in going on to get a doctorate and teaching at the university level. (The reason I didn't go into a computer music program was that the curriculum seemed too close to what I had already studied as an undergrad.) The result of my studies were that I gained confidence as a composer, I picked up a lot of knowledge about music theory that hadn't even been on my radar before I started, and I discovered that I didn't want to teach.

It was worthwhile, but only because I received a tuition waiver and stipend that allowed me to stay out of debt. If I had gone deeply into debt to get the degree, I would currently be second-guessing my life choices.

Out of curiosity, how was Peabody's recital a turn off? My recollection of the program and the music that people were making there is that it was all pretty much what you would expect from any computer music program.

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Bear with me while I jump around, here:

Out of curiosity, how was Peabody's recital a turn off?

It was a turn-off in the sense that 90% of what I heard there barely classified as music. I know you can pretty much apply the label "music" to any combination of sounds these days, but there will always be that distinction between music that the average person could enjoy and music that the average person would dismiss as garbage. Watching a guy play random multiphonics on an E-flat clarinet for nine minutes while a graphic on a screen distorts will never cut it, and that's what most of the compositions were. I talked to the department head afterwards, and while he never explicitly stated it, it seems like they're pretty encouraging of extreme experimentalism. Maybe I have misconceptions of what the focus in a computer music program is?

...being in this environment (which is what it sound like you're really interested in)...

Correct. But don't take that to mean that I think I have nothing to learn about composing, or that I'm a master of music theory. Writing for large ensembles and orchestral arrangement, in particular, are things on which I need to work.

You'll likely have less time for composition.

That's terrifying, if true. Right now, I work as a social game programmer, and the hours often border on ridiculous. Money's fantastic, but I don't really care about money. Call it a motivation problem if you want, but after spending so many hours focused on work, it's difficult to get some serious composing done. Maybe other people don't agree, but I find composing to be pretty mentally taxing.

Are there particular aspects of music making that you feel you need to work on that you think grad school will address? Do you want to teach? Are you just avoiding the real world?

1. Yes: in addition to what I said above, I need to work on pretty much every aspect on the computer side of things.

2. No.

3. Of course! The real world is pretty terrible when you spend every day doing something you hate.

I'm not afraid to admit that in addition to grad school being a good source of continued education that would let me really focus on some skills of mine that need major development, it's also a way of escaping my current situation, where I feel trapped and completely unable to put time into things that I really want to pursue. I was also hoping that maybe the years I'd spend in school would be good for networking, or getting my foot in the door of the music industry, so that after graduation I would be able to move pretty much immediately into a situation where I'd be able to at least support myself.

Thanks, by the way, for being up-front about the trials involved and the reality of the situation, and for not just saying "yeah, man, you should do it!"

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It was a turn-off in the sense that 90% of what I heard there barely classified as music. I know you can pretty much apply the label "music" to any combination of sounds these days, but there will always be that distinction between music that the average person could enjoy and music that the average person would dismiss as garbage. Watching a guy play random multiphonics on an E-flat clarinet for nine minutes while a graphic on a screen distorts will never cut it, and that's what most of the compositions were. I talked to the department head afterwards, and while he never explicitly stated it, it seems like they're pretty encouraging of extreme experimentalism. Maybe I have misconceptions of what the focus in a computer music program is?

That's what computer music is, or at least what academics mean by the term "computer music." You'll find the same thing in any school with a computer music program. These programs follow in the tradition of the people who were experimenting with tape loops and early synthesizers in the mid-20th century, and the compositional emphasis tends to be on sound design, interaction between performer and computer, digital manipulation of acoustic sounds, and that sort of thing. These things appeal to a lot of people as a way to get away from the relative rigidness of traditionally notated acoustic composition and explore things that are impossible to do within the acoustic tradition. Which is to say, it's an acquired taste.

Are you looking a program that focuses more on things like traditional film scoring, sample library use, and commercial recording studio tech? These may go under the names music technology, or music for media, or music production and engineering, or something like that. My undergrad program (Western Carolina University) was sort of like this -- it was basically a hybrid of traditional music study and recording studio stuff. I think Berklee has a lot of programs like that, although I'm not sure if they're graduate level. In general, for these sorts of programs, look for professors with music industry experience rather than academic credentials.

Another possibility would be to do a traditional composition degree but try to find a school that emphasizes the particular aspects of computers and music technology that you're interested in.

That's terrifying, if true. Right now, I work as a social game programmer, and the hours often border on ridiculous. Money's fantastic, but I don't really care about money. Call it a motivation problem if you want, but after spending so many hours focused on work, it's difficult to get some serious composing done. Maybe other people don't agree, but I find composing to be pretty mentally taxing.
I was probably too hasty in trying to compare composition time as a grad student to your current available time. My estimate was more as compared with undergraduate study or a 9-5 job. In your situation, you're probably right -- you probably will be more motivated and productive in a school environment, but it still may not be as much of an improvement as you'd like. For me, the things that were most beneficial about the school environment were the deadlines and knowing that I had to come up with something every week so we'd have something to look at during my composition lesson. More than available time, that was what tended to motivate me.
1. Yes: in addition to what I said above, I need to work on pretty much every aspect on the computer side of things.
For you, what is the computer side of things? You've already established that the things places like Peabody are doing aren't interesting to you, so what exactly is it that you want to do? As I mentioned above, there are different programs that focus on slightly different things, so you should do some looking around to figure out exactly what part of combining computers with music appeals to you and then try to choose a program based on what you're specifically interested in.
I'm not afraid to admit that in addition to grad school being a good source of continued education that would let me really focus on some skills of mine that need major development, it's also a way of escaping my current situation, where I feel trapped and completely unable to put time into things that I really want to pursue. I was also hoping that maybe the years I'd spend in school would be good for networking, or getting my foot in the door of the music industry, so that after graduation I would be able to move pretty much immediately into a situation where I'd be able to at least support myself.
Just keep in mind that when your two years are up, you're still going to be more marketable as a software engineer than as a musician. Networking might happen in school, but an industry job is in no way guaranteed to graduates. Especially if you're specifically looking for composing gigs -- composition is basically a freelance thing, unless you're in academia. The industry doesn't even care whether you have a degree, so the degree in itself won't get you anywhere -- it's about any contacts you manage to make, having the skills to produce things quickly, being in the right place at the right time, and marketing yourself well. If that's the dream, then by all means go for it. Post-grad school, I'm working foodservice as a day job, trying to get started freelancing, and scouting church musician jobs. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Thanks, by the way, for being up-front about the trials involved and the reality of the situation, and for not just saying "yeah, man, you should do it!"
And I'm sorry if I come across as being really cynical. Grad school's really not as horrible as I'm probably making it sound. But most new grad students have, I think, somewhat unrealistic expectations and rarely have people in their lives who will discuss their prospects with them frankly, aside from other grad students who are in the same situation that they are.

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I just want to add that Moseph is spot on as far as how academia perceives computer music (and especially electroacoustic music). Here at the University of Minnesota, we host the Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts, and it's essentially people doing crazy "out there" stuff with the technology along the lines of what you have described. Music that most readers of this site would consider to be "electronica" or "techno" is essentially not even welcomed, much less actively invited. To say that it's an acquired taste is putting it lightly.

Based on the experiences I've had at grad school (FYI I'm a musicology grad student), the only reasons to go to grad school in composition are if:

1) You want to teach composition or theory at a university someday.

2) You want to compose music grounded in 20th century atonal music (electroacoustic or otherwise) for a mostly self-selected audience of other musicians in academia.

Otherwise, you are probably better off taking your portfolio and using it to get the job you want -- which isn't to say that you shouldn't visit the other schools on your list and form your own opinion, incidentally.

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Are you looking a program that focuses more on things like traditional film scoring, sample library use, and commercial recording studio tech?

Definitely. Sounds like my understanding of the academic perception of computer music was way off. I'm definitely looking to create more marketable music. I'll be sure to start looking more for the fields you named, because that's really what I want to be doing.

I was probably too hasty in trying to compare composition time as a grad student to your current available time.

No worries; I didn't really explain my current situation in the first place, and I should have.

For you, what is the computer side of things?

Pretty much everything you hear people talking about on these forums: becoming proficient in a specific DAW software, understanding not only how to recognize good production values but how to achieve them, synthetic sounds (which to me is the most daunting thing right now): I'm clueless when it comes to DSP or how to create new sounds by taking something basic and running it through filters and applying effects and such. Maybe that's something you learn over time on a mostly trial-and-error basis. I have no idea.

Just keep in mind that when your two years are up, you're still going to be more marketable as a software engineer than as a musician.

That's probably the main detractor for me at this point. Music is definitely the dream, but I do still want to be sure that I approach it as pragmatically as possible. The thought of going to school only to fall back immediately on a software development job afterwards is pretty disconcerting. Then again, if I don't go to school, and several years down the road I'm still doing software development, is that any better? At that point, though, it would probably speak to some combination of poor motivation and/or talent.

...and scouting church musician jobs.

Fantastic source of extra income. I've played piano at a local church for five years now and, because I'm fairly frugal, it easily comprises my entire spending budget for a year, which means my full-time job can go entirely towards bills and savings. If you play piano, I'd encourage you to look at nearby colleges for accompaniment gigs, too: you can make anywhere from $200 to $600 accompanying a studio recital for (depending on your ability and the difficulty of the music) very little work. Plus, if you do well, most instructors will ask you to come back every semester/year for the next one. That's all under-the-table, too, usually, which is nice.

To say that it's an acquired taste is putting it lightly.

I'll say. Another one of the gems I heard was a kid scraping dry ice against a pan that had a mic attached to it (which makes a God-awful screeching noise) for fifteen minutes while a pianist and bassist played tremolos underneath.

...the only reasons to go to grad school in composition are if:

1) You want to teach composition or theory at a university someday.

2) You want to compose music grounded in 20th century atonal music (electroacoustic or otherwise) for a mostly self-selected audience of other musicians in academia.

1) I don't.

2) Still no.

Gives me a lot to think about, though. I'm just surprised there's not a larger focus on more marketable music, but I guess that kind of music isn't as academic.

Thanks, both of you, for responding. I need to really think hard about whether or not a grad program would be the right move for me...

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