OK, so you can't actually teach anyone to compose. Silly idea. But then what are all these composition teachers getting paid for?
Let me be serious for a moment. The idea of teaching composition is a bit odd, which doesn't stop anyone from doing it. And of course you start with basic theory and teach harmony and counterpoint because that is how composers have learned to be composers for hundreds of years. But it seems odder now than before because in the 20th century there were so many fractures and breaks with the traditions in music. Many of the composers of the 20th century, when they didn't regard themselves as the summit of historical necessity, thought they were breaking entirely new ground. Schoenberg managed to think both, simultaneously! Many 20th century composers, like John Cage, seemed to come to what they came to by completely ignoring every tradition and rule of composition.
So how do you teach composition in the 21st century? I think that since most of the musical traditions seem to be still there, despite the best efforts of the avant-garde to erase them, we should still teach harmony and counterpoint. You really can't teach someone to write 4:33 of silence, so don't bother. I also don't think you should be teaching anyone a specific method or ideology of composition, which I think a lot of composition teachers did in the 20th century. The Darmstadt summer courses, which were an important center of composition just after the Second World War, did this with a vengeance. There was but one Truth in music: serial composition and Webern was the prophet! Heaven help you if you were not a zealous dodecaphonist!
Here are some wacky ideas I have had about teaching composition, embodied in the form of some exercises:
- Write a parody of a minuet by Haydn or Mozart. You could copy one aspect, such as phrase structure or harmonic structure and write entirely new themes. Or you could use the same themes and create a new phrase or harmonic structure.
- Write a song in style of John Lennon around the mid-60s (i.e. Help or Rubber Soul --pre-psychedelia)
- Write a piece for solo wind instrument using ideas from either Gregorian Chant or gospel (or, both).
- Write a piece in 13th century hocket style.
- Recall a visual memory of a landscape or an event or a moment in time and write a piece that reflects or captures it in some way.
- Write a piece in the style of your favorite dance genre: pavane, gavotte, waltz, polonaise, mazurka, polka, can-can, jig or dub-step.
- Write a piece to appeal to a member of the opposite (or same) sex.
- Write a piece in the style of Philip Glass around the mid-70s.
- Write a theme and variations on it.
- Write a piece that cannot be written in conventional notation and explain why.
Just a few exercises that ought to spark something. Some of these I have tried, but others I haven't.