Music Addressing Complexity: Countershapes, Counterpoints, and the Resistance to Homophony

Fall 2015, Winter 2016 and Spring 2016 quarters

Taught by

music composition, performance


one year of college-level music theory.

Western European music has had a long development of simultaneous complexity, from the introduction during Medieval times of independent voice leading, to the multi-voiced complexity of Gyorgi Ligeti's "micro-polyphony" in the 1960s. "Polyphony" is the presence of multiple, independent musical voices, where the differences of each voice emphasize the differences of the others. It is the opposite of "homophony," in which musical lines are hierarchically bound to one another, harmonically and metrically, as in a barbershop quartet.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, the anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead studied the cultures of the South Pacific, as well as those of North America and Europe. They traced and articulated the differences between cultures, while noting the simultaneous shared properties held between them. In the 1940s, Bateson and Mead (along with Heinz von Foerster, W. Ross Ashby, and others) began what was later called cybernetics. In our program, we will be reading papers by by Bateson, Mead, von Foerester, and others. We will study the mathematical theory of information and create compositions in sound that mirror and address the complexities that these scientists wrote about, by means of the musical techniques of polyphony and voice-misleading.

We will also investigate and learn how to program in the C programming language under the Linux operating system, in an attempt to create acoustic events that might begin to match the complexity of our own times, using polyphony, and study the ideas of counterpoint as shown in the compositions of J. S. Bach, Arnold Schoenberg, Gyorgi Ligeti, and contemporary composers. 

During the first quarter, we'll study the basics of C programming, getting familiar with the fundamentals of digital synthesis and the Linux operating system. Projects will include the creation of single-channel sound files and learning about the fundamental waveforms, additive synthesis, mixing, and frequency modulation. By the second quarter, we'll expand the work to include two-channel sounds, algorithms for equal-power panning, filtering and granular synthesis. In the third quarter, students will create 8-channel compositions, study direct waveform synthesis, and utilize all the algorithms that we studied through the year. Throughout the year, students will also be expected to write and perform vocal exercises in musical counterpoint, which they will perform in groups.

There will be regular listening sessions, musical projects, and writing assignments using the writings of cyberneticians as models. The program will attend concerts of music in Seattle and Portland and give a public concert of our final compositions.

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

music composition, computer science, and liberal arts.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


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Online Learning

Hybrid Online Learning 25 - 49% Delivered Online

More information about online learning.

Required Fees

$100 per quarter for performance tickets.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall); 16 (Winter); 16 (Spring)

Class standing: Junior–Senior

Maximum enrollment: 25


Course Reference Numbers

Jr (16 credits): 10058
Sr (16 credits): 10059

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Accepting New Students

Signature Required

Prospective students should contact the faculty to take the fall final exam.

Course Reference Numbers

Jr - Sr (16 credits): 20028

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Enrollment Closed

Course Reference Numbers

Jr - Sr (16 credits): 30022

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