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Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

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Improvisation and composition are words frequently used in the western world to describe the creation of music. But are they really two distinct processes, or are they aspects of the same phenomenon? In this free course, Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective, we will explore the relationship between the two using examples of Asian music to help us clarify the concepts.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • discuss different perspectives on the creation of music, in particular, composition and improvisation
  • understand the basic principles underlying North Indian art music
  • understand the basic principles underlying Sundanese gamelan music.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 20 hours
  • Updated Friday 15th January 2016
  • Advanced level
  • Posted under Music
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Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective


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This course explores two important concepts relating to the creation of music, namely composition and improvisation. The concepts of composition and improvisation are closely linked, and the reason for looking at non-Western music is partly to demonstrate this truth – it should help to clarify these two concepts, and the relationship between them.

We couldn't hope to cover a representative sample of the world's musics in a single course, and I have certainly not tried to do so here. What I have tried to do instead is two things: to introduce two Asian music traditions in enough detail to give you an idea both of what they can sound like and of how they work; and to introduce some general issues to do with the concepts of composition and improvisation, which will be relevant to all music. There is a lot of material to cover in this course, including about an hour of video, which I will be asking you to work through in some detail. Although you will be working closely on the detailed structure of the musics that I introduce in the case studies, you will not need to remember everything in detail. You will need to understand and remember the underlying principles, however.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 3 study in Arts and Humanities [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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