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What Is The Schillinger System?

The Schillinger System of Musical Composition (SoMC) is a pedagogical method devised by the Ukranian-born Joseph Schillinger (1895-1943) with the express purpose of providing music students with a theoretical and technical groundwork for composition.  SoMC was compiled and edited after his death.  Schillinger's other major theoretical work is Mathematical Basis of the Arts (Mathbart).  Both texts inform each other to some extent.

Until the late 1950s, SoMC was one of the most important practical composition tools in America, where popular songwriters, jazz musicians, and radio and film composers swore by it.  As the number of students who studied with Schillinger dwindled with age, though, so too did the popularity of SoMC.  Unfortunately, the book did not have the clarity and concision that its author emanated in person, and no further texts were published on the subject.

Most modern efforts to revive SoMC have been terribly misguided.  They usually tout it as a complete mechanical method that eliminates any need for effort or artistic insight.  This view was bound to backfire and injure Schillinger's reputation even more; we wish to set things right.

Henry Cowell explains best just "what" the System is in his preface:  "The idea behind the Schillinger System is simple and inevitable: it undertakes the application of mathematical logic to all the materials of music and to their functions, so that the student may know the unifying principles behind these functions, may grasp the method of analyzing and synthesizing any musical materials that he may find anywhere or may discover for himself, and may perceive how to develop new materials as he feels the need for them.  Thus the Schillinger System offers possibilities, not limitations; it is a positive, not a negative approach to the choice of musical materials.  Because of the universality of the esthetic concepts underlying it, the System applies equally to old and new styles in music and to 'popular' and 'serious' composition."


For Current Students of the System

One of the most important tricks to "getting" Schillinger is to realize that technical knowledge and compositional method are, in fact, two different things.

Some folks assume that once you learn Schillinger's techniques and ideas, you merely need to apply them et voila! ... masterpiece!  Mistakingly, they equate (or otherwise confuse) their method with whatever technical knowledge they hope to glean from study.  In fact, no two people share the same compositional method; creative processes simply never come in matching uniforms.  It's one of those curious facts that critics and journalists never seem to grasp, and that artists themselves often fail to acknowledge. 

You might find this information useful when you're faced with an authoritative voice like Schillinger's (especially when, on occasion, he prescribes specific procedures for all creative circumstances).  Technical knowledge can influence your method, but should never, never, never dictate it.

Schillinger's system often gets criticized for failing to guarantee the reader's eventual transformation into a brilliant composer, despite the author's bold claims.  I see no reason, though, to ignore the simple fact that composers have so much to gain from studying the novel way Schillinger approaches technical problems and systematically develops rhythmic and tonal resources.  But it does take a lot more than that to write music you can be proud of.

The way you combine your technical knowledge, personal experience, and aesthetic sentiments directly influences – and is influenced by – your individual compositional method, your process, the very thing that a teacher or a book can never provide.  In other words, for Schillinger's ideas to have any use at all, you must not give up your instinctive method or any other of your deepest intuitive inclinations.  If you ignore what comes naturally, or if you have no sense for the desired result, and rely instead on this or that technique every step of the way, you will get no satisfaction from the whole process – and in many circumstances, neither will the listener.  It will feel like someone else's recipe.

Some people hear entire melodies or songs in their heads.  For them, Schillinger's harmonic techniques (and relevant arranging methods) might come in handy, and analysis can help to expand and improve the original material.  Other people begin with only a poetic feeling that words or pictures can't express, and they have to directly connect their feelings with music using their associative abilities.  Here, one would wish to memorize and get a subjective feel for as many sonic patterns and structures as possible, and perhaps use Schillinger's “semantics” for more specific gestures.  OK, these are just a couple caricatured examples, but they should adequately illustrate my point.

I don't necessarily mean that you must avoid generated sets or algorithmic methods, if you are so inclined.  Some people can work backwards.  Stravinsky often started with just a series of notes or rhythms, and then he studied them (and himself) for ways to make them into exciting music.

What you can't do, though, is begin, continue, and end with nothing but technique.  The ear senses cheating, and dislikes it immensely.