Classes and opportunities to explore music

It can come as a surprise to learn that MIT has a world-class music department. Many MIT students are involved with music in some capacity. Whether you are interested in performing, taking random classes, a full major/double major/minor, or just attending excellent concerts on campus, MIT is a terrific place to be. Students often find that music offers an ideal counterbalance to a schedule of p-sets and labs.

“Faculty are fantastic and really care about the students, whether they’re majors or minors or concentrators, or just passing through,” says Amanda N. Mok ’11.

For singers and instrumentalists of all experience levels, there is a plethora of ensembles to choose from.

Some, such as the eleven registered a cappella groups on campus, are run as student clubs. For those who don’t want to commit to a full-fledged singing group, there is a Community Sing every semester — the Concert Choir gathers in Lobby 10 and makes the Infinite Corridor ring with choral classics from Mozart’s Requiem to Carmina Burana. Anyone can listen or join in — no experience necessary.

More formalized ensembles are organized by the department and can actually be taken for credit (6 units): 21M.421 MIT Symphony Orchestra, 21M.401 Concert Choir, 21M.405 Chamber Chorus, 21M.426 Wind Ensemble, 21M.442 Festival Jazz Ensemble, 21M.445 Chamber Music Society, 21M.460 Senegalese Drum Ensemble, and 21M.450 Balinese Gamelan.

Many of these ensembles are accessible to beginners as well as experienced musicians, but all have high standards for attendance and rehearsal — offering dedicated students an opportunity to train and perform under exceptional directors. “Sometimes I think rehearsals for MITSO, Concert Choir, and Chamber Chorus were the only things that kept me sane,” said Elizabeth Y. Qian ’14, a Course 16 (Aero/Astro) major.

Private study opportunities for many instruments, including voice, are available through the department. Experienced students can audition for funding through the Emerson Scholarship program.

Besides performance, 21M offers a wide array of classes, ranging from 21M.273 Opera to 21M.284 Film Music. Not surprisingly, the four CI-H classes in 21M are extremely popular, especially with freshmen. Introduction to Western Music (21M.011) offers a broad introduction to some of the great works and composers of Western classical music. “For some students, [21M.011] is a first-time adventure. For others, it’s a way of organizing things they have been exploring on their own — giving them a better set of tools to comprehend what moves them, musically speaking,” said instructor Martin Marks.

Introduction to World Music (21M.030) presents an overview of non-Western musical styles, some of which can be examined in more detail in classes such as Music of Africa and Music of India. Those seeking less introductory CI-H offerings may be interested in The Supernatural in Music, Literature, and Culture (21M.013J) or Folk Music of the British Isles and North America (21M.223J), which are offered jointly by the music and literature faculty. “I think part of the fun of [21M.013J] for MIT students is that it lets them explore, maybe even revel in ambiguity,” said instructor Charles Shadle, “and ambiguity is one of those issues scientists and engineers quite rightly want to avoid … but our lives are filled with ambiguity, and we need to learn to recognize the role it plays in our world.”

In the area of music theory and composition, Harmony and Counterpoint I (21M.301) is an excellent introductory class, covering the basics of harmony, as well as teaching students how to sight-sing. For those who have not read music before, the course Fundamentals of Music (21M.051) is assigned as a prerequisite to 21M.301, but is otherwise not required. The next class in the series, 21M.302, offers students the opportunity to have their compositions performed by a professional string quartet. “After 21M.301, I felt like I could parse music,” said Kelly F. Drinkwater ’11, “and after 21M.302, I felt like I could write music.”

Classes are also offered in jazz and electronic music composition, as well as in more advanced classical techniques. The MIT music faculty includes many prominent composers, including John Harbison, recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award and Pulitzer Prize. New works by students and faculty are frequently premiered, both on and off campus.

MIT also offers many opportunities for independent research relating to music, including cutting-edge projects tying together music and technology. Michael Cuthbert and his students are developing “music21,” a system of open-source Python-based code for music analysis and research. Composer Tod Machover, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future Group, recently premiered his robotic opera “Death and the Powers.” The Music, Mind, and Machine Group, also at the Media Lab, aims to better understand music cognition and audio technology.

Being an MIT student comes with additional off-campus perks: With the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “College Card”, most performances are free, though you have to pick up tickets in advance, and MIT subsidizes the purchase of the College Card. You can get it at CopyTech for five dollars, and then the BSO’s College Card performances are free for the whole year.