The Schillinger System of Musical Composition, named after Joseph Schillinger, is a method of musical composition based on mathematical processes. It comprises theories of rhythm, harmony, melody, counterpoint, form, and semantics (emotional meaning, as in movie music).
It offers a systematic and non-genre specific approach to music analysis and composition, a descriptive rather than prescriptive grammar of music. The Schillinger System might have served as a road map for many later developments in music theory and composition. Instead, it languished in relative obscurity.
Schillinger was a professor at The New School in New York City and taught such celebrated composers as George Gershwin, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and a host of Hollywood and Broadway composers. His books were published after his death and his system enjoys a cult following, although it is still considered controversial in traditional circles. There are a limited number of Certified Schillinger Teachers of this system in the world.
In New York, Schillinger flourished, becoming famous as the advisor to many of America's leading popular musicians and concert music composers. These include George Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Paul Lavalle, Oscar Levant, Tommy Dorsey, and Carmine Coppola among others. Gershwin spent four years studying with Schillinger. During this period, he composed Porgy and Bess and consulted Schillinger on matters concerning the opera, particularly its orchestration. In the field of electronic music, Schillinger collaborated with Léon Theremin, inventor of the Theremin, an early electronic musical instrument, composing the first concert work for theremin and orchestra, the First Airphonic Suite, in 1929.
His postal tuition courses were so successful he was able to rent a twelve-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. Schillinger accredited a small group of students as qualified teachers of the system.
Schillinger's celebrity status made him suspect, and his ideas were treated with skepticism. He died early from stomach cancer. He did not finish work on the texts he hoped would advance his theories in the realm of academia. His widow and biographer, Frances Schillinger, hired editors to complete and publish a text. They pulled together his unfinished monograph with parts of his correspondence courses. Despite its length, it presents only a partial exposition of the system. For example, Schillinger's theory of counterpoint covers but two part counterpoint. (It was left for students like Jerome Walman to expand the technique to cover three, four and unlimited combinations of melodies, which led to Walman developing his own system). It is marred by a wildly uneven tone, at times neutral and objective, at times vehement and polemical. Critics almost universally[weasel words] panned the work. His method remained difficult and obscure for the uninitiated.
His flamboyant manner based on extreme assertions is evident in his writings: "These procedures were performed crudely by even well reputed composers. For example L. Van Beethoven…"
Schillinger's System of Musical Composition is an attempt to create a comprehensive and definitive treatise on music and number. This has the disadvantage of resulting in a treatise of great length and elaborate nomenclature. By revealing principles of the organization of sound through scientific analysis, Schillinger hoped to free the composer from the shackles of tradition. Although the system is forward-looking, couched in an apparently modern form, it also clarifies traditional music theory by debunking misconceptions from the past. He was clear that his methods allowed any style of composition to be undertaken more effectively.
My system does not circumscribe the composer's freedom, but merely points out the methodological way to arrive at a decision. Any decision, which results in a harmonic relation, is fully acceptable. We are opposed only to vagueness and haphazard speculation.
Schillinger rarely attempts to predict the aesthetic consequences of his system, but instead offers generalized pattern-making techniques, free of stylistic bias.
Scope and limitations
The positive side of the balance sheet reads this way:
- All existing music is accommodated.
- Techniques do not prohibit creative freedom.
- Results are practical and effective.
The thesis underlying Schillinger's research is that music is a form of movement. Any physical action or process has its equivalent form of expression in music. Both movement and music are understandable with our existing knowledge of science. His contribution was intuitively recognizing how to apply everyday mathematics to the making of music. He expressed the belief that certain patterns were universal, and common to both music and the very structure of our nervous system.
Schillinger's style can induce a resistance, appearing at times relentlessly dry, favoring algebra and music notation above words. Occasionally the text is deliberately provocative. The techniques are tools: by themselves, they do not compose music but merely assist the composer in the planning and execution of large musical structures. The techniques in the field of rhythm to some extent compensate for an imbalance in composition literature, largely dominated by considerations of pitch.
Many of the techniques and procedures were later independently advocated by others, whom history remembers as their creators. For example, Schillinger proposed a system of numerical analysis of pitches based on principles which later became incorporated into set theory, long before the work of Milton Babbitt and Allen Forte. Furthermore, Schillinger pioneered advanced algorithmic compositional techniques long before the work of Iannis Xenakis and other later advocates.
The uncompromising tone is due partly to the background from which he emerged. During the 1930s, he was amongst those who called for science to sweep away outdated practices.
For all its rigour, repetition and challenge, the System was enjoyed and apparently used with great success for many years after its author's death. Schillinger’s influence lingers on in the work of celebrated musicians as well as those who produced countless film scores and television theme tunes.
Schillinger had a profound effect on the world of jazz education. One of Schillinger's recognised students, Lawrence Berk, founded the Schillinger House of Music in Boston, after Schillinger's death, to continue the dissemination of the System. Schillinger House opened in 1945 and later became the Berklee College of Music where the Schillinger System survived in the curriculum until the 1960s. See: Berklee method.
In the 1940s, the Schillinger Method was a focus of the curriculum at Westlake College of Music. Dick Grove, who was one of the teachers at Westlake and had studied the Schillinger System for 9 years, developed some of Schillinger's ideas into his own comprehensive system of music education, which he taught at his Grove School of Music and later at the Grove School Without Walls.
Yet another admirer and former student of Schillinger's system was veteran movie composer, John Barry. ("John Barry - A Sixties Theme" by Eddi Fiegel (Constable, London, 1998)).
More recently, Jeremy Arden has written a dissertation on Schillinger and offers courses on Schillinger's theories at his Schillinger School.
The reformation of The Schillinger Society has caused a resurgence in interest in all Schillinger's theories. The Practical Schillinger Online School offers courses that were derived from Schillinger and his top teachers.
- Example of the Schillinger system
- The Schillinger Society
- The Schillinger Society on Myspace
- Pease, Ted, "The Schillinger/Berklee Connection: A perusal of Lawrence Berk's notebooks sheds light on Berklee's early curriculum", Berklee Today, Berklee College of Music, Boston. Article on the practical use of the Schillinger System, with examples
- The Schillinger System: a digital archive and community forum
- Jeremy Arden´s Schillinger School - Not a school site anymore
- U.S. School of Commercial Music (USSCM), The Schillinger System of Musical Composition (SSMC)
- Schillinger-based software
- http://library.berklee.edu/archives_content/schillinger_house/index.html, Lawrence Berk's notebooks of Schillinger's Lessons.
- Schillinger, Joseph (1946). Schillinger System of Musical Composition. C. Fischer, Inc. (New York). p. 21.
- Schillinger, Joseph (1946). Schillinger System of Musical Composition. C. Fischer, Inc. (New York). p. 250.
- Schillinger, Joseph (1946). Schillinger System of Musical Composition. C. Fischer, Inc. (New York). p. 1356.
- Charles Suber: "Introduction", in: David Baker: Jazz Pedagogy. New York: Alfred, p. iii
- Bob Morgan: The Sankofa Tradition: A Reminder for the 21st Century (online at trumpeter Marvin Stamm's Website)
- Curtis, Constance; Herndon, Cholie (30 April 1949). "Know your Boroughs Orchestra Men Talk About Show Business". The New York Amsterdam News. p. 15.