Accessibility statement

Spectral Music

  • Module tutor: Dr Martin Suckling
  • Level: C/4 (1st years) I/5 (2nd years), H/6 (3rd years)

Aims and content

’Spectralism’, like all labels, is a simplification, and its reductionist implication of a ’school’ of composers obsessed with a single concept is anathema to many of its supposed practitioners. However, like other such banners of later 20th-century music (minimalism, postminimalism...) it has stuck; indeed the fact that it brings together a diverse array of compositional styles that do not always sit comfortably with each other is perhaps one of its strengths.

Spectralism is not a set of techniques, but rather emerged in the 1970s as an attitude to composition that takes the acoustic properties of sound — in other words sound spectra and their evolution over time — as its basic material. Spectral music is therefore closely allied to (and in many ways a product of) recent technological developments in the field of audio analysis and synthesis, and many of its composers have in common a preoccupation with psychoacoustics and the perception of music. From this basis a huge variety of music has emerged, from the ritualistic, melody-led compositions of Vivier, to the gradually evolving soundscapes of Murail, influencing in turn the highly contrasting musical thought of (for example) Anderson, Haas, and Saariaho.

A consequence of spectral music’s focus on sound spectra and emerging technologies is that most spectral compositions involve microtonal tuning systems and/or live electronics, with concomitant ramifications for notation and performance. As with the musical responses to spectralism, a multitude of solutions have been advanced, from scordatura to specially constructed instruments, from modified accidentals to instrument-specific tabulature. The competing demands of notation as musical representation and notation as a set of instructions for the performer (be that human or machine) will also be a consideration in this project.

Through a series of lectures, seminars, and workshops, this course will survey the aesthetics and techniques of the field of music that can be regarded as spectral, from the pre-history of early 20th-century theorists and the groundbreaking orchestral pieces of Nørgård, through the now canonical works of Grisey, Murail, and Vivier, to music that is less ’purely’ spectral, such as the late Jonathan Harvey’s recent Speakings. The relationship of spectralism to acoustics and psychoacoustics will be explored and workshops will introduce participants to basic techniques in audio analysis and synthesis.


To be completed during the taught portion of the course

  1. Critique of a set reading (15%)
  2. A short composition exercise utilising a spectral technique that will have been explained in class (15%)


To be completed during the period of independent work

Any one of the following, agreed in discussion with the project tutor. It is envisaged that course participants may wish to collaborate on options 2 and 3. (70%)

  1. Essay (3500 words).
  2. Composition utilising a spectral approach (7-8 minutes).
  3. Recital (20 minutes).

Reading and listening

Detailed reading lists will be handed out during the course, but the following are useful introductions as presented by some of the key composers:

  • Grisey, Gérard. “Did You Say Spectral?” Translated by Joshua Fineberg. Contemporary Music Review 19, no. 3 (2000): 1–3.
  • Harvey, Jonathan. “Spectralism.” Contemporary Music Review 19, no. 3 (2000): 11–14.
  • Murail, Tristan. “Target Practice.” Contemporary Music Review 24, no. 2/3 (2005): 149–171.
  • Gilmore, Bob. “‘Wild Ocean’: An Interview with Horatiu Radulescu.” Contemporary Music Review 22, no. 1+2 (2003).

Preliminary Listening/Scores:

  • Grisey: Les Espaces Acoustiques (esp 1-3); Vortex Temporum
  • Haas:in vain
  • Harvey: Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco; Speakings
  • Murail: Gondwana; Desintegrations
  • Nørgård: Voyage Into the Golden Screen; Iris
  • Radulescu: Mirbilia Mundi
  • Romitelli: Professor Bad Trip
  • Saariaho: Lichtbogen
  • Scelsi: Anahit
  • Vivier: Lonely Child

Learning outcomes

All students, on completion of the module, should have:

  • Acquired a general knowledge of the field of spectral composition;
  • More detailed knowledge of individual works;
  • A general understanding of the implications of psychoacoustics on composition;
  • A basic knowledge of audio synthesis and analysis;
  • An appreciation of the issues in performing microtonal music.

First years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-A10

Second years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes B1-B10

Third years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes C1-C10