Listen to this article
Contact Rick

Schillinger System of Musical Composition

Richard C. Leinecker, March, 2014

I remember it well. As a sophomore, music history class was deadly boring. Learning about Organum and Guido D’Arezzo did not hold much interest. But after a fairly interesting discussion of 12 tone music where the composition is highly structured and somewhat mathematical, the name Joseph Schillinger arose. We learned that this man created a system of musical composition (Schillinger, 1941) based on mathematical principles. By using this system, music can be written in any imaginable style.

This was a thrilling concept. In counterpoint class I always enjoyed thinking of the initial creative idea for a four part piece. But then the drudgery of following the rules to compose a four part choral with correct voice leading and no parallel fifths dampened the creative spirit. Using Schillinger’s approach could potentially let me come up with ideas, and then use a system to do the grunt work.

Unfortunately, the set of books cost $150, far more than a poor student could afford. But years later I bought the set, which by that time cost $300. As with many of my dreamt of projects, I set the books aside for a later day. Then years later when that day came, I realized the books were largely unintelligable. Not that the material wasn’t good, but it was not in the form that could be adapted to musical composition. Upon reading more carefully, it seems that the set was put together from Schillinger’s notes and he did not have the chance to rework it into a more comprehensive solution. I had thought about spending a summer in Baltimore while an undergraduate student to study with Asher Zlotnick, who was a professor at Peabody Conservatory. Dr. Zlotnick taught the principles of the Schillinger system, and had taught Gershwin and Bernstein. On the phone he informed me that Schillinger would have never allowed the publication because it was not ready for general consumption.

Now, after all of these years, I have resolved to work through the entire two volume set. In order to get the absolute most out of it for myself, I am going to write articles for each of the chapters. In this way, others will benefit, and I will be compelled to really put serious thought into the material. I will also need to address the issues of how to apply Schillinger’s ideas to current musical composition. My plan is to weave it into my pursuit of computer assisted musical composition.

I welcome your questions, ideas, and feedback.


Schillinger, J. (1941). The Schillinger system of musical composition. Harwich Port, MA: Clock & Rose Press.



Leinecker, R. C. (2014). Schillinger system of musical composition. Retrieved from

Leinecker, Richard C. "Schillinger System of Musical Composition." Schillinger System of Musical Composition. Rick Leinecker, March 2014. Web. 11 Mar 2014.