Music Theory and Composition Program


At MYS we believe that music theory and composition work together at the earliest stages of musical understanding in order to become a vital component of any musician’s development.  Integrating composition with the teaching of theory is one of the most effective ways of codifying music theory principles into actual practice for young musicians.  

Under the innovative leadership of MYS’ theory director Ryan Francis, our theory program supplements students’ instrumental education with a series of classes that introduce them to practical and contemporary music theory concepts coupled with diverse forms of musical creation and composition.

Building on a strong foundation of understanding modern standard musical notation, ear training, and notation software, students will be given the opportunity to compose in historical and contemporary musical styles and will complete musical projects with readings by MYS ensembles.  MYS instructors are experienced teaching artists who effectively communicate this integrated approach.

Registration and Tuition

New Students
Students who are entering MYS’ Music Theory program for the first time will be placed in 1 of our 5 offered classes based on an evaluation. This evaluation will be sent out to new students and results will be sent out before the beginning of classes. In order to receive this evaluation, students must first register for the program. The MYS Music Theory program is open to all MYS and non-MYS students.

Returning Students
Students who participated in our Music Theory program for the 2021-2022 season have already received recommendations for which class they should take in the 2022-2023 season. If you are a returning student to our Music Theory program and you’re unsure of which class you should take for the 2022-2023 season, email Isabel Thompson at [email protected] to find out.

Tuition for all Music Theory Students for the 2022-2023 season will be $195.

All new and returning students must register in order to participate in our 2022-2023 classes. Music Theory registration is closed for the 2022-2023 season.


  • When: Levels 1, 2, & 4 – Tuesdays (5:30-6:30pm)
    Fundamentals & Level 3 – Tuesdays (6:00-7:00pm)
  • Where: Zoom (links will be emailed to students)
  • First date of class: 10/4
  • Last date of class: 5/9
  • No class: 11/22, 12/20, 12/27, 3/28

Classes Offered and Instructors

All Music Theory classes will meet online via Zoom for the 2022-2023 season. Zoom links will be emailed to students once they have been placed in their respective classes.

Charlie Kerns
Instructor: MT Fundamentals

Music Theory Fundamentals
Students focus on developing a strong foundation in reading modern standard music notation, rhythm, ear training, as well as understanding scales, key signatures, and basic compositional ideas like form, color, and texture. 

Charlie Kerns has been passionate about music theory ever since they were small, figuring out songs by ear on their mother’s grand piano in their living room. They served as the sole music theory tutor during their studies at Pacific University, where they graduated with a degree in Music Education back in 2021. Charlie has performed with MYS on multiple occasions over the past couple of years as a substitute trumpet player, and they are very excited to be back to teach the beginning music theory class and work with their awesome students again!

Nicholas Emerson
Instructor: MT Level 1

Music Theory Level 1: Music Literacy and Creativity
Builds on the foundation of the Music Theory Fundamentals class by reinforcing musical literacy and encourages creative autonomy by building a composition quickly through improvisation and group composition exercises.

Nicholas Emerson is a composer, producer, and guitarist from Portland, OR. He studied composition and music production at Portland State University with a BS in Sonic Arts & Music Production. He is very active in the local classical music scene helping to cultivate the incredible wealth of youth talent in the Pacific Northwest and is involved with organizations including Fear No Music Young Composers Project, Portland Youth Philharmonic, Northwest Children’s Theater & School and many others. Along with Hip Hop, Nicholas has experience composing chamber music, vocal music and recently premiered a concerto for guitar and orchestra with local guitarist David Tutmark and the Tillikum Chamber Orchestra.

Ryan Francis
Instructor: MT Level 2

Music Theory Level 2: Tonal Composition
Introduces composition using modern standard tonal theory. This class focuses on composing with chord structures, including and beyond standard cadential progressions, such as added note chords, quartal/quintal harmonies and clusters. A wider variety of scales (chromatic, pentatonic, whole tone, modes) will also be introduced.

Ryan Francis’s music has received grants and awards including from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Jerome Foundation, and the Augustine Foundation, and his music has been performed across the U.S. and internationally. Francis is a faculty member at Pacific University where he teaches music technology, music theory, and international music studies. Francis holds a B.M. in music composition from the University of Michigan and an M.M. and D.M.A. in music composition from the Juilliard School.

Dr. Stephen Lewis
Instructor: MT Level 3

Music Theory Level 3: Modern Composition
Explores contemporary harmonic and formal ideas and score analysis. Third year will focus on a small core of 20th century repertoire to be studied in depth and explore post-tonal and experimental composing techniques. Composition exercises to explore non-standard scales, polyrhythms, mixed meters and graphic notation.

Dr. Stephen Lewis (b. 1983) is a composer, pianist, and educator living in Portland, Oregon. The rare embodiment of the composer-pianist, Stephen (pronounced STEE-ven) performs traditional piano music with a composer’s urgent, expressive power, while bringing to avant-garde and experimental music a classical concert pianist’s devotion to beautiful sound. He searches for rawness and immediacy in his interpretations of Beethoven and Chopin, while winning over audiences with moving renditions of complex atonal works by composers like Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and Ligeti. Whether from the present or the past, Stephen performs music that he believes has important and touching implications for today’s world. Even the most demanding music, he argues, is an opportunity for connection, edification, and meaningful experience.

Kirsten Volness
Instructor: MT Level 4

Music Theory Level 4: World Traditions of Composition
Fourth year will put the orchestra in a greater world context and focuses on individual composition projects. Students will learn about different international ensemble traditions, and analyze musical styles associated with them, including Arabic and Indian classical music, Chinese bamboo and silk ensemble, Congolese soukous, and Indonesian gamelan. Students will work on composition exercises that utilize aspects of these musical traditions.

Kirsten Volness was Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Reed College. She is an electro/acoustic composer and pianist whose music is inspired by nature, myth, science, spirituality, and environmental and sociopolitical issues. She has received commissions from the BMI Foundation, ASCAP/SEAMUS, World Future Council Foundation, and Third Practice Electroacoustic Festival, writing new works for Hotel Elefant, NOW Ensemble, Transient Canvas, Ann Arbor Symphony, and Experiential Orchestra. She performs with New York City–based Hotel Elefant and Providence-based Verdant Vibes, a new music ensemble and concert series she co-founded in 2015. Recipient of the MacColl Johnson and RISCA Fellowships in Music Composition, Kirsten was 2017 composer-in-residence at the Music Mansion, creating the First Fridays concert series, and served on the board of directors as Secretary. She collaborates with Meridian Project on multimedia performances exploring astrophysics, writes and performs operas with the homeless advocacy group Tenderloin Opera Company, and is an affiliate artist of Sleeping Weazel theatre company. She earned composition degrees from the Universities of Michigan (DMA, MM) and Minnesota (BA summa cum laude) and taught privately and at the University of Rhode Island before joining the faculty at Reed.