My music technology syllabus

I use variations on this project list for all of my courses. In Advanced Digital Audio Production at Montclair State University, students do all of these assignments. Students in Music Technology 101 do all of them except the ones marked Advanced. My syllabus for the NYU Music Education Technology Practicum has an additional recording studio project in place of the final project. Here’s the project list in Google Spreadsheet format.

Music Ed Tech Practicum image

I talk very little about microphone technology or technique in my classes. This is because I find this information to only be useful in the context of actual recording studio work, and my classes do not have regular access to a studio. I do spend one class period on home recording with the SM58 and SM57, and talk a bit about mic technique for singers. I encourage students who want to go deeper into audio recording to take a class specifically on that subject, or to read something like the Moylan book.

My project-based approach is informed strongly by Matt Mclean and Alex Ruthmann. Read more about their methods here.

I do not require any text. However, for education majors, I strongly recommend Teaching Music Through Composition by Barbara Freedman and Music Technology and Education: Amplifying Musicality by Andrew Brown.

Useful web apps and free software:

  • Soundtrap is a browser-based DAW with most of the functionality of GarageBand. Whatever it lacks in functionality, it more than makes up for in convenience.
  • Noteflight is a superbly useful browser-based notation tool.
  • Audacity is a free audio editor available for all operating systems. It does basic audio recording and editing, and has a wide variety of effects, but its main practical use is converting audio from one file format to another.

I do not require students to use any particular software for the assignments. They are free to use Soundtrap, GarageBand, Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Reason, FL Studio, Cubase, any web-based or mobile app, etc.

Each unit consists of a set of assignments culminating in the creation of a piece of original music (or a few pieces.) For each music project, students document it with a process blog post.

Getting started

Blog setup

The internet is the most important piece of technology in the music world. For that reason, you will be posting all of your work for the class on a public-facing blog. If you don’t have a blog, set one up on WordPress or Tumblr. If you already have a blog, you are free to use it. Submit a link to your main blog page–it should look like http://ethanhein.tumblr.com/ or http://yourname.wordpress.com/.

SoundCloud setup

You will be posting all of the music you make for the class on SoundCloud. If you don’t have an account, set one up – the free version is fine. If you already have a SoundCloud profile and would like to use it, that’s fine too. Submit a link to your SoundCloud profile. It should look like this: https://soundcloud.com/ethanhein

Favorite song, least favorite song (2 points)

In a blog post, link to your favorite song (or any song that you find exceptionally wonderful), and explain why you like it. Then link to your least favorite song (or any song that you find exceptionally terrible), and explain why you dislike it.

Loops and song structures

Read, listen and watch (2 points)

Submit at least two questions you have about this material. They can be about something you didn’t understand, something you would like to talk about in class, or broader philosophical issues.

  • Visualizing song structures – Making music with loops is effortless, but making it well is hard. The challenge is to figure out the right balance of repetition and variation. The best source of inspiration for musical form, unsurprisingly, is actual music.
  • Repetition defines music – Repetition defines music. Repetition defines music. Does repetition define music? Repetition does define music.

Song structure analysis (3 points)

Choose a song and analyze its structure. Identify the sections of the song: Intro, Verse, Chorus, Breakdown, Bridge, Drop, Lift, and so on. Count how many measures long each section is, and identify each section’s start time. Write a blog post explaining the song structure. Use whatever visualization method(s) you see fit. Be sure to embed or link to the song you’re talking about.

Loop song (10 points)

Create a piece of music using only the loops that are included with your production software. The first step is to assemble four to six loops to make a single groove. The next step is to extend the groove and modify it to create song sections. Feel free to edit the loops, by splitting them into segments and shuffling them, by transposing, or by adding effects. Post your track on SoundCloud. Make sure to set it to be downloadable.

Loop song process documentation (4 points)

Write a blog post explaining the process behind your loop song. Which loops did you use and why? How did you approach creating a structure? Do you feel like creating music in this way is a legitimate form of musical creativity? If so, why? If not, why not?

MIDI, synths, and drum programming

Learning Music – Ableton.com

A friendly introduction to electronic music production concepts and techniques, including loops, drum programming, and MIDI sequencing. Work through each chapter up to and including The Playground. The Advanced Topics are optional but recommended (and fun).

Read, listen and watch (2 points)

Submit at least two questions you have about this material. They can be about something you didn’t understand, something you would like to talk about in class, or broader philosophical issues.

  • Taj Mahal, “Blues With A Feeling” – The great blues musician Taj Mahal explains to a German audience how to clap on the backbeat. (“Schvartze” is German for “black.”)
  • Harry Connick Jr turns the beat around – Another European audience is clapping on the wrong beats. Harry slips an extra beat in at 0:44, realigning the audience with the correct beats.
  • The backbeat: a literature review – All American vernacular music shares one common feature: accents on beats two and four.
  • The Great Cut-Time Shift – Explains the ultra-important concept of swing, and how it has changed over the past decades.
  • Son clave – This traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm is everywhere in popular music: in the drums, of course, but also in the rhythms of guitar strumming patterns, basslines, horn and keyboard parts, and everywhere else.
  • Jae Deal – Synth Bass Masterclass – Jae Deal walks you through the process of creating bass sounds on a classic Moog synth.
  • Ten Classic Roland TR-808 Patterns – The 808 drum machine is one of the cornerstones of hip-hop. It remains as popular now as it was in the 1980s for its deep, rich kick, punchy snare, and other distinctive sounds. Vintage 808s are expensive collectors items now, so most rank-and-file producers use samples or software emulators.
  • Egyptian Lover builds a beat on the 808 – Programming a drum machine is different from playing a drum kit. Egyptian Lover shows you how it’s done.

The Groove Pizza (2 points)

Use the online Groove Pizza app to create a beat. You can start with one of the Specials, use the Shapes, or just work by trial and error. Create a blog post that links to your beat. What musical style or genre do you think it belongs to?

MIDI song (10 points)

Create a piece of music using only MIDI and software instruments. You can use MIDI from any source: played in via keyboard, drawn into the piano roll, imported from notation software, downloaded from the web, or anywhere else. You do not need to compose an original piece; arrangements are fine. The only requirement is that the end result sounds good. Post your track on SoundCloud. Make sure to set it to be downloadable.

MIDI song process documentation (4 points)

Write a blog post explaining the process behind creating your MIDI song. Where did you get your MIDI from? What software instruments did you use and why? Do you feel like the end result was satisfying? What would you do differently if you had unlimited time and ability?

Audio recording, mixing, and effects

Interactives

  • How sound works – What it says in the title.
  • The overtone series – Hear the different frequencies that combine to form a musical tone.
  • Timbre – Musical sounds are made up of multiple sine waves combined together.
  • The Fourier Transform – Don’t worry about the math terminology, just play with the interactives.

Read, listen and watch (2 points)

Submit at least two questions you have about this material. They can be about something you didn’t understand, something you would like to talk about in class, or broader philosophical issues.

Sledgehammer mix (2 points)

Create your own mix of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel using this online mixing board. When you load up the site, you’ll notice that the left two tracks are soloed and panned left and right, respectively. This is the reference mix. I recommend that you first listen to the song all the way through with the default settings to acquaint yourself with the mix. Be sure to listen for the balance of each sound and its placement left to right in the reference mix. Then mute the left two tracks and bring up the other volume faders to create your own mix. As you do, try listening to each track in isolation. When you have completed your mix, submit a link. It should look like this: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/ruthmann/PWYM/sledgehammer/#439m8

Phone recording (3 points)

Record an environmental sound with your phone and post it to SoundCloud. It must be set to be downloadable. Your sound should be between five seconds and five minutes long. It does not need to be “musical.”

Found sound song (10 points)

Create a piece of music using at least one phone recording from the class. You can use your own sound or someone else’s. You can use any additional audio, loops, or MIDI. Be sure to credit the source of your sound.

Found sound song process documentation (4 points)

Which sound did you use and why? What steps did you take to make it work in a musical context? Do you feel that you were successful?

Playing the studio

Read, listen and watch (2 points)

Submit at least two questions you have about this material. They can be about something you didn’t understand, something you would like to talk about in class, or broader philosophical issues.

  • Were the Beatles great musicians? – The Beatles are widely regarded as the best rock band in history. However, they weren’t exceptionally great instrumentalists or singers. They wrote a lot of brilliant songs, but that isn’t the reason we revere them today. The Beatles are considered great because of their prowess in the recording studio.
  • “Space Oddity” – from song to track – A great song won’t grab you unless it’s realized as a great recording. Listen to three different recordings of David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity” to understand what the producer adds to a song in the studio.
  • The Studio As A Compositional Tool – Brian Eno has produced classic albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay, and others. By his own description, Eno is not a very “good” musician, but he is adept at combining and manipulating sound in the studio. He was also an early adopter of the process of using the studio for creating songs, not just documenting them. He encourages the bands he works with to come into the studio with no material prepared, and to improvise with tape rolling, with the idea of shaping the music via editing. (Lee Perry was a major inspiration for this approach.) While studio improvisation was an unusual method outside of jazz in the 1970s and 80s, it’s become standard procedure in pop songwriting.
  • Lee “Scratch” Perry records the Heptones – Perry was part of a generation of dub reggae producers who pioneered the studio mixing console as an instrument unto itself. For Perry, recording a performance of musicians was only the first step of creating the music. By muting and unmuting tracks on the tape and manipulating the sound with echoes, Perry lay the groundwork for the production methods of electronica and hip-hop.
  • The Scientist mixes “Heavyweight Dub” – Another Jamaican dub producer performs a mix. You can see how he literally plays the mixing board like an instrument, shaping the track by turning different instruments up and down and by turning the echo effect on and off.

Production analysis (3 points)

Pick a song recorded since 1960 and write a blog post identifying all of the sound sources. These can include voices, acoustic or electric instruments, synthesizers, and samples. Be as specific as you can: which synthesizer was used? Did the drums have any special effects or processing on them? List each sound in the order that it appears in the track. Be sure to identify the producer(s) and engineer(s).

Real vs hyperreal vs surreal (3 points)

In a blog post, describe three recordings with different recording aesthetics as specified below. Embed or link to each song.

  1. Choose a “realistic” recording, one that accurately represents the sound of people performing live. It could be an actual live recording, or a studio recording with a live sound. What makes it sound realistic?
  2. Choose a “hyperrealistic” recording, one that sounds like a perfected or enhanced live recording. What makes it sound realistic? What makes it sound artificial or manipulated?
  3. Choose a “surrealist” recording, one that could not possibly have been recorded live using instruments. What elements make it sound unreal? How would it affect you differently if it were somehow created “live” with acoustic instruments?

Self remix (10 points)

Remix one of your own projects from the class. You can alter it as subtly or dramatically as you see fit.

Self remix process documentation (4 points)

Which of your projects did you remix? How did you change it?

Sampling and remixing

Read, listen and watch (2 points)

  • Marley Marl on “Eric B Is President” – The veteran DJ and producer recreates a classic Eric B and Rakim beat and talks about the source samples.
  • Kanye West in the studio – A window into the creation of a Yeezy beat.
  • 9th Wonder on Rhythm Roulette – From a series where producers choose three records blindfolded and have to sample them to create a beat.
  • Mad Zach, Ableton Push performance – Samplers let you play back digital audio recordings by tapping on rubber pads. While samplers were originally standalone pieces of equipment, now they are more likely to be controllers for computer software like Ableton Live. Ableton’s Push controller is a particularly futuristic sampling interface.
  • Kink Goes Against The Clock – A Bulgarian producer uses synth modules, a drum machine, and a record of Motown acapellas to create a track from scratch in five minutes.
  • Scratch documentary (first 20 minutes, the rest is optional) – Before affordable digital samplers became available in the late 1980s, early hip-hop DJs and producers did most of their audio manipulation with turntables. Record scratching  demands considerable skill and practice, and it has evolved into a virtuoso form analogous to bebop saxophone or metal guitar shredding.
  • Plunderphonics – John Oswald is an experimental composer best known for “plunderphonics,” his term for remixing well-known recordings like Michael Jackson’s “Bad” by means of tape splicing and vari-speed.
  • John Oswald – “Dab” – Oswald vs Michael Jackson.
  • The Amen break – This six-second drum solo is one of the most important samples of all time. It has been used in uncountably many hip-hop songs, and is the basis for entire subgenres of electronic music.
  • Ali Jamieson on the Amen break – A more in-depth exploration of the Amen break.
  • The Levee break – The opening of Led Zeppelin’s song “When The Levee Breaks” has also been sampled extensively, by artists ranging from Dr Dre to Björk to Beyoncé.
  • Nas, “Nas Is Like” – This Nas track is remarkable for a few reasons. The samples that form the instrumental backing are hilariously random. The entire chorus is scratched together from other Nas songs. Finally, a single syllable of a Biz Markie song is taken out of context and given a new meaning.
  • Pete Rock and CL Smooth, “T.R.O.Y.” – A hip-hop classic that samples from an unlikely source, a lounge jazz cover of a terrible Jefferson Airplane song.
  • Everything Is A Remix – Sampling is not unique to music. Kirby Ferguson argues that every art form is built on remixing.

Sample genealogy (4 points)

In a blog post:

  1. Find an example of a song containing a direct audio sample of another song. I recommend using WhoSampled.com. Post links to both songs and explain how the sample was used. Does it form the basis of the beat? Is it a background texture? Does it run throughout the song or just appear once?
  2. Find an example of a song containing a quotation or interpolation of another song, and post links to both of them.

Sampling ethics (5 points)

Write a blog post answering the following question: Do you think that sampling without permission is morally acceptable? If so, why? If not, why not?

Peer remix (10 points)

Remix a song by another student in the class. You can work from their original session file, or download the audio from SoundCloud and work with that. You can make any alteration you see fit, up to and include radical reworking.

Peer remix process documentation (4 points)

Whose original track did you use and why? How did you alter it?

ADVANCED: Shared sample (10 points)

You will be given a short audio sample. Create a piece of music using no additional sounds. You can process and edit the sample as you see fit.

ADVANCED: Shared sample process documentation (4 points)

How did you approach this project? What editing techniques and/or effects did you use and why?

ADVANCED: Song re-edit (10 points)

Use an existing piece of recorded music as raw material for a new piece of music. Do not use any additional sounds or samples. See how far you can transform your source material using editing, processing, and effects.

ADVANCED: Song re-edit process documentation (4 points)

How did you approach this project? What editing techniques and/or effects did you use and why?

ADVANCED: Musical Shares (10 points)

Each person begins a new track on their own computer. After ten minutes (or whatever brief time interval), each person moves one seat to the left and continues working on the track on that computer. Continue rotating every ten minutes as time permits.

Mobile music

Read, listen and watch (2 points)

Mobile song (10 points)

Create a piece of music using only a phone or tablet. You may use any app, or combination of apps. Not all apps make it easy to record, so you may perform live if you would prefer.

Mobile song process documentation (4 points)

What app or apps did you use? How did you approach the creation of your song? Did you perform it live? Did you sequence it?

Ideas and inspiration

Peer review (4 points)

Write a review of one of your classmates’ projects in the style of your favorite music publication. Criticism is fine, but be gentle.

Reading

  • The Disquiet Junto – The internet’s most creative composer/producer collective is a bottomless well of inspiration.

ADVANCED: Disquiet Junto Project (10 points)

Choose a project from the Disquiet Junto project list and complete it. Better yet, complete the currently ongoing project.

ADVANCED: Disquiet Junto Project documentation (4 points)

Document your process according to the instructions in the Junto assignment.

Final project

Final project proposal (5 points)

In a paragraph, describe your planned final project. If you are creating or performing a piece of music, what software or equipment do you plan to use? Will you collaborate with a classmate? If you are giving a presentation or writing a paper, what do you plan to discuss? Topics are subject to approval by me. If you are not sure what to do, please let me know, I’m happy to help you narrow it down.

Final project (15 points)

Create a presentation on the music technology topic of your choice. Suggestions: Create an original piece of music and explain the process behind it; present a recording and explain in depth how it was created; present a particular artist, producer, or engineer, and discuss their creative techniques; or explain the history and significance of a particular technology: instrument, piece of recording gear, or software.

3 thoughts on “My music technology syllabus

  1. Ethan!
    Thank you so much for sharing this. What an inspiration. Not many teachers share their plans, so thank you! I have been toying with the idea of introducing music technology aspects in our high school but have always been apprehensive about it. There are definitive section I could use.

  2. Thanks very much for sharing all this, Ethan. It looks like a really enjoyable, practical, relevant program. I wonder whether you think it would be something that could be adapted for uses outside college, such as an introduction to modern music making for hobbyists, either as a supplement or an alternative to instrumental lessons.

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