How should we be teaching music technology?

This semester, I had the pleasure of leading an independent study for two music students at Montclair State University. One was Matt Skouras, a grad student who wants to become the music tech teacher in a high school. First of all, let me just say that if you’re hiring for such a position in New Jersey, you should go right ahead and hire Matt, he’s an exceptionally serious and well-versed musician and technologist. But the reason for this post is a question that Matt asked me after our last meeting yesterday: What should he be studying in order to teach music tech?

Matt is an excellent case study for the music ed tech field generally. He’s a classical trumpet player by training who has found little opportunity to use that skill after college. Wanting to keep his life as a musician moving forward, he started learning guitar, and, in his independent study with me, has been producing adventurous laptop music with Ableton Live. Matt is a broad-minded listener, and a skilled audio engineer. His exposure to non-classical music is limited in the way typical of people who came up through the classical pipeline, but he’s eager to fill in the gaps. It was at Matt’s request that I put together this electronic music tasting menu.

So. How to answer Matt’s question? How does one go about learning to teach music technology? My first impulse was to say, um, I don’t know, but if you find out, please tell me. The answer I gave him was less flip: the field is still taking shape, and it evolves rapidly as the technology does. Music tech is a broad and sprawling subject, and you could approach it from any number of different philosophical and technical angles. I’ll list a few of them here. Continue reading

Pop musicians in the academy

Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.

School of Rock

What even is “pop music?”

As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.

How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification

Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.

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My Montclair State students evaluate me

I’m wrapping up my first semester as a legit college professor, and that means my first round of student evaluations. Here’s what my Intro to Music Tech students at Montclair State University had to say about me.

Paul composes in Logic

The creation of original music was a big hit, predictably. Everyone in the class is from the classical pipeline, and producing pop tracks was well outside of their comfort zone. After their initial resistance, though, everybody quickly got caught up in it, and I started having to chase them out of the room at the end of class. People thought I was a supportive and effective songwriting teacher, which is nice. A student wanted to learn more about song structure. I would like to teach more about it. In general, this is something I plan to start doing on day one in future semesters.

I also got rave reviews for talking through Beatles and Michael Jackson stems. Classical musicians don’t often get exposure to the creative use of the recording studio. Those stems are a rich resource for examining songwriting, arrangement, recording, mixing and editing. I wish I didn’t have to acquire them illegally from the shadiest corners of the internet.

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Adam Bell evaluates my teaching

Adam Bell is a fellow pop musician turned academic, and he hired me to teach at Montclair State University. He recently offered to observe my teaching; here’s what he found.

Teaching Observation of Ethan Hein – MUTC-101: Introduction to Music Technology

As the students began to trickle into the music technology lab and power up their iMacs, discussions immediately hatched about an upcoming assignment. A young woman turned on her speakers and played a work in progress made with the program Logic. “That’s cool!” responded one of her classmates as he listened intently. The piece commenced with a heavy guitar riff and shared sonic similarities with the “nu-metal” style of the early 2000s, comprised by the traditional trio of rock instruments: guitar, bass, and drumset. “Can we all listen to your song again? All the way through and more loudly?” asked Professor Hein. If there was a distinct moment when class had officially begun, this was it, and this was the first of many indications that the education occurring in this room under the guidance of Professor Hein is a continuing conversation that his students are engaged in and enjoying.

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Toward a statement of purpose

I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in music education, and I have to come up with a statement of purpose. Here’s my most current draft.

I dream of a world where music education serves everyone, not just potential classical virtuosos, with a radically revised curriculum that erases the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” This curriculum would be accompanied by accessible, thoughtfully designed technology for meaningful individual and group music making. Educators would incubate communities of enthusiastic music makers across skill levels and styles. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making this vision a reality, using three mutually informative approaches: 1) scholarship and advocacy for curriculum change; 2) the design of new technologies and user experiences; and 3) the direct teaching of future music teachers. As a prolific and influential music blogger whose writing has been included in college syllabi internationally, I have been working toward these goals for some years already; my hope is that continued work with Alex Ruthmann, John Gilbert and the rest of NYU Steinhardt’s Music Education and Music Technology faculty will greatly increase my knowledge, credibility and reach.

My primary avenue of intended research is to design learning experiences that lead to active creative music making, even at the beginner level. Specifically, I want to devise new curriculum materials centered on the digital studio. In so doing, I hope to stem the epidemic of abandonment of formal music study. Tools like Ableton Live and Apple’s Logic are invaluable for encouraging students to produce original, culturally authentic music of their own. Creating pop tracks is an exercise with a low floor and high ceilings; novices can participate meaningfully, and experts can explore large-scale structure and novel timbral combinations. This work can and should come before theory and notation; otherwise we risk alienating the majority of would-be student musicians.

A great many teachers would naturally prefer their classes to be engaging and socially relevant rather than dry and antiquated. However, most music teachers have no idea how pop music is made. This is not due to lack of technical skill, but rather to a disconnect in musical sensibilities. The study of harmonic movement at the quarter-note level is poor preparation for music that eschews harmony completely, and the study of classical form does not give much insight into the loop structures of dance and hip-hop. Formal music education generally omits songwriting, improvisation, beatmaking, synthesis, MIDI, audio engineering, critical listening to recordings, and much else of value both to casual students and would-be pop practitioners. It is especially crucial that music teachers recognize the digital studio as a new musical medium, one that erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. Digital audio editing makes it possible for young musicians to approach the artifacts of their culture as producers rather than consumers, and enables even complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitively approachable level of riffs, phrases, chord cycles, and drum patterns. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; it also opens new inroads into the study of jazz and classical. One of my main goals as a scholar is to devise music education curriculum materials that will help teachers adapt to this new paradigm.

Montclair State student works with Logic

The design of music learning technology is as important as the design of curricula. Indeed, the education of most pop musicians takes place outside of a classroom, in large part through direct trial and error. In this context, the presets, default sounds and user interface affordances in music production software and hardware are de facto music teachers with enormous cultural reach and impact. As Dr. Adam Bell (NYU Steinhardt PhD 2013) memorably put it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” I would like to find ways to make that educational experience a better one. My intimate expertise both with formal theory and informal pop practice makes me ideally suited to design music education technology. My Masters thesis was a prototype introductory-level rhythm learning app that uses an innovative radial visualization scheme combined with creative exercises drawn from genuine dance, pop and hip-hop repertoire. I have since been asked by engineers at iZotope and Ableton for design insights, and my blog posts on interface and experience design have a substantial and growing global following.

My thinking on the role of technology in music education has been shaped profoundly by the MusEDLab, with whom it has been my privilege to work as a researcher for the past year. The Groove Pizza, an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, pepperoni and sausages. Beyond the novelty of the form factor, we believe that there is deep value in circular rhythm visualization as an intuitive representation of the loops comprising all pop and dance music. Radial rhythm visualizations also have rich value outside the music classroom; for example, they can be used to teach mathematical subjects including ratios and proportional relationships, angles, polar coordinates, rotational and reflectional symmetry, and modular arithmetic. I expect that my doctoral studies will dovetail neatly with the MusEDLab’s work, and that the two will mutually inform each other. I look forward to sharing the findings of our research with advocates for change in music curricula at the university as well as the primary and secondary school levels.

My own teaching practice has been and will continue to be a proving ground for new approaches. As an adjunct at NYU and Montclair State University, I am introducing future music educators to the possibilities of technology in the classroom, as both a toolkit for teaching music fundamentals and for fostering creative expression even at beginner levels. This work has already informed my thinking about the potential for experience design to make musical practice more accessible. I eagerly look forward to using my doctoral studies to engage in evidence-based design of new music learning experiences, to advocate for the adoption of those experiences, and to help teachers bring culturally authentic music into the classroom. In so doing, I hope to widen access to the essential social vitamin of active musical practice, and to guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths. Thank you for your consideration.

 

All student work should go on the web

Well, it’s official. All of my students are now henceforth required to post all music assignments on SoundCloud.

It solves so many problems! No fumbling with thumb drives, no sharing of huge files, no annoyances with incompatible DAWs. No need to mess with audio-hostile Learning Management Systems. Everyone gets to listen to everyone else’s music. And best of all, the kids get into the habit of exposing their creative work to the blunt indifference of the public at large. Students can comment on and fave each others’ tracks, and so can randos on the web. It really takes the “academic” out of academic work.

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My music education

I’m writing a chapter of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Technology and Music Education. Here’s a section of what I wrote, about my own music learning experiences.

Most of my music education has happened outside of the classroom. It has come about intentionally, through lessons and disciplined practice, and it has come about unintentionally, through osmosis or accidental discovery. There has been no separation between my creative practice, my learning, and my teaching.

My formal music education has been a mixed bag. In elementary school, I did garden-variety general music, with recorders and diatonic xylophones. I don’t remember enjoying or not enjoying it in particular. I engaged more deeply with the music my family listened to at home: classical and jazz on public radio; the Beatles, Paul Simon and Motown otherwise. Like every member of my age cohort, I listened to a lot of Michael Jackson, and because I grew up in New York City, I absorbed some hip-hop as well.

In middle school we started on traditional classical music. I chose the cello, for no good reason except that I had braces and so was steered away from wind instruments. I liked the instrument, and still do, but the cello parts in basic-level Baroque music are mostly sawing away at quarter notes, and I lost interest quickly. Singing showtunes in chorus didn’t hold much appeal for me either, and I abandoned formal music as soon as I was able.

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Remix as compositional critique

This month I’ve been teaching music production and composition as part of NYU’s IMPACT program. A participant named Michelle asked me to critique some of her original compositions. I immediately said yes, and then immediately wondered how I was actually going to do it. I always want to evaluate music on its own terms, and to do that, I need to know what the terms are. I barely know Michelle. I’ve heard her play a little classical piano and know that she’s quite good, but beyond that, I don’t know her musical culture or intentions or style. Furthermore, she’s from China, and her English is limited.

I asked Michelle to email me audio files, and also MIDI files if she had them. Then I had an epiphany: I could just remix her MIDIs, and give my critique totally non-verbally.

Remix as compositional critique

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A DIY video about DIY recording

For the benefit of Play With Your Music participants and anyone else we end up teaching basic audio production to, MusEDLab intern Robin Chakrabarti and I created this video on recording audio in less-than-ideal environments.

This video is itself quite a DIY production, shot and edited in less than twenty-four hours, with minimal discussion beforehand and zero rehearsal. Continue reading