Inspiration from the digital studio

While technology has revolutionized music production, music education has been slow to absorb the implications. Too frequently, computers in music classrooms are used as a more expensive platform for the same teaching materials that were formerly delivered on paper and the blackboard. Ruthmann (2012) criticizes bad technologically-mediated classroom tasks as being “information technology tasks applied in the context of learning about music, rather than engaging students directly in making, creating and responding to sound and music.” For example, while having students research a composer on the internet is more expedient than doing so in the library, it is not profoundly different.

Teachers should find ways to leverage technology in support of active, social music making—doing music, rather than simply learning about music. However, getting students to do music can be easier said than done.

Many traditional music and non-music software programs (e.g., notation, sequencing, looping, audio editing, word processing) are based on the metaphor of a blank canvas or void. When the program is launched the user is presented with a blank slate upon which to place notes, audio waveforms, images or words. For many students, it can be intimidating starting from scratch. In my own teaching I have seen many students who have been reluctant to add their first notes to the page, sometimes wondering if they have anything of value to say. Of course they do have something valuable to say, but starting from scratch is not always the best place for them to begin (Ruthmann, 2012).

One way to avert the terror of a blank slate is to use pre-existing materials, e.g., GarageBand loops. Rather than the usual process of having students place loops in a blank project, Ruthmann suggests making a game of a subtractive process. Students can be given a dense collage of loops, a “sound block,” which they must transform into a new work by slicing and subtracting pieces only.

Studio as instrument, not documentation tool

As the cost of digital recording equipment falls within the reach of more schools, new teaching opportunities present themselves. Thibeault (2011) urges music teachers to think of the studio not just as a means of documenting “real” performances, but as a musical instrument in its own right, carrying with it an entire philosophy of music-making. The digital studio collapses composition, recording and editing into a single act. To meaningfully participate in the musical world, students must become familiar with the studio’s particular demands and affordances. For example, the studio expands the definition of the word “musician” beyond traditional performers and composers to include anyone with the patience and the will to learn the software and explore its possibilities.

Within the context of interactive video game soundtracks and rhythm games, Herber (2008) argues that the traditional distinction between composition and performance is less meaningful than in traditional instrumental settings. The same is true for digital music production environments. When software is used both for conceptualizing ideas and realizing them, it erodes the creative distinction between the two acts. Herber focuses primarily on generative music like Terry Riley’s In C, where the composer’s role is to facilitate emergent and participatory interactive experiences. However, he might also have noted that prosaic dance music production software similarly gives the user the simultaneous experience of composer, performer and audience.

Dance music producers have a bad reputation in the broader music world. There is a widespread sense that simply playing loops and samples created by other people is not legitimate musicianship, that it is “just pushing buttons.” This attitude is unfortunate, because dance musicians have a great deal to offer other musicians and composers. DJs and producers are looking for samples, loop points, sections—they are extracting the cyclical content from the linear auditory stream. The most important skill we can learn from dance musicians is to be able to listen closely at several different levels of detail: to songs, to phrases, and to individual beats or hits (Thompson, 2012). Rather than listening to recordings as complete and inviolable, dance music producers listen for the ways that the recordings could be altered, customized, or combined with other recordings. In other words, dance musicians treat recordings as the raw material, not simply the finished product.

Informal education in the home studio

In music pedagogical circles, the terms “popular musicians” and “informally trained musicians” are used interchangeably. While the situation is more complex than this casual linguistic equation would suggest, it is true that when it comes to education, popular musicians are substantially on their own.

For nearly a century, formal music education has turned its back upon the learning practices of the musicians who produce most of the music that comes out of loudspeakers. But perhaps by constructively embracing those same technological developments which many people consider to have alienated music-making, and noticing how they are used as one of the main means of self- education for popular musicians, we can find one key to the re-invigoration of music-making in general (Bell, 2013).

For the first several decades of recording, the music was composed in its entirety before recording began. While some adjustments were made in the studio, composition and production were almost completely separate processes. In contemporary pop music practice, however, composition, arrangement, and recording are a single intertwined process. Popular musicians can hear sounds in a near-finished form and react to them, continually readjusting their approach as the track develops. In hip-hop and dance music in particular, there may be no plan whatsoever before the production process begins.

Music education has tended to treat composition and audio engineering as separate practices, but in the case of the solo bedroom producer, the distinction is no longer meaningful. There is precious little in the way of formal education for such musicians. In this context, software presets and default sounds become a critical educational resource. Bedroom producers may learn everything they know about EQ or reverb simply by scrolling through the built-in settings in their plugins. As Bell (2013) puts it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” How good an education are we buying? How could it be better?

Software as an active participant in the creative process

Electronic musicians tend to begin their work by playfully experimenting with a piece of equipment or software, a period of open-ended “knob-twiddling.” The discoveries made during this period, particularly those not intended by the musician or the software’s designers, are crucial raw materials for the more formal composition and editing that follows. One subject interviewed by Gelineck and Serafin (2009) described his tools as “having a life of their own.”

Marrington (2011) draws a contrast between the computer as a musical tool and the computer as a musical medium. We use computers as musical tools when they make composition or recording easier or faster, in the service of realizing music that lives in the “real” world. An example of the computer as tool is a composer writing a string quartet with Sibelius, rather than with pencil and paper. By contrast, when we use the computer as a medium, it enables musical practices that would be impossible or inconceivable otherwise. An example of the computer as medium is a dance music producer manipulating an audio sample with Ableton Live.

It is not only the end result that is different when working with the computer as medium; a software tool’s visualization system can change our entire conceptual imagining of music. Marrington observes that all DAWs enable the user to zoom in and out to view the music at any resolution. At one extreme, we can manipulate fragments less than a millisecond long; at the other, we can view the entire piece compressed to fit into a single screen. We can manipulate blocks of audio and MIDI of any arbitrary length, treating them as “things” rather than sequences of events. Rather than solely experiencing music as unfolding in time, we can also conceive it a group of objects in visual space.

Wise, Greenwood and Davis (2011) describe the way that students use Sibelius as a medium rather than a tool. Like all notation software, Sibelius is effectively a specialized MIDI sequencer, and younger students are likely to regard scores they create with it to be the finished product rather than an intermediate stage culminating in live performance. The software enables its users to create wildly complex patterns, copied and pasted into dense ostinati and played back on improbable instrument combinations.

Copy and paste is a forbiddingly tedious compositional strategy on paper, but it is so effortless on the computer as to constitute the de facto norm. Furthermore, software encourages naive and untrained experimentation in a way that paper-based composition does not. Formal theory need not be a prerequisite to such exploration, since students receive immediate auditory feedback of their every move and quickly discover on their own what works and what does not. The distinction between tool and medium may not even be a meaningful one when applied to music software.

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