Introduction

Global musical culture is dominated by music of the African diaspora as filtered through American pop. This music is beat-driven, cyclical and percussion-centered. However, music education in America is focused heavily on the European common-practice era classical tradition, which is focused more on linear melodies and harmonies. There is a wide disconnect between the music animating the inner and social lives of young people and the music they encounter in school and formal lessons. While this disconnect is typically framed in terms of “low” versus “high “culture, the true conflict is between two different conceptions of what the most important and salient components of music are: melody and harmony, or rhythm and groove. In western tradition, melody is broadly considered to be the fundamental basis of music. In the dance music derived from the African diaspora (including nearly all of American popular music), rhythm is the fundamental basis.

In our Eurocentric pedagogical tradition, rhythm is a neglected subject compared to melody and harmony. Dance music is generally considered to be insufficiently sophisticated or artistically legitimate to merit inclusion in the music classroom. Students who hold this music close to their hearts and want to create it for themselves must primarily learn to do so outside of school, on their own or in ad hoc peer settings. Music teachers who recognize the artistic significance of beat-driven dance music and wish to include it in the classroom similarly face a lack of good teaching materials. While other cultures have rich pedagogical traditions around drumming and rhythm generally, in America such pedagogical materials are specialized, and are not as accessible to musicians generally; certainly not to novices.

In the past decades, there has been an explosive growth in software both for producing and recording music, and for learning it. However, little of this software addresses rhythm in a way that is authentically connected to dance music. There has also been a proliferation of software tools for the production of dance music, but while these are highly culturally authentic, they can be as intimidating to the novice as standard music notation.

The Drum Loop is an iOS app that is designed to fill the vacuum in rhythm pedagogy. It uses a simple and intuitive interface to introduce complete novices to the creation of dance, rock, hip-hop and Afro-Cuban beats. Rather than presenting users with a daunting blank slate, each exercise in the app is centered around a preexisting, culturally significant, “real world” beat. The user may then alter and customize this beat, within certain constraints that guarantee a musically satisfying and idiomatically appropriate result. The exercises do not proceed through a linear sequence with concrete goals and milestones; rather, they encourage a spirit of discovery, of experimentation through trial and error. Users are free to define success on their own terms according to their own tastes. More advanced users can also use the Drum Loop as an ordinary drum machine, without the constraints in the lessons.

The development of the Drum Loop has required a thorough examination of music visualization techniques and software interface paradigms. When examining any visual representation of music, we must ask whether it allows us to work with our figural and formal understandings (Ankney, 2012). Is the representation flexible enough to meet students’ developing knowledge of musical structure? Does it connect to preexisting musical knowledge, and does it facilitate the building of new knowledge? And on a more practical basis, can a good representation be implemented in code with a reasonable amount of effort?

As it details the background and development of the Drum Loop, this thesis addresses the following questions:

  • What are the present limitations of music education practice in the area of beginner-level rhythm teaching?
  • How can beginner-level music education be made more effective, more engaging and more inclusive?
  • How can software support better music learning generally, and rhythmic learning in particular? Which visualization and notation methods are the most intuitive? Which beginner-level applications scaffold more advanced learning?
  • How does the Drum Loop address the questions above? What vacuum does it fill in the present music education software landscape?
  • What was the rationale behind the Drum Loop’s design? How did the development process inform the final product? What future work remains to be done?
  • Can the Drum Loop be of value in the learning of subjects other than music?

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