The problem: Why are so many young people alienated by music class?

Of those high school students in North America who have elective music programs available to them, only five percent choose to enroll. In the United Kingdom, the equivalent statistic is closer to two percent (Lowe, 2012). These low enrollment figures are startling when we consider the central role of music in the inner lives of adolescents. We should not blame students for voting with their feet if the music classes available to them do not offer what they want and need from music. Instead, we must ask why so many young people are so alienated by their music education experience.

Classroom music is alien

The music academy continually laments students’ lack of interest in “legitimate” art music, and their preference for (supposedly) vacuous pop. From the student’s perspective, however, there are valid reasons to find it difficult to connect to the music they encounter in most classrooms. The music education establishment draws its values and axiomatic assumptions from the European classical tradition, with its score- centrism, rigidly-defined canon of works that are often centuries old, and lack of improvisation and spontaneity. Casual pop listeners in America are immersed in a musical culture that lacks the melodic and harmonic richness of the European classical canon, but is considerably more rhythmically sophisticated, and delivers a much broader variety of timbres as well.

Students in the traditional music classroom are not just being challenged by the complexities of chord and scale theory and notation. They are also challenged to stay interested in spite of the absence of knowledge that is important to them: how do the songs on the radio work? Why are some of them so much more compelling than others? How are they made, creatively and technically?

There is a widespread fear among music educators that including pop music in the classroom necessarily entails pandering to students or “dumbing down” the curriculum. However, this does not necessarily follow. Bringing the level of rhythmic sophistication of classroom music up to the standard of African diasporic dance music would engage young people in a challenge that they might be a great deal more eager to take on.

Exercises are culturally inauthentic and musically unsatisfying

Beginner music students are rarely engaged with actual music beyond the simplest nursery rhymes and folk songs. It may be years before a beginner musician starts playing something that they would recognize as “real music.” In the meantime, they study decontextualized fragments of scales, melodies and chord progressions. These fragments are designed for their pedagogical content, not their intrinsic musical value, and they rarely hold much interest in and of themselves.

Software for music education has largely continued the traditional approach. The state of the art in interactive music learning software is well represented by My Note Games!, released by Appatta Ltd for iOS in 2011. The app comprises several distinct music theory, reading and ear training games:

  • Hear It, Note It!—Hear a melody and use the game’s notation editor to transcribe it.
  • Tap That Note—Given a simple melody with a row of note names below, tap the note names in the sequence they are written on the score.
  • Play That Note—Sight-read a short melody on your instrument into the iPad’s built-in mic; the game tracks your accuracy note-by-note.
  • Play-A-Day—perform more demanding sight-reading exercises, requiring more exact timing. You are given eight melodies, and when you can play all of them correctly, you advance to the next eight.

These games are self-paced, easy to understand, and presented with attractive graphics. But the examples are devoid of musical interest or cultural authenticity. Indeed, many of the melodies are generated randomly and are often barely even recognizable as music. Having to engage closely with emotionless and arbitrary strings of notes would be enough to demoralize any music student, especially those that may not be intrinsically motivated to begin with.

Beginners start at the wrong level of abstraction

Beginner music classes typically begin with the smallest units of music: beats, notes, and rests. However, beginner musicians are best served by learning what Bamberger (1994) calls “musical structural simples,” the smallest meaningful units of music: motives, phrases and sequences. Bamberger draws an analogy between different levels of musical abstraction and the linguistic concept of phonemes and morphemes. Phonemes are the smallest sonic components of speech: individual vowels and consonants. Morphemes are the smallest grammatical components of speech: individual words and short phrases. In music, “phonemes” are individual notes, rests, and rhythmic values. “Morphemes” are motives, phrases and sequences. Young children and beginners intuitively understand music at the morpheme level. However, traditional musical education begins with the phonemes.

Moving up and down the structural ladder

While the phonemes are the atomic units of music, working with them requires a nontrivial degree of musical sophistication: beginner students would need to understand and be able to dictate proportional rhythm, to conceptualize musical metadimensions such as key, scale, and meter, and to be able to grasp chromatic divisions of the octave. Unfortunately, too many beginning students are presented with decontextualized phonemes that they are unable to connect to their existing implicit musical understanding. At this early stage in their learning, students may understandably conclude that music is too abstract or difficult for them.

Most music production software also operates at the phoneme level of single notes and beats, whether these are represented in traditional music notation or otherwise. Users get some assistance from packages that include prefabricated loops, like Apple’s Garageband. However, while the loops might be useful morphemes, they tend to be complex and compound, limiting their generality.

Musician Tor Bruce (personal communication, February 10 2013) draws a helpful analogy between music and graphics software. Blank-slate MIDI sequencers and audio recorders are like working at the pixel level. Loops are more like clip art—expedient but limited in their creative potential. Unlike music software, graphics software offers many tools in between the pixel level and the clip art level: geometric shapes, text, bezier curves and the like. Bruce asks, what are the equivalent tools in music? Where is the software that enables you to work with musical structural simples?

There have been some attempts to invite novice musicians to compose with meaningful structural elements, musical molecules rather than atoms. The composition program Hyperscore provides a visual analogue for structural events in diatonic music (Farbood, Pasztor & Jennings, 2004). It displays musical events as colorful shapes and lines, rather than in procedural notation or as a set of parameters, as is often the case with other graphical composition systems. Hyperscore’s major virtue is the manner in which it modularizes compositional tasks, thereby keeping the complexity level manageable. It is much easier for naive composers to relate to the notion of making small bits of music and then assembling those bits into a larger work than it is to start with a completely unstructured task.

Steep barriers to entry

Anyone who has attempted to learn an instrument from scratch has experienced the discouragingly long time span between when study begins and when it becomes possible to produce musical sounds. The weeks or months of practice that come before the making of actual music are an obstacle that a great many students never overcome.

Music production software generally has much lower barriers to entry than acoustic instruments. Presuming familiarity with the conventions of computer operating systems, it is possible for a novice user to produce something that sounds reasonably good in a matter of hours. However, the beginner still faces obstacles to entry. Professional-level programs like Digidesign’s Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic are formidably complex. There is a more accessible “prosumer” level of product, promising professional capabilities with amateur-friendly interfaces and price points. Apple’s GarageBand is the emblematic example. However, these programs still presume a considerable degree of implicit musical sophistication on the user’s part.

Explicitly beginner-oriented programs do exist that strive to get their users making music immediately and effortlessly. Propellerhead Figure is an excellent example. While it succeeds in its goal of being learnable by a young child in a matter of minutes, however, it sacrifices a great deal of depth and variety. Figure is more of a toy than a tool, limited in its expressive capabilities, and it does little to scaffold learning of more complex tools. The same is true of most beginner-oriented tools.

Music technologies enable creativity

When schools do address music technology, they tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of the technology itself, rather than its creative applications. This is ironic, since common-practice notation and instrument design are themselves forms of technology. Dillon (2007) observes:

The violin bow and the saxophone mouthpiece are perhaps the most expressive pieces of music technology in Western history yet composers and virtuoso performers did not undertake courses in these technologies. To understand them they actively explore what the expressive capabilities of these technology enable, what they revealed and concealed to us as musicians.

So it should be with electronic music production tools. But to truly engage such tools for creative music-making, we must address their most culturally significant context: electronic dance music and hip-hop. This music falls well outside the canon of what is widely considered suitable music for the classroom. I will argue that such music should nevertheless be included, and not simply because young people enjoy it. Rather than “dumbing down” music education, the inclusion of popular dance music would significantly enrich the curriculum, particularly in areas traditionally neglected: rhythm, timbre and space.

Expanding the idea of musicianship

Traditional music pedagogy takes a narrow view of what constitutes musicianship: instrumental technique, music reading, and some common-practice tonal theory. It is a rare American school music class that will incorporate composition, improvisation, or transcription from recordings. (The United Kingdom and Australia are moving to include these practices broadly in the classroom.) Still fewer classes venture into recording, production, publishing, reviewing, or applying metadata to music. It is vanishingly unusual for students to encounter DJs, sound designers, electronic composers, producers or engineers in schools; nor are students likely to have access to the tools of their trade: audio waveforms, the MIDI piano roll, graphic visualization, event lists and computer code.

Western classical tradition takes the linear narrative as its defining metaphor. Electronic dance and pop music are based on a very different basic image: the endless loop. Copy-and-paste is the defining gesture of digital editing tools, and infinitely looping playback their signature sound. The cyclic nature of pop, dance and hip-hop music unites the many styles and genres, and is much lamented by “sophisticated” musicians. However, repetitiveness is not coextensive with a lack of musical richness. Loop-centrism is ubiquitous in contemporary art music as well, with African-American dance music as its major vector of cultural transmission. McClary (2004) argues that the music of Missy Elliott, Steve Reich and John Adams are fundamentally more similar than different, united by their shared cyclic structures.

Why is repetitive music not boring to listen to? Why we can play repetitive music without getting bored? Butterfield (2010) argues that we do not hear each repetition as an instance of mechanical reproduction, even in looped electronic samples and sequences. Instead, we experience the groove as a process, with each iteration creating suspense. We are constantly asking ourselves: will this time through the pattern lead to another repetition, or will there be a break in the pattern?

Recognizing the aesthetic power of syncopated rhythms and breakbeats

What does the human brain find exciting about syncopated rhythm, even when repeated heavily? The answer is likely to be: predictable unpredictability. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine. We like repetition and symmetry because they engage our pattern-recognizers. But we only like patterns up to a point. Once we’ve recognized and memorized the pattern, we get bored and stop paying attention. If the pattern changes or breaks, it grabs our attention again. And if the pattern-breaking happens repetitively, recursively forming a new pattern, we find that extremely gratifying.

Good breakbeats and drum patterns are just complicated enough to challenge our pattern recognition ability without totally overwhelming us. Repeating a complex and unpredictable rhythm in a simple, predictable structure, and then sometimes breaking that structure, holds our attention without completely dominating it. A good groove ties the room’s attention together while still leaving enough bandwidth for people to dance, rap, sing, socialize or daydream. Breakbeats are good for social music because listeners can let their attention wander, and then easily pick the thread back up at will.

Butterfield (2010) describes a groove as an experienced present that is “continually being created anew.” Each repetition gains particularity from our memory of the immediate past and our expectations for the future. In live performances and recording played by live musicians, small deviations from the expected pattern add interest to a groove. There is tension between the expected identical repetition and the imperfections of the actual performance. This is why a hip-hop breakbeat sampled from a live performance can be so much more exciting than a drum machine pattern quantized exactly to the grid. The uncanny perfection of perfectly quantized synths and drum machines hold their own hypnotic pleasures, perhaps by relentlessly defeating our expectation of small imperfection. Each type of groove holds its own aesthetic power, and each is worthy of inquiry in its own right.

Looping and feedback support traditional music pedagogy

Beyond being a valuable method of musical expression in its own right, the open-ended loop has considerable value in support of more traditional instrumental and vocal pedagogy. Repetition is fundamental to all human learning, in the forms of drilling and rehearsal. Software is ideally suited to producing endless repetition in support of rehearsal.

The key to effective music learning is “chunking,” breaking a long piece into short, tractable segments and then building those segments into larger meta-segments (Snyder 2001). Electronic dance music is built from loops of such chunks. Music learned on acoustic instruments or voice can be similarly broken into dance-music-style loops. Students can repeat loops in tempo until they are mastered. Then the loops can be chunked into ever larger loops of loops, without ever disrupting the underlying rhythmic groove.

Saville (2011) cites the music educator’s truism that “accurate feedback may be the single greatest variable for improving learning.” The longer the delay between the performance and the feedback, the less effective it is. It is best to give feedback in the moment, while the student plays along with the loop, “in the heat of battle.” The loop can continue to run indefinitely, so students need not lose the flow when they drop a note or receive feedback. I have certainly found that having my students rehearse manageably-sized loops sustained by a steady groove can turn potentially tedious drilling into a satisfying and even joyous experience of real music-making. Even the most basic introductory exercises can sound like music and induce flow; the loop structure makes that possible.

A need for authentic music in the classroom

Ruthmann (2006) argues that the best curriculum activities derive from real- world activities, ideally retaining the essential values of the original. The objects and operations of the adapted activity should be genuine instances of the original activity, however simplified. Classroom music and “real” music should be one and the same whenever possible.

Martin (2012) concurs, advocating teaching “from within authentic music making contexts.” However, he undermines his own argument, in a highly illuminating way. He believes that students should be able to explore electroacoustic music and sampling. However, while his desire for a more inclusive curriculum is admirable, his version of decanonization simply entails swapping in a different canon, the twentieth- century avant-garde. While Martin deserves credit for recommending teaching non-academic artists like Aphex Twin, he is unfortunately quick to dismiss popular music. He takes a dim view of “the repetitive ostinati of typical dance club pieces,” preferring more abstract and challenging musical paradigms. However, Stockhausen and Varese are likely to alienate younger students even more than Mozart and Handel. Truly authentic practice should embrace the culture in which students live.

Why is a modernist like Stockhausen even less suitable for music classes with young students than Mozart? The answer can be found in a famous interview conducted by The Wire magazine in 1995, in which Stockhausen was asked to comment on some electronic music artists widely considered to be his musical descendants, including Aphex Twin, Plasticman and Scanner (Witts, 1995). These artists might be categorized as “pop” in the very broadest sense, but their music lies well outside the commercial mainstream. Nevertheless, Stockhausen voiced considerable contempt for their “permanent repetitive language,” their “ice cream harmonies” and other “kitschy” indulgences. He advised Aphex Twin to “immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions,” and “not allow to repeat any rhythm if it were [not] varied to some extent and if it did not have a direction in its sequence of variations.” In other words, Stockhausen utterly rejects the very qualities of electronic dance music that give it such profound significance both in the lives of young students and in global popular culture.

The value of electronic music in the classroom is not in its abstraction and difficulty. Its value is in its absorption of African-American popular idioms, “converting our collective sense of time from tortured heroic narratives to cycles of kinetic pleasure” (McClary 2004). Prince (1990) drives home the point directly by singing:

There’s joy in repetition
There’s joy in repetition
There’s joy in repetition
There’s joy in repetition
There’s joy in repetition
There’s joy in repetition

Marshall (2009) wonders:

How to argue for the aesthetic value of deeply repetitive music—a quality utterly taken for granted and celebrated by [electronic dance music] devotees— without falling into two common traps: (1) searching for the hidden complexities of seemingly simple sounds; (2) foregoing any sort of music analysis at all, in favor of socio-cultural exegesis, and thus implying that EDM does not need it (but also, perhaps, does not merit it). A great many journalists, cultural critics, ethnomusicologists, practitioners, and aficionados have been involved in the intertwined projects of explicating and celebrating EDM as social phenomenon, as cultural product and practice, and—if, ironically, less commonly—as music.

To truly come to appreciate the value of dance music in the classroom and in elevated cultural discourse in general, we must relinquish our present valorization of complexity, and instead, to investigate the aesthetic power of the loop.

Eurocentric music education undervalues rhythm

What value does dance music offer to the music curriculum? Certainly, its production techniques make wildly diverse use of timbre and space. For the present argument, however, the chief virtue of dance music is its oft-underestimated rhythmic sophistication, even compared to the furthest fringes of the classical avant-garde. McClary (1989), writing about “System of Survival” by Earth, Wind and Fire, observes that the groove is a foundational musical skill sorely undervalued by the gatekeepers of our culture:

As is the case with most Afro-American music, the rhythm itself constitutes the most compelling yet most complex component of the song. I would argue that the skill required to achieve and maintain a groove with the degree of vitality characteristic of “System of Survival” is far greater than that which goes into the production of the self-denying, “difficult” rhythms derived by externally generated means. One need only observe professional classical performers attempting to capture anything approaching “swing” (forget about funk!) to appreciate how truly difficult this apparently immediate music is.

Groove offers the best of both worlds: it requires a depth of focus and discipline rivaling any other musical challenge, but it also offers young people intense and immediate gratification.

Riffs and loops: the building blocks of dance music

Monson (1999) proposes the riff as the fundamental unit of the musical African diaspora, the morpheme-level building block of much popular music. Since American popular and dance music dominates global musical culture, and African-Americans dominate American dance music, the riff deserves status as a foundational element of the music curriculum, alongside scales, chords and meters.

The riff faces some powerful intellectual opponents, however, Theodor Adorno prominent among them. Monson cites Adorno’s oft-quoted stance equating the repetition in popular music with industrial standardization, loss of individuality, military marching, and fascism. Monson vigorously disagrees; he cites the “dynamic and open structure” of riff-based music as a liberating force for self-expression and community-building. Furthermore, because Afrocentric music has a high tolerance for imperfection (“participatory discrepancies” in Monson’s terminology), the music opens up “the possibility of participation, sensuous immersion in sound.” It is ideally suited to the goal of opening up legitimate participation in music to more students, not just the “talented” ones.

Changing consumers into producers

Even those educators open to including more African diasporic music into the classroom may balk at contemporary pop. What is it that makes the disposable ephemera of commercial culture worthy of serious study? Marshall (2010) invites us to consider that students need not passively absorb pop culture in the classroom the way they customarily do on their own. Digital audio editing makes it possible to actively engage the artifacts of our culture, to remix and recombine them, to personalize and mold them, and to use them as raw materials for entirely new work. The ability to claim creative ownership over pop culture is a tremendously empowering sensation, especially for young people who may not feel much empowerment otherwise.

Marshall advocates particularly strongly for the role of the mashup in music education. By deconstructing and recombining familiar pop texts, mashups open the door to broader critical thinking. As Marshall puts it, through mashups “we discover correspondences, connotations, and critical readings of performances that we may not have given a second thought—or even a first listen.” Marshall also recommends that the study of the mashup go hand-in-hand with producing them, thus “folding musical analysis into musical experience.” The same argument can be applied to the study of programming drums in popular dance styles.

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