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 good example of a would-be music tech teacher. 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, but his exposure to non-classical music is limited in the way typical of people who came up through the classical pipeline. 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, I don’t know, but if you find out, please tell me. The answer I gave him was less flip: that 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.
Teach the technology itself
NYU’s Music Technology program takes this approach. You learn the foundations of audio engineering and signal processing from the ones and zeroes up. The production of actual music is a secondary concern. The one required electronic composition class is rooted squarely in the modernist Euroclassical tradition (though since I took it, pop music has made some inroads as well). If you want to learn about the culture, history and aesthetics of non-academic music, NYU’s Music Tech program is not the place to do it.
Use new tools to teach traditional repertoire and concepts
Most music teachers in the US are operating in the Euroclassical tonal tradition. Notation software and the DAW can make teaching and learning that material a lot more engaging. I have my NYU music ed students read Barb Freedman’s excellent book, Teaching Music Through Composition. If you want to teach the basics of Western common-practice era composition and theory in an interactive, creativity-oriented way, Barb’s method is a great one.
The big problem here is not in Barb’s execution, but rather the philosophical assumptions underlying it. I don’t believe that Euroclassical tradition is the right way to bring most kids into active music-making. Barb’s methods are battle-tested and effective, but I think we should be using those methods in the service of different musical ends.
Use technology as a transmission vector for Afrocentric dance music
You can use the computer to make any kind of music, and people do, but there is a particular set of practices most naturally suited to it: hip-hop, techno, and their various pop derivatives. I put this music front and center in my music tech classes, for a couple of reasons. The big one is its systematic neglect by music education. The African diaspora is a more salient influence on American music at this point than Euroclassical, but you’d never guess it from looking at our syllabi or standards.
The other reason I use an Afrofuturistic approach is that this is the music that sounds the best when you make it with computers. Classical music sounds dreadful in synthesized form. Hip-hop and EDM sound terrific. Copy and paste is the defining gesture of digital audio editing, and it fits the loop-centrism of Afrocentric pop perfectly.
With due respect to my music tech professors, I don’t believe that most musicians need to know the details of timestretching algorithms or MP3 encoding. The kids don’t really need to be taught how to use a DAW or a mic or a preamp; all of those things are amply documented for the curious. What musicians need to be taught is how to use these tools for expressive purposes. They need to know how to use recordings as raw material for new music, how to program synths and drums in a way that sounds good, the best aesthetic practices for loop structures. I believe that these practices are valuable for musicians working in any idiom, not just pop. I have my students remix each others’ tracks, so they can discuss each others’ musical ideas in the language of music itself. It works much better than any verbal discourse possibly could.
Take a historical view of music technology
My Montclair State colleague Adam Bell shares my musical values, but he puts them into practice somewhat differently. Rather than focus on the musical present, he likes to bring his students on a journey through the last hundred years of technology, taking in audio recording and manipulation, electronic and electroacoustic music, film scoring, and yes, rock and pop. For example, he has students explore musique concréte by recording environmental sounds on their phones, and then editing them in the DAW. He’s an enthusiastic proponent of maker culture, and has the kids create DIY custom electronic music interfaces using the Makey Makey and LittleBits. He wants the students to explore the expressive possibilities of technology, not just as users of tools, but as designers of them as well. I’m working on absorbing more of this approach into my own.
Examine all of the above methods critically
My mentor figure, Alex Ruthmann, is an expert on many music tech pedagogies and philosophies, and he takes a thirty-five-thousand-foot overview of them all. While he teaches music technology and methods for teaching music technology, his main mission is to look critically at all of the myriad ways that people teach it to find out what they conceal and reveal, what their unstated values and goals are, and how the various methods have emerged and interacted throughout history. After all, while music technology is a new subject, it isn’t completely new, and forward thinkers have been teaching it for many decades.
NYU’s music education program has been taking steps recently to make technology more of a priority. NYU brought Alex on board with the express goal of bridging the gap between music tech and music ed. My own NYU class is another step toward preparing future music teachers to do music tech.
There is no single best approach
So where does all this leave Matt, and other would-be teachers of music tech? The bad news is that there is no clearly defined set of practices to learn, no equivalent to Orff or Suzuki or Kodály. The good news is that we’re left with a lot of freedom to define our mission in our own terms. It’s a freedom that few music teachers enjoy, and we might as well take advantage of the opportunity to innovate.