Mainstreaming music technology
MUSIC:ED’s Music Technology Editor, George Hess, introduces our new content hub.
The other day, a teacher asked a social media group for help with planning a music technology class. Among the helpful responses was one that suggested she contact a particular person because ‘he teaches that sort of thing’. Every time I see a teacher say something to that effect, my heart sinks a bit.
You see, I’ve been teaching computer music technology for over 25 years now and while a lot has changed in that time, what hasn’t changed is how it’s viewed. For as long as we’ve been at it, it’s still thought of as more of a fringe subject than mainstream. When we consider that virtually all music relies on technology to one extent or another, this is quite disappointing.
But it also makes the teacher in me think about the barriers that prevent technology from being part of mainstream music education and how we can get past them.
The two most obvious ones are time and resources. No one knows better just how hard you work. And it’s getting worse, with far too much busy work that has little to do with actually teaching kids. And while they are asking for more and more of your time, you are being provided with fewer and fewer resources. It isn’t a recipe for success.
So the guiding principle for this section of MUSIC:ED is to be practical. We’ll be talking about down-to-earth solutions to real-world problems and we’ll be looking at ways to use technology that are effective and efficient. We understand that you don’t have time to spend learning to become technology experts. That’s OK: you’re the music experts. There are plenty of ways to use technology that don’t require any more tech skills than does social media. And when you do need help, there are many excellent resources available from technology experts. As one of my favourite teachers, Barbara Freedman, says, ‘Teach music, the technology will follow’.
All this is fine and good but what if you don’t have a lab full of computers and the latest software? We can help here too (sorry, no, we’re not providing free computers). Most of you probably have a least one computer or tablet, even if it’s your own. We’ll be looking at ways you can use technology whether you have one machine or twenty. And rather than focus on the latest and greatest software, we’ll be looking at apps you can afford, including many free ones that you can download or use in the Cloud.
Now if these were the only problems, we’d have made a lot more progress in the last quarter century or so. But I suspect there’s a larger obstacle.
Music education is a well established discipline. We are all trained in the canon of the Common Practice period and the focus of most music education is still grounded in that style: the GCSE, A Level and IB programmes clearly reinforce that. There’s no doubt that it has produced some of the world’s greatest music and it still has validity today, probably more so than most students realise.
But can anyone listen to modern popular music and say that harmony or counterpoint are the most important elements? If that is the criterion, then the music is hardly music at all. But what if the criteria have changed? What if timbre is now the primary element? When you listen for that, the creativity and skill are apparent. And it’s not just in popular music. There’s a similar thing happening in contemporary classical music.
This type of sea change has happened before. Consider the two dominant styles of the 20th century: jazz and rock. Both styles are based on the blues, a simple three-chord form, so it’s not really harmony that makes it interesting. While it’s true that jazz harmony did evolve to become quite elaborate at one point, and there are surely beautiful melodies in both styles, what actually sets these styles apart is rhythm.
The music changed but music education didn’t. Rather than accept that the primary element in both styles was rhythm and adapt our teaching to it, we stuck our collective heads in the sand and continued to this day to teach as if harmony is the be all and end all. In that time, we lost entire generations of potential students who found music classes to be stuffy and irrelevant.
We can’t afford to do that again.
This isn’t to say we should abandon the teaching of harmony and counterpoint but that it should be just one element, treated on a more equal footing with rhythm and timbre. We’ve all heard the definition of music as ‘organised sound’. We need to embrace that. Developing a pedagogy as evolved for these other elements as that which we have for harmony will take some doing. But, for music teachers in the trenches, all it means is opening our minds to the possibility that something other than melody and harmony matters and not turning up our noses at music our students like.
So another goal for this section will be to provide clear, concise information about what makes today’s music tick. Much of it is about technology. You may never really like this music but you can learn to appreciate it. Much as we ask students to appreciate the music we value.
Our third goal will be to serve as an advocate for music and technology in our schools. Music as part of the curriculum is under siege. You can’t teach when you don’t have the resources to do the job. You also need quality professional development opportunities that are relevant to your teaching. We’ll provide as much ammunition as we can to support your programmes. We encourage you to be active and vocal on your own behalf as well. You are all taxpayers and voters. Make your voices heard.
In the past one hundred years or so, music has undergone significant changes, much of it driven by technology. It’s time for music education to undergo a similar transformation. It’s a big job but we believe you are up to the challenge. Along the way, we hope to ignite your curiosity, stimulate your creativity; at times, inspire and at others, infuriate. We intend to be provocative and we will not be boring. We encourage you to engage with us, agree or disagree.
And, together, we can make this happen.
About the author
George Hess is an educator, guitarist, composer and author who has taught music technology, jazz and theory at leading universities for over 25 years.
Dr Hess is an Apple Distinguished Educator and award-winning teacher who serves on the board of directors for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) in the US. A certified Flipped Learning trainer who regularly presents at conferences and workshops around the world, he is currently Associate Professor of Music at Sunway University in Malaysia.