Electronic Music School: A Contemporary Approach to Teaching Musical Creativity
What would music education be if we had to start over? Imagine a world with no band, no choir, and no orchestra, a world without marching contests, solo festivals, or music theory. No formal music education at all. If we burnt it all down and started over, would we do it the same way? We would surely have music itself. Music is found in every world culture and is one of the first brain functions to develop in humans. The same evolutionary process that allows human hearing to sense the complex subtleties of language also demands musical stimulation. Humans think in music. Our routines have rhythm and our emotions have tone.
So what would music education look like if we had to invent it from scratch? In a sense, we really must ask this question. As this book is being written, the coronavirus pandemic has forced school systems around the world to suspend large-group gatherings, which has shut down much of the music education infrastructure. Nevertheless, technology has made it possible for students to create their own rich and engaging music, at school and at home. How should we teach in such a world? Will educators become walking instruction manuals for the latest software and hardware? How can we keep pace with the rapid evolution of popular styles and the technological tools used to create them? When Will was eight years old, his dad gave him a CD by The Art of Noise. The opening track, “Dan Dare,” sounded like nothing else he had heard before: a cluttered collage of noises, 1980’s drums, and orchestral loops. It put the feelings and emotions into its instrumental track, without any lyrics to distract from them. It was the first time he can remember really deeply thinking about music, and it was his first exposure to electronic music. Ethan remembers when “Pump Up the Volume” by M|A|R|R|S began playing on the radio in 1987—the recording was a disorienting collage of sonic fragments over a futuristic soundscape. And both Will and Ethan were drawn to electronic artists like Daft Punk, The Prodigy, and The Chemical Brothers and to hip-hop producers like The Bomb Squad and Pete Rock. They branched out into more experimental and ambient sounds like Squarepusher, Photek, Future Sound of London, and Aphex Twin. Few of their peers knew this music, but they could sense its urgent creativity.
Will had no idea how to make electronic music when he got his degree in music education, and his college was of little help. He learned a great deal about clarinet fingerings, wind ensemble repertoire, conducting, writing marching band drill, Schenkerian reduction, counterpoint, sight singing, and Western art music history. He learned little about the process and culture of electronic music creation aside from music notation software. These omissions persist in many music education schools. Ethan spent a decade teaching himself production through trial and error, with information and guidance from friends, from magazines, and eventually, from the internet.
He did not attend a formal music technology class until he entered New York University’s Music Technology Master’s Program in his thirties. The program taught him cutting-edge signal processing and synthesis techniques, but not the pedagogy of electronic music creativity. When he began teaching music tech to music education students at NYU and elsewhere, he had to develop his curricula through the same trial-and-error process he had used to learn production.
After a brief stint as a junior high band director, Will was offered the opportunity to pilot a music technology course at his high school. The first year, he learned along with the students. He vividly remembers watching GarageBand video tutorials with his classes in 2006. As he designed the lessons beyond the basics, he drew upon his past for inspiration. He remembered his Daft Punk albums with their four-on-the floor drum beats and thought, “I can teach drum programming with this.” He remembered the chopped up vinyl samples from DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing . . . (1996) and thought,“I could teach sampling with this!” He remembered the distorted haze of ISDN by Future Sound of London (1994) and thought, “We could make abstract soundscapes like this!”
The authors realize now that they had stumbled upon a new frontier in music education. Teaching students how to make “noncanonical” music that may or may not become historically relevant proved to be both controversial with the authors’ peers in music education and highly appealing to their students. The authors were unsure how to articulate it, but they felt like they were onto something profound. They shared the students’ excitement as they struggled to recreate the music they loved and to invent their own new sounds. And, in the same way that they had learned to make their own electronic music in their bedrooms, the authors experienced a similar thrill from inventing a new pedagogy.
The challenge and the fun have been to continually rework and refine the approach in response to the students’ needs and ideas. Over the past several years, Will and Ethan have developed and refined systems that work well for them in the training and programming of creative electronic music curricula. Their continual goal has been to offer authentic experiences in making electronic and pop music for their students. If the pedagogical advice given in this book seems anecdotal or specific to their situation, it is. Just as they have had to make it up as they went along, so will you have to adapt methods to your own musical journey. The authors have observed many fine music technology programs across the United States that focus on hip-hop, rock, and even formal classical styles, all of which have created a creative feedback loop with their students.
Will and Ethan choose to teach music technology through popular and dance styles because these styles feel most authentically native to the medium. They do this for the same reason that piano teachers use Beethoven, that wind bands use Sousa marches, and that choirs use gospel songs. Samplers “want” to create collage-like techno and hiphop. The TB-303 “wants” to make Acid House. The TR-808 “wants” to make trap beats.
Ableton Live “wants” to make nonlinear semi-improvised music. These tools are rarely taught in music degree programs. As the authors began institutionalizing these wild and amateur-driven creative forms, they wanted to preserve the sense of play and discovery that the early house and rap producers felt. This is not just an ideological stance; since many students have no previous musical experience, a sense of discovery is a practical necessity as well.
The story of music technology is a story of musicians finding unexpected uses for the tools at hand, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000). Furthermore, many of the technological tools of music were invented and devised not by musicians, but by engineers. For example, pitch-correction software evolved from tools originally designed for finding oil underground and for encrypting military communications. And music tools don’t always get used for their intended purpose. When Roland developed the TB-303, they thought they were making a rehearsal and songwriting aid, not the basis for a surreal new dance music. Musical styles and technologies are always changing, but the process of decoding and adapting tools to our needs and environment is natural to humans. Thanks to the Covid pandemic, our profession finds itself on a desert island, and we must make the best of the tools at hand. We are all improvising our way through this together. The authors hope that this book helps to make your improvisation easier, and more fun.
—Will and Ethan
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|August 26, 2021|
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