Developing and Integrating Music, Digitally

By Anthony Brandt, Rice University

For years, teachers have used music appreciation courses to bring a better understanding of music. But despite advances in digital technology, music appreciation courses today are taught pretty much the same way they have been since the invention of the hi-fi stereo: students read a textbook, then listen to musical examples on recorded media.

This process, however, is often an ineffective learning method because by the time students hear the music, they may have forgotten the particular concepts they are supposed to be listening for.

As a composer on the faculty at Rice University, I’ve dreamed of finding a better way to teach the untrained listener to recognize the principles that are common to all music, whether it was written yesterday or 500 years ago. I particularly wanted to create a course that would give listeners the confidence to approach both familiar and unfamiliar music with curiosity and insight.

Collaborating Resources

By the spring of 2003, I had decided to create an interactive CD-ROM. I didn’t know the first thing about writing software, but was encouraged when I read that the Computer and Information Technology Institute (CITI) at my school, Rice University, wanted to fund collaborations between tech-savvy computer scientists and those of us in the liberal arts.

I called CITI, explained my idea for the CD, and was introduced to Richard Baraniuk, an electrical engineering professor at the University. Baraniuk had developed an interactive, Web-based platform called Connexions that allowed anyone to create and share course materials online. Baraniuk offered not only the programming expertise I needed to create my course, but also the means to distribute it worldwide.

At first, I was concerned about authorship. If I published a CD, it was clearly mine. If I published a Connexions course, it would become a Web-based resource that others could adapt in their own way. Baraniuk noted that a Connexions course is free and cross-platform (making it universally accessible), that distribution is instantaneous, that the course could easily be kept current, and that a license would ensure my rights as the author.

Baraniuk already had a team of programmers developing the open-source tools that non-technical people could use to write modules and navigate Connexions' content. But the most important element of Connexions to me was its ability to let me integrate music within the written portion of my class, which I dubbed “Sound Reasoning.”

The Textbook Concept

In developing Connexions, Baraniuk asked for input from his signal processing colleagues. Taken together, the lessons, or modules, created a coherent body of knowledge that are the basic building blocks of Connexions. Each is roughly equal to two to three pages in a textbook, and there are now more than 1,600 modules in various subjects. They form a shared commons of material that can be recycled and recompiled endlessly.

Trial and Error

By the time I started writing Sound Reasoning, the Connexions team had already overcome the challenge of creating a standard format, which was vital if the modules were to be interchangeable and reusable. I asked the team to include a listening gallery—a play list of musical examples at the top of every page. Through the clever use of XML, the team created a format for my modules that was simultaneously different from and compatible with existing formats. That same technique has since been used to create image galleries in other modules.

The second technical hurdle for “Sound Reasoning” was finding a way to integrate multimedia files within the text. Having users click and play an MP3 file was fine, but I also wanted them to interact with the music, clicking on buttons to indicate musical recurrences, new sections, and so on.

After a good deal of trial and error, the Connexions developers created a plug-in music player that would allow this type of interaction that had to work on virtually any platform and browser. We tried various options and eventually settled on a Flash-based version.

“Sound Reasoning” is still in its early stages. The course encourages listeners to begin with a large-scale understanding of the music’s progress. Three lessons, and their accompanying listening galleries, is currently completed. The full course will have 12 lessons in all, with the possibility of adding more. The first three lessons discuss musical form, illustrated by both classical and modern examples. The complete course will cover such issues as musical meaning, coherence and emphasis, and the creative and interpretive processes. I hope that other scholars will provide additional examples, from jazz, folk, and other musical traditions. Ideally, a large sampling of repertoires and styles will help demonstrate the reach and relevance of the concepts and fulfill the ultimate goal of the course—encouraging listeners to be self-reliant and to go deep inside the music.

Anthony Brandt (abrandt@rice.edu) is an assistant professor of composition at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston.

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