Vol. 32 Issue 3 Reviews

Andrew R. Brown: Computers in Music Education: Amplifying Musicality

Softcover/hardcover, Routledge, 2007, ISBN-10 0415978513/0415978505, ISBN-13 9780415978507/9780415978507, US$ 36.95/100, 360 pages, 68 figures, preface, glossary, Web and print references; available from Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group LLC, 270 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016, USA; telephone (+1) 212-216-7800; fax (+1) 212-563-2269; Web routledge-ny.com/books/Computers-in-Music-Education-isbn9780415978507 or routledge-ny.com/books/Computers-in-Music-Education-isbn9780415978514/.

Reviewed by Matthew McCabe
Gainesville, Florida, USA

In Computers in Music Education:  Amplifying Musicality, Andrew R. Brown explores the methods by which computers can enhance music-making and aid in the development of musical intelligence. While Mr. Brown’s discussions primarily target elementary through high school-level music educators, the materials presented are of great interest to me as an instructor of undergraduate university students. The wide range of computer skills possessed by incoming college students make this book apropos at the university level as well. Teachers-in-training may not have sufficient exposure to technology during their education studies to keep pace with the rapidly-advancing skill sets necessary to implement effective technology-enhanced learning when they leave the academy. To this end, the text has the potential to act not only as an aid to teachers on the job, but also to students preparing for a career, or indeed, as the author notes, to parents, administrators, and seasoned professors alike.

The first section of the book, “Context,” consists of three chapters.  In Chapter 1, “Ways of Making Music with Technology,” Mr. Brown admits that although computers are “the most visible technological change with which we are currently engaged… the full impact of their influence is yet to be understood” (p. 3). This poignant truism funnels into another statement that will undoubtedly resonate with many readers: “The impact of technologies in turning musical ideas into musical realities depends as much on attitudes as it does on equipment” (p.3). A tripartite view of computers (that they can act as a tool, medium, or musical instrument) lays the foundation for much of the book. This view is solidly underscored through the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and the author’s notion of “amplification:” that the nuances of musicianship can be brought into focus effectively through technology-enhanced teaching.

Chapter 2’s “Philosophical Considerations” continue with these themes, and add the notion of technological invisibility to the discussion. The ideas of John Dewey and McLuhan abound in the chapter, providing a way of stepping back and examining what is really being discussed. As many of us are aware, technology’s ability to hide its inner workings, create metaphors for physical-world objects, and obfuscate the complexity of our activities create many challenges. Mr. Brown notes that technology will also act to redefine musicianship, and an awareness of this is critical before attempting to tackle more specific issues like hardware and software.

The third chapter’s “Brief History of Music Technology” bears similarity to other texts on the same subject, though Mr. Brown expands slightly by covering pre-electronic technologies such as harps, drums, and the advent of music printing (p. 32). A quick progression from these advancements all the way up to current electronic music technology is codified by the notion of “layers of persistence:” that certain themes reappear while others remain transient (p. 37).

The second section of the book, “Production,” reflects the first third of Mr. Brown’s tripartite tool-medium-instrument model. His coverage of audio recording in Chapter 4 is brief in its presentation but up-to-date, with mentions of spatialization, effects, and emerging media. The discussion of the educational applications of digital recording (p. 54) offers idea-generating material to teachers, and offers examples such as recorded portfolios and the use of recordings as assessment tools.

Chapter 5’s coverage of music publishing software discusses not only the computer’s ability to provide common-practice music notation tools but also examines how instructors might use these tools for learning purposes. This section also contains a valuable discussion on how to choose notation software and hardware. 

Progressing further, Chapter 6’s coverage of MIDI sequencing software presents an interesting comparison: that the MIDI sequencer is the musical analogue of word processors. The comparison is apparent through a short history of sequencers and several select screen captures of Apple’s Garageband software, arguably the most accessible software package of its type currently in existence. More importantly, Mr. Brown devotes several pages to the making of music with a sequencer, touching on the realms of arranging, production, composition, performance, and even analysis. The author’s emphasis that sequencers represent music “as a series of sound events” (p. 79) calls to mind the idea that students should be encouraged to go beyond the functional realm and be asked to use the sequencer for artistic means. The chapter’s closing sentence again rings true:  “There is sure to be a useful application of the sequencer in every musician’s life” (p. 79). Mr. Brown opts not to offer specificity in this realm, likely because of the abundance of available sequencing software.

The final portion of Section 2 covers deeper topics that reflect more recent advances in music technology, particularly with regard to composition. The chapters on algorithmic composition and sound synthesis distill these areas into their constituent parts, and offer examples of both the processes involved and sub-types of each. Code samples of Max/MSP and SCHEME are included, as well as simple schematic diagrams. The breadth of the notes in these two chapters is distinctive, with a great variety of synthesis toolkits, editors, languages, and environments indexed at the close of each chapter. 

The third section of the book, “Presentation,” addresses the remaining two-thirds of the “tool-medium-instrument” paradigm. Chapters 9 and 10 present Synthesizer Performance and Live Electronic Music, each with a brief historical context, as viable educational mediums. Most importantly, Mr. Brown provides criteria for choosing synthesizers for such a use, noting the importance of platform flexibility. Examples of synthesizers in the context of composition, solo performance, and ensemble performance are also discussed. The author introduces the synthesizer before live electronics with good reason: it is the only device in the world of music technology that was specifically designed for music-making (since laptops, turntables, etc., are co-opted from other domains). Much of the discussion in these chapters includes popular music, which shows Mr. Brown’s willingness to explore variety and provide broad tools to the teachers to whom he is speaking. That being said, experimental art music is included, particularly in Chapter 11, “Interactive Computer Music,” where an all-star list of electroacoustic musicians exemplify composers working in the genre. The chapter covers every aspect of interactivity, including computer listening, human input, MIDI, remote control, etc. 

Chapter 12 takes a slight turn and begins with coverage of computer-based presentation of musical materials. Few stones are left unturned in this section, with compact information on audio data storage including MP3 and the open-source Ogg Vorbis, visualization of sound and MIDI, music fonts, and video. Music’s continuing entry into the technological realm is explained through HTML, rich-media word processing and presentation softare, podcasting, and the ever-present CD and DVD formats. As Mr. Brown notes, the wide array of media formats available make teaching and learning with technology an “opportunity for explicit connections to be made between different knowledge representations” (p. 159).

To further this point, Chapter 13 addresses “Music for visual narrative,” covering the relationship between sound and image, and some of the issues at hand when producing such materials.  In film, for example, the tightly-knit relationship between sound and image make this topic increasingly appropriate in music education. Mr. Brown also comments on theatre and dance, collaborative efforts among the performing arts, and the overarching issues present in each.  Chapter 14 takes a deeper look into “rich media environments,” offering a glimpse into a field that is only beginning to emerge. As sound capabilities come to previously silent formats such as PDF and the Web, “there is likely to be an increasing need for musicians highly skilled in rich media sound design and production” (p. 184). 

Chapter 15, “Music distribution in the age of the Internet,” is a cornerstone chapter. As many musicians know, familiarity with internet technologies is becoming increasingly important in the lives of student and professional musicians alike. Mr. Brown’s coverage of this topic is balanced and complete, and offers clear explanations of ownership, rights, and legal issues without taking sides. The differences between physical distribution and file distribution are covered, as well as the phenomena of internet radio, YouTube, and Wikis. 

The fourth section of the book, “Reflection,” unifies the preceeding 15 chapters. Chapter 16, “Computers and Music Research,” offers a glimpse into current computer-based research techniques. Internet search, online data collection, cooperative projects, copyright, censorship, and the wealth of “bad information” online are all addressed well. Chapter 17’s coverage of “Music and sound analysis” takes the approach that computers can offer unique opportunities for theory and sound research, offering pattern recognition and statistical analysis in a fraction of the time it would have formerly taken. Mr. Brown’s example of The Rite of Spring in MIDI “piano-roll” format (p. 225) is a striking graphic, as is the spectrogram of the same piece (p. 229). 

The next four chapters speak directly to issues present in music education. Chapter 18 addresses musicianship and aural skills training, a cornerstone of any music education program. A wide range of software is available in this realm for all ages, and Mr. Brown touches on problems and issues related to each.

Chapter 19, “Assessment,” discusses how the computer can be used “throughout the learning process to provide feedback and support” (p. 249). This section gives teachers a look into possibilities they may not yet have tapped, including electronic submission of assignments, automated assessment, and management of information.

Chapter 20’s look at “Administration” approaches the computer again as a tool, offering insight into the use of the computer for document preparation, presentations, multimedia, web authoring, and planning. Chapter 21 addresses the task of “Setting up a computer music system.” Mr. Brown’s writing here is concise and ordered:  he covers choosing equipment, computers versus digital music appliances, physical space issues, support equipment, ergonomics, and security. The issues presented in this chapter are potentially the most valuable in this section.  Again, the author leaves no issue unaddressed, and even suggests in the chapter’s closing teaching tips: “Use interested students to help you keep up to date with trends in computing” (p.285). 

One of these trends is covered in Chapter 22, “Distance learning and e-learning,” where Mr. Brown not only covers what is possible given these technologies, but also the issues present when implementing and using them. His stance that “most student e-learning resources should enrich face-to-face musical interactions” (p. 291) is well put, given the young age and largely experimental nature of such technologies. 

Chapters 23 and 24 cover the integration of new technologies and future directions. As Mr. Brown notes in the first pages of the book, and here restates, changing attitudes among students, staff, and teachers is the most critical element in adopting music technologies for educational purposes. These changes, as he here writes, can be an evolution from, or an addition to, methods already in place. The traditional curricular design of “read-write-listen-perform” is challenged: “The technological changes of the twentieth century severely test the validity of these divisions” (p. 300). The author here searches for a deeper purpose: to create a multi-faceted, meaningful engagement with music. His philosophical model (presented on page 300) addresses both these aspects of meaning and the activity at hand:  “selector,” “appreciator,” “explorer,” “director,” and “participant,” interacting with music on “cultural,” “social,” and “personal” levels. In this way, Mr. Brown takes issue with the status quo, and, as a whole, the philosophies put forth in the closing chapters of the book effectively further the ongoing dialogue about how best to structure music education curricula given current and forthcoming technologies.

Much of the information contained in Computers in Music Education may not strike the average CMJ reader as novel or exciting, but given the increasing presence of technology in our music programs at all levels of education, this text certainly presents itself as a solid starting point for educators to go beyond established methods. The included reflection questions, teaching tips, and suggested tasks in each chapter are purposeful and logical, and the wealth of information packed into this single book could be used to restructure almost any music area, including composition, theory, history, and existing music technology courses. 

While the opening chapters offer much rhetorical ammunition for music technology advocates, it is the philosophical models and commentary that make Computers in Music Education invaluable. Collating such diverse material into a single volume is quite an accomplishment, particularly given the breadth and depth of the material here. If there is one criticism to be made, it is that several glaring spelling errors, most notably “electroacoutsic” (electroacoustic, p. 10) and “recoded” (recorded, p. 202), mar the surface of what is an excellent resource. With the rapid pace of technological change, this text will surely end up in multiple editions. Mr. Brown’s keen sense of technology’s place in our musical world and solid philosophical convictions are present throughout. Space should be made for this book on the shelves of every musician who teaches classes full of young people.