The Ever-Changing 'Technical Aesthetic' and Its Influence in the Music Classroom

by Karen Snell

16 May 2010

Young people today possess a unique "technical aesthetic" that causes them to approach listening to and creating music in distinct ways from adults.

There are numerous places in society that illustrate how technology’s rapid progression over the last several decades has changed the way people approach listening to and creating music. There are certain sites in society, however, where these changes have not been reflected in kind; for the most part, school music classrooms are one such place.

Young people today not only approach listening to music in distinct ways from their parents and teachers, they have also formed vitally different understandings of what it means to be a performer, composer, arranger, and even a music fan, something that I refer to as their individual ‘technical aesthetic’. 

To help illustrate what I mean by this, think about how 50 years ago, ‘being able to drive’ meant driving a standard transmission, while nowadays knowledge of stick shift driving is not implied in the same statement. For those of us who do drive a stick shift, we know that these are two fairly different driving experiences; certainly, we accomplish the same task of ‘driving’, but the ways we interact with the vehicle and thus the experience itself is different.

Along similar lines, in today’s music world, modern technology has significantly altered conceptions of what it means to, for example, compose and arrange music. The door has not only been opened to broader concepts of composing and arranging because of the accessibility and ease that now comes with sampling other people’s music in order to create new and interesting sounds, but these kinds of changes have actually paved the way for fans and listeners to become more involved in these kinds of musical creations, to interact with music in fundamentally different ways than people did only ten or 15 years ago. New technology, thus, creates new concepts of what we can and should do to make, enjoy, and interact with music — new technical aesthetics.

So what does it mean that the current generation of adolescents, and the generations coming up behind them, has a much different technical aesthetic than many of the adults in their lives, including their music teachers? What does this mean for the dynamics of the contemporary music classroom?

Based on what I have seen in my eight years of teaching in elementary, middle and high schools, as well as the last several years when I have been involved with music teacher training at the university level, too many current music teachers continue to teach students in many of the same ways they were taught themselves: singing or playing out-dated arrangements in traditional choirs, bands, or orchestras; playing singing games with old-fashioned folk or children’s songs; or focusing exclusively on Western-art music. Imagine, however, what kinds of interesting changes could take place to school music programs if current music educators started to seriously consider how the changing technical aesthetic has potentially influenced their students’ musical understandings?

The New Technical Aesthetic

The speed and access of digital downloading has clearly increased exponentially over the last several years making it very easy for most people to explore a variety of musical styles and genres at the touch of a button. The way people interact with music in this downloading culture is also quite different from the ways people interacted with recorded music during the LP and CD eras, not only because of the way music is now accessed, but also because it is something that is geared more towards the consumption of individual songs rather than full albums. Single tracks are more often sold and downloaded online nowadays than are full albums.  My nieces—aged 11 and 14—are not even aware of the number of albums on their iPods or cell phones; they regularly compare their song totals, however.

This become less surprising when considering some of the most prominent (or default) features in iTunes and other popular MP3 programs. The numbers of songs present in ones’ MP3 music library in iTunes is something that is presented clearly within this program, while there is no easy access to a similar feature for numbers of full albums. Likewise, when playing music through iTunes or similar programs on a computer, songs are more often than not listed in one long list with one album following right after the other in alphabetical order. Surely there must be others who are bothered by the fact that this is quite often the default feature for many of these programs? I find it odd to have to search for routes around having one album play after the other without stopping.  Why does this technology put us in the position of having to work to retain our choice? These types of ‘default settings’ are changing the ways people listen and interact with music, with many people not paying close attention and just listening to whatever album comes next in alphabetical order.

Unfortunately, I believe this kind of feature discourages listeners from actively selecting what they would like to hear next. The choice of what to play next is also often a moot point when considering features like ‘shuffle’ or when listening to pre-selected DJ sets, also more recent phenomena. In my experience with watching how some younger people interact with these kinds of features, more often than not, they seem to engage with the ways the system is set up rather than explore how to configure it differently.

So, what do these differences in how contemporary youth access and listen to music mean for music teachers in schools? I think teachers need to get students more involved in the process of selecting music to perform and/or listen to in school music classes and performing ensembles. As they do this, they will be helping students to become more critical about making these decisions and therefore (hopefully!) inspiring more students to move beyond the ‘pre-selection’ implicit in the default features of today’s music technology.

Bringing back the concept of a thoughtfully created mixtape by having students create a full playlist of songs for a particular setting, mood, or event, complete with ‘liner notes’ (or oral) justifications of why one song should follow the other and/or an explanation of the overall mood or effect they are trying to create could be quite interesting assignments for school (in fact, I wish I could have done this assignment myself in high school). Moving from pieces in certain moods or tempos to others with contrasting elements and the effects this can create might not be something some contemporary youth have considered in any serious way. These kinds of assignments could also be easily extended for more experienced students to include mixing software. Students could also be in charge of designing programs of music they can then perform in different venues and with various audiences: more formal concerts at the school for parents or community members; community outreach performances at schools with younger children, retirement homes, hospitals; coffee houses or open mic nights, etc.

It was different for anyone who was a child or adolescent prior to the advent of MP3 players because deciding what to play next within a collection of albums was a major part of each listening experience. When thinking about picking out albums to play in my youth, as Eric Casero similarly discussed in his recent essay “Mental Machine Music” in this same series, I picture myself physically flipping through the albums in my crates one after the other until a particular cover caught my eye. Part of this decision also involved which album side to play in the first place, as well as whether to flip the LP or tape to the other side. (Without a doubt, there are certain times when one wants to hear the second side of Bowie’s Heroes and other times when side one is the clear choice.) For particular albums, the division of songs between sides and the recording techniques used to mix one song into the other within each record side were quite important for both artists and fans (many Pink Floyd albums, for instance, fall into this category). A bar in my home town actually had Abbey Road as a selection in the juke box, as though playing “Carry That Weight” as a single track ever makes any sense. Some CD players even go so far as to insert a second or two pause between each track, something that lends itself quite well to this more modern ‘individual song’ culture, but clearly destroys the fluidity of the album recording.

The huge rise in popularity of first Walkmans, followed by MP3 players, has also contributed to the ‘individual song’ culture. As Iain Chambers discusses in “The Aural Walk”, these devices provide us with a portable soundtrack for our everyday lives, something that is, above all, an intensely private experience. This private nature of the listening experience with portable players is something that was certainly less prevalent in the years before the Walkman when young people would often listen to records with friends in their bedrooms or basements. However, although listeners today will often use MP3 players to create what Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer might still refer to today as ‘individual soundscapes’ as they walk around on their own, ride public transit, etc., in other ways, these devices are also now being used in ways to help connect young people together.

Take for example the fairly recent fad of ‘iPod parties’ (sometimes also called ‘wePod’), which are social gatherings with music played through these seemingly very personal, individual units at their core. Clearly, current adolescents find connections to peers and subcultures via listening to popular and other music, but they find these connections in quite different ways than teenagers from previous generations. Exploring these ideas in school music has the potential to help students (and teachers!) better understand the progression that music and technology has made over the past few decades and the impact these changes have made on the ways young people of each successive generation continue to use music as important parts of their social lives both in and outside the school walls.

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