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

by Karen Snell

16 May 2010


Computers Mean Music Is Everywhere

Even more important than these kinds of consumption and listening practices however, is the increased accessibility contemporary youth have to computers in terms of sampling, arranging, and composition software. Some young people are even exploring how to record homemade compositions and performances, something that is much easier to do today than it was just a few years ago. As a result, the boundaries between contemporary popular music consumption, production, composition, and performance are often now quite blurred. Someone who may think of themselves as simply a music fan and not a performer or composer at all, may still experiment with some of these sampling, mixing, and/or recording technologies. These advancements in technology make it easy and economical for virtually anyone to produce single tracks or even full, polished CDs. As Carlos Rodriguez points out in his book Bridging the Gap: Popular Music and Music Education, this important trend has altered the traditional concept of a few people who produce music and the majority who consume it and in the process, it has allowed today’s adolescents to become active contributors to popular music culture.

This active contribution can go even further when young people experiment with performance techniques on traditional popular music instruments such as electric guitars, keyboards, voice and drums, as well as with turntables — now clearly considered musical instruments (and rightly so!) — and consider how these can interact in interesting ways with technology, something that may lead to the creation of new and interesting sounds.  Rodriguez explains: “For instance, feedbacking, bass ‘slapping,’ turntabling, sampling, deejaying, and a host of other performing techniques were not the products of high-level performance practice but arose from a search by novices and professional alike for new, compelling sounds from available resources.” There are clearly many more students in today’s classrooms who are knowledgeable about these processes and have experimented with music and technology in some of these ways than there were not too long ago. Rarely though, do we see music teachers in school tapping into this great breadth of knowledge and experience from their students in these areas.

In my mind’s eye I can picture a school music classroom where the importance of these kinds of technologies and performance/creative practices are acknowledged, greatly broadening and deepening what and how music is taught, and, in the process, creating an exciting place where students and teachers learn from each other through music in a variety of contemporary and meaningful ways. I venture to guess, however, that for most youth, school music is hardly this kind of innovative and exciting locale. If we really want this to happen, if teachers are really going to consider their students’ new technical aesthetic in any kind of in-depth way, some serious questions will need to be addressed.

Music teachers need to critically reflect on the kinds of instruments and genres they choose to teach students in schools. How well do our current educational choices connect with, compliment, and expand the ways children and adolescents are interacting with music in their daily lives outside the school? Are traditional band, orchestral, and choral programs really the best choices for all young people in current music education classes? I am convinced that considering these kinds of questions is a positive step toward making music in schools more relevant for more students — something I hope all educators would support. Exploring more current and flexible instrumentation like guitars, keyboards, and turntables, in diverse group sizes, and how to utilize new technologies within these and other new teaching and learning contexts, hold real potential for music education if it is to become more current and relevant for contemporary youth.

We do need to be careful though. Technology is not something that should be ‘automatically’ or ‘unquestioningly’ included in music education. As Janet Mansfield points out, government standards for music education, for instance, too often endorse technology whole-heartedly (and often very generally, which is clearly not helpful for teachers) as something that is completely positive or unproblematic. It’s important to keep things in perspective, however; before the use of many of the new technologies described in this article became commonplace, for instance, musical creativity took quite different forms. For example, in what ways is composing a piece of music with a software package different from composing a piece by ear with instrument in hand or with pencil and paper at a keyboard? None of these approaches is necessarily better, but they each certainly tap into different kinds of creativity and varied processes of musical creation. Educators need to keep these ideas in mind when planning a variety of different activities in their classrooms.

As music education scholar Patrick Jones points out, over-using technology may deprive students of experiencing certain other kinds of creative processes. Educators should also consider questions such as: Who has access to technology and who does not, and what does this mean when teaching various genres/styles of music? Educators need to be careful about assuming access to or knowledge about computers, electronic instruments, or even MP3 players and cell phones, especially among particular student populations. Along similar lines, using technology to teach certain kinds of world music might not be the most appropriate or ‘authentic’ choice. What are the differences between musical and technological literacy and how can they complement one another? When music is assembled in the absence of ‘other people’ (e.g., by one person at a computer), what does this mean in terms of how we view the importance of things like: the body, group dynamics, and communication in music and creation?

In other words, all of the technological advancements discussed in this article (and others like them that will undoubtedly arise in years to come) should not just be accepted into music education without making sure they are included in ways that help students to deepen their musical understanding.

Considering how newer technologies can positively affect music education is also not something that should negate the inclusion of older musical genres, instrumentation, and technologies as important parts of school music as well. Indeed, educators should help students to navigate and understand the differences between past and more current ways of listening to and creating music. Exploring some of these differences through varied listening and performance practices — or the different ‘technical aesthetic’ of each generation — and even by combining some of these practices in new and interesting ways, could be quite exciting ways for young people to learn about music. Creating interesting lessons around these ideas could broaden students’ musical horizons and their understanding of certain practices and artists, while making them aware of the ways that producing and listening to music have changed over a relatively short period of time and thus causing them to take notice of their own technical aesthetic. Encouraging students to experiment with the more currently fluid notions of what constitutes the roles of listener/fan, performer, arranger, composer, producer, etc., holds real promise in terms of broadening the concept of what constitutes music and musicianship in schools. Imagine the kinds of opportunities we could provide for students to interact with music and technology in each of these roles?

Incorporating the use of computers and opportunities to interact and experiment with programs that involve sampling, mixing, arranging, composing and/or recording will also not only tap into the kinds of musical and technological knowledge and experiences students are acquiring on their own outside of school, but also have the potential to incorporate creativity into school music in new, relevant, and exciting ways.

If more music educators could see their way to make these kinds of changes in their educational planning and practice, I truly believe that school music programs would benefit from a corresponding increase in enrollment and a resulting greater influence in the lives of young people today.

Karen Snell graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a Ph.D. in music education in 2007. She has an MMus in music education from the University of Toronto. She has more than 8 years of public school teaching experience in instrumental and vocal music, French and special education. She has taught graduate level music education courses at Boston University in the philosophy of music education, aesthetics and criticism and curriculum development. As an active speaker and publisher, she has written and presented papers in a variety of areas including: the informal learning strategies of popular musicians, turntablism, popular ‘hybrid’ musics in music education, and democracy in music education.

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