Rethinking Music Making

2011 Symposium2

For most if not all classical musicians, the phrase “making music” means to perform music and to do so in an expressive way, with a high level of musicianship. We spent 4 or more years in music conservatories or university music departments developing our performance prowess on our instruments so that we could make music. Because our ability to make music came at great expense to us, both monetarily in the cost of countless music lessons and in the cost of our college educations, we can become a bit riled when our students stick earbuds in their ears, choose a song on their device, start listening, and call it making music. Audiences and consumers aren’t the music makers, we may argue, the musicians are.

The argument has merit, and I support it whole heartedly. But I am forced to admit, it does not do well when examined under the scrutiny of reality. Consider, for example, this passage. In a recent article, pianist Anna Sutyagina wrote that “The trend is that instead of buying a musical instrument and learning it, people “make music” by creating playlists [on Youtube],  choosing music for their photo shows, experimenting with computer graphics with music [videos on] Youtube.  A friend of mine has discovered the composition by whistling the melodies into his iPad and asking the software to modify the tunes. He was so fascinated by this app that he started composing! By the way, he never made music before. It might sound discouraging but it is not. Some people find their way back to real experience of learning an instrument through online apps.”

That last sentence betrays that Ms. Sutyagina also does not consider music listening and organizing to be genuine music making, but those engaged in those musical activities instead of playing an instrument do. It is the reality of our times that many more people enjoy listening to music than ever before, but that more of that listening is done with recorded music than with either playing an instrument or attending a live concert. In one respect, this should be of great interest to music educators. It shouts the importance of encouraging students to learn instruments, and to teach them the added dimensions being a performing musician adds to their music listening experiences. In another respect, we must acknowledge that while what these students are doing with their phones and earbuds is perhaps not what we would consider making music, it does involve musical tasks that should and can be taught and developed.

First, students are selecting music for responding. When a student makes a playlist, they are selecting songs and excluding others, so that the songs included are the ones they prefer and want to listen to repeatedly. The interests, knowledge, abilities, and contexts that direct those selection decisions can be reflected on and discussed in a music class, to great benefit. Producing videos to go with the music they select is a type of interpretation, and a way of layering an expressive intent expressed visually over the composer and/or performer’s expressive intent conveyed in the song. This becomes especially interesting when different students or groups of students produce different videos for the same song. recite-sjd90dDiscussion of how and why interpretations can and do vary flow naturally out of the creative work students have done with their videos, instead of out of simply someone else’s (composer’s or performer’s) creative intent. Videos, both student made and others, can also be used as the inspiration for student compositions. Students can work much as a film composer does, viewing short videos and imagining music that expresses the visual images, and then composing that music for someone else to perform and record.

I’m still old school enough that I teach my students how to compose the music themselves. But Ms. Sutyagina mentions her friend who whistles into an iPad and then watches the app auto compose the music. Perhaps her friend was using Chordana Composer by Casio. Here is the company’s description of their app:

Chordana Composer is an app that allows anyone to easily create their very own original music – even if they do not know how to compose music or play an instrument. The user simply records himself or herself singing or whistling a tune for two musical bars, and the app automatically composes an entire piece of music based on that melody. The finished music not only can be played back for the user’s enjoyment, but it can also be emailed as an audio file to friends.”

I’m not willing to call this composing, but at least the user has to whistle the initial melody upon which the rest is based. That much is composing, anyway. But if hearing an original and whistled tune built into a shareable song motivates students to learn how that kind of composing is done, then it might be a great method of building value into composing tasks. While it may be that not as many of our students are performing musicians as we would like, most if not all of them are engaged in some sort of musical activity for hours every day. While it is unlikely to be classical music they are spending their time with, it is music and as such deserves our attention, as the students deserve our encouragement to follow their musical interests further and into new experiences, with our guidance. For example, what would happen if they whistled the melody of their favorite into that Casio app? What would the app compose out of that melody? Once they hear the result, what do they think of it? How would they have composed the piece differently? Is that how the performing artist would have done it if they were to compose an instrumental piece out of their sung melody? You see how the technology, while perhaps disturbing to us at first, has the potential to bring our music teaching, and our students enjoyment of and engagement with our music classes to a higher level? Denying strong contemporary trends in favor of grasping at older ways is always to some degree futile. We can preserve our principles and teach our concepts while at the same time embracing new ideas, and current technology. This is not a matter of keeping up with the times; it is a matter of catching up to our students and our culture in the means by which we deliver music education to our students.


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