Category: Art and Music

Why music lessons need to keep up with the times

Guest post by Clint Randles, University of South Florida

Some 150 years ago, if you wanted to listen to music, you would have to perform it yourself or be in the presence of musicians.

With Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877 came the ability to record music. At that point, the ways that people could be musical changed forever. Humans could artfully organize their musical worlds around recorded music that they did not necessarily create themselves.

Since then people have engaged in an endless array of musical endeavors that have been recorded. In fact, the ability to record music has shifted our musical experience – from both a maker and a consumer perspective.

The question is: has students’ learning kept pace with these changes that started happening more than a century ago? Or, is it way past time for music education to undergo a metamorphosis of sorts, as some scholars have suggested?

I teach music and conduct research in the area of music curriculum development. What is currently offered in music classes is almost exclusively large instrumental and vocal ensembles that perform under the direction of one person. However, there has been a fundamental shift in how people experience music in the world. I believe music classes today should teach students to create, record and share their music that comes from their personal interests.

School doesn’t teach the music students love

The average American adolescent listens to music for approximately 4.5 hours per day. So, 18 percent of all of the time in their lives is spent bathing themselves in the sounds that inspire them.

Much of the music that adolescents listen to is created digitally and produced through software, keyboards, touch pads, guitars and drums kits. However, music in the schools is based on conservatory models of musical transmission with roots in Western European art music.

Almost all school offerings are classical music-based.
Penn State, CC BY-NC

Furthermore, classical music accounts for merely 1.4 percent of music sales in the world. Yet, nearly all school music offerings are classical music-based.

So, we have a supply-and-demand crisis in school-supported music teaching and learning. Music classes do not offer what most students want to learn. As a music teacher in the state of Michigan for nine years (before becoming a music professor), I saw many students who loved music, but just didn’t love the school music options. Only 10 percent of students at the secondary level nationally end up enrolling in music classes.

What should a music teacher look like?

What kind of music teacher would it take to make a 21st-century music classroom come to life?

I would like to suggest here that perhaps the perfect example of the skill set required of a reenvisioned music teacher can be seen in the life of a music producer. These professionals are part musician, part technician, part guidance counselor and part magician for the artists that they work with.

The following music producers could be inspiring examples for music teachers.

Sir George Martin could work with the Beatles at multiple levels.

Sir George Martin, music producer of The Beatles, the most popular musical group of all time, assisted the group on a number of levels.

Martin met the Beatles in 1962, a time when the music band was still in its early years. Martin was a product of both classical and vernacular training, having studied piano and oboe at the collegiate level. He was perfectly positioned to assist the aspiring young musicians, as he had learned the ropes of recording as an assistant in a studio recording primarily classical musicians. He could orchestrate, position mics, discuss compositional strategies, and employ recording techniques to capture the best sounds the artists made. He sometimes played parts for them, like the harpsichord part of “In My Life.”

A second example is Phil Ramone, both an engineer and a music producer who worked with singers and musicians to develop their ideas and use the latest technology to share with the world.

His professional demeanor and knowledge of how to get the most out of studio musicians helped Paul Simon record his song “Kodachrome” in the legendary Muscle Shoals recording studio, with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (MSRS). Knowing how to work with people is essential in the studio and studio as classroom.

A third teacher role model is Phil Spector, known for his “Wall of Sound” production technique – using large, somewhat unconventional ensembles including multiple acoustic and electric guitars being doubled and tripled for emphasis. Spector was an expert at where to place a microphone to capture the best sound of an instrument, amplifier or voice. He had a command of the mixing console, latest sound-enhancement technology and methods to capture audio.

The 21st-century music class

Music teachers could learn from the above examples on how to be a music producer, along with helping students in multiple other ways. Our world now has digital ways – via computers and the internet – to do most of the things that music producers have done in studios in the past. This has made what was once a very expensive unattainable task quite economically manageable.

What if students learned to record their own music?

Functioning as music producers, music teachers could guide students through challenges such as: How can multiple bands perform in the same room without bothering other bands via headphone hubs? How can students learn to mix tracks to their liking? How can students build an online artist profile to connect with the greater musical world?

Recorded music along with live performance are the primary ways that people experience music, so I would like to suggest that more than half of the time spent in 21st-century school music education should be about students learning how to make their own music – with an emphasis on recording and sharing it. And music teachers should be equipped to help students realize their creative vision.The Conversation

Clint Randles, Associate Professor of Music Education, University of South Florida

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Reposted under a CC license.

The most American pop culture phenomenon of them all

sing-201027_1280Guest Post by Katherine Meizel, Bowling Green State University

“American Idol” was “born” exactly nine months after 9/11. The timing was significant, because since its premiere on June 11, 2002, the show has become an integral part of the country’s coping strategy – a kind of guidebook for our difficult entry into the 21st century.

By carefully curating a distinctly American mix tape of music, personal narratives and cultural doctrine, “American Idol” has painted a portrait of who we think we are, especially in the aftermath of tragedy, war and economic turmoil.

As the show concludes after 15 seasons, it’s worth looking at how the past and present collided to create a cultural phenomenon – and how we’re seeing shades of the show’s influence in today’s chaotic presidential race.

All our myths bundled into one

“American Idol”’s premise – the idea that an ordinary person might be recognized as extraordinary – is firmly rooted in a national myth of meritocracy.

This national narrative includes the dime-novel, rags-to-riches fairy tales of Horatio Alger, which were intended to uplift Americans struggling to get by after the Civil War. Then there was the American Dream catchphrase – first coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America – that promoted an ideal of economic mobility during the hopeless years of the Depression.

Indeed, decades before host Ryan Seacrest handed out his first golden ticket to the first golden-throated farm girl waiting tables while waiting to be “discovered,” we’d been going to Hollywood in our dreams and on screen.

The show has shown us archetypes of immigrant narratives, like when Season Three contestant Leah Labelle spoke of her Bulgarian family’s defection to North America during Communist rule. It has demonstrated how to rely on faith in the face of hardship, exemplified by Fantasia Barrino’s victory song, “I Believe,” performed with a gospel choir. Meanwhile, it served as a stage for patriotic passion, broadcasting two performances of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” when the United States entered Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, the many “Idol Gives Back” specials remind us of American philanthropic values.

The show has celebrated failure as both a necessary stumbling block and a launchpad to fame. Many singers needed to audition year after year before they earned their chance to compete. For others, such as William Hung, their televised rejection brought fame and opportunity anyway.

For contestant William Hung, fame blossomed out of failure.

“American Idol” has also served as a course in American music history, featuring discrete genres like Southern soul and Southern rock, together with newer, blurrier categories like pop-country and pop-punk.

Making the old new again

In one sense, “American Idol”’s format was nothing new. In fact, British entertainment executives Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell – who shepherded in a 21st-century version of the “British Invasion” – fashioned their juggernaut show as a new take on old business models.

There is something distinctly American about contestants standing in a Ford-sponsored spotlight, judges sipping from Coca-Cola glasses, and viewers sitting in front of television screens texting their votes on AT&T phones. The show’s conspicuous commercialization recalls the earliest days of television, when programs were owned and produced by advertisers. And “Idol,” like that early programming, was intended to be “appointment television,” bringing families together at the same time every week.

“Idol”’s production model is also a throwback. It’s structured like Berry Gordy’s Motown – a one-stop fame factory that offers stars a package of coaching, polishing, a band, album production and promotion.

The format also draws from amateur regional and national radio competitions of the early 20th century. (Frank Sinatra got his start winning one on “Major Bowe’s Amateur Hour” in 1935, with the Hoboken Four.) Another influence is the half-ridiculous and totally political “Eurovision Song Contest,” the hugely popular and mercilessly mocked annual televised event that pits nation against nation in (almost) friendly singing competition.

A vote that counts?

“Eurovision,” which originated in 1955 as a test of transnational network capabilities and postwar international relations, introduced telephone voting a few years before “Idol” premiered.

And like Eurovision, the impact of “American Idol” extends far beyond our annual crowning of a new pop star. The show’s rise has taken place at a time when the boundaries between entertainment, politics and business have become increasingly blurred.

Season after season, “American Idol” fans have placed votes for their favorite contestants – options which, somewhat like our presidential candidates, have been carefully cultivated by a panel of industry experts looking for a sure bet.

The initial success of “Idol” heralded not only an era of similar television programming, but also a new era in which we’re given the opportunity to “vote,” whether it’s for dum-dum pop flavors or the world’s most influential people.

Considering these trends, it’s not so farfetched to suggest that the wild popularity of shows like “American Idol” played some role in setting the blinding chrome stage and slightly “pitchy” tone for this year’s election.

It isn’t just that Donald Trump presided over “The Apprentice,” a reality competition that rode in on “American Idol”’s coattails.

That conceit, though, is mitigated cleverly by both moguls: they capitalize on what Cowell has identified as a universal desire to feel important.His persona also seems to meet the same sadistic public need satisfied by original “Idol” judge Simon Cowell: the executive heir, the imperious arbiter of taste who owes his fortune at least as much to his superiority complex as to any financial acumen. At the same time, personas like Cowell and Trump deign to give an ordinary, hardworking American a chance.

The crux of their personal appeal is that they understand that everyone wants to matter, and we are willing – as TV viewers or as citizens – to risk an awful lot just to feel like we do. We each want to imagine our own sky-high potential, and laugh in relief when we see others who will never get off the ground. We want to be judge and jury, but also be judged and juried.

“Idol” gives Americans permission to judge each other, to feel like our opinion makes a difference. Trump’s unfiltered rhetoric has done something similar, giving his supporters implicit and sometimes explicit permission to mock, dismiss, exclude and even attack others based on racial and ethnic identity, religion or ability.

And so now, as “Idol” makes its final journey from Studio 36 to the Dolby Theatre, we deliberate over whose victory will herald the last “Seacrest – out.”

Whatever happens, and whichever way our presidential election goes, the U.S. is on the brink of something new, a major cultural shift. Wherever we’re going, “Idol” has served its purpose, and we don’t need it in the same desperate way anymore.

I think, though, that we’ll always be searching for the next big thing. And we’ll always be glad we had a moment like this.

Kelly Clarkson, the first winner of American Idol, performs ‘A Moment Like This.’

By The ConversationKatherine Meizel, Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, Bowling Green State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Reposted under a CC license.

Happy Birthday Elvis! Get 30 #1 Hits for free on Google

elvis_1To celebrate Elvis Presley’s birthday, the Google Play Music Store is giving away a special digital version of 30 #1 hits today. This is a special Google Play Bonus Track Version which has a bonus stereo mix of if “I Can Dream” included.

This release has been criticized for only including a portion of Elvis’ best material. These are his pop hits. He also charted in gospel, R&B, country, and adult contemporary. Many of the Sun recordings are also missing. While this is certainly not a definitive collection, this is a great addition to any fan’s digital collection.


Every song has a color – and an emotion – attached to it

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Re-posted with permission under a CC – Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 license.

Stephen Palmer, University of California, Berkeley and Karen B Schloss, Brown University

Imagine yourself as a graphic designer for New Age musician Enya, tasked with creating her next album cover. Which two or three colors from the grid below do you think would “go best” with her music?

Would they be the same ones you’d pick for an album cover or music video for the heavy metal band Metallica? Probably not.

Author provided

For years, my collaborators and I have been studying music-to-color associations. From our results, it’s clear that emotion plays a crucial role in how we interpret and respond to any number of external stimuli, including colors and songs.

The colors of songs

In one study, we asked 30 people to listen to four music clips, and simply choose the colors that “went best” with the music they were hearing from a 37-color array.

In fact, you can listen to the clips yourself. Think about which two to three colors from the grid you would choose that “go best” with each selection.

Selection A.

Selection B.

Selection C.

Selection D.

The image below shows the participants’ first-choice colors to the four musical selections provided above.

Author provided

Selection A, from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 2, caused most people to pick colors that were bright, vivid and dominated by yellows. Selection B, a different section of the very same Bach concerto, caused participants to pick colors that are noticeably darker, grayer and bluer. Selection C was an excerpt from a 1990s rock song, and it caused participants to choose reds, blacks and other dark colors. Meanwhile, selection D, a slow, quiet, “easy listening” piano piece, elicited selections dominated by muted, grayish colors in various shades of blue.

The mediating role of emotion

But why do music and colors match up in this particular way?

We believe that it’s because music and color have common emotional qualities. Certainly, most music conveys emotion. In the four clips you just heard, selection A “sounds” happy and strong, while B sounds sad and weak. C sounds angry and strong, and D sounds sad and calm. (Why this might be the case is something we’ll explore later.)

If colors have similar emotional associations, people should be able to match colors and songs that contain overlapping emotional qualities. They may not know that they’re doing this, but the results corroborate this idea.

We’ve tested our theory by having people rate each musical selection and each color on five emotional dimensions: happy to sad, angry to calm, lively to dreary, active to passive, and strong to weak.

We compared the results and found that they were almost perfectly aligned: the happiest-sounding music elicited the happiest-looking colors (bright, vivid, yellowish ones), while the saddest-sounding music elicited the saddest-looking colors (dark, grayish, bluish ones). Meanwhile, the angriest-sounding music elicited the angriest-looking colors (dark, vivid, reddish ones).

To study possible cultural differences, we repeated the very same experiment in Mexico. To our surprise, the Mexican and US results were virtually identical, which suggests that music-to-color associations might be universal. (We’re currently testing this possibility in cultures, such as Turkey and India, where the traditional music differs more radically from Western music.)

These results support the idea that music-to-color associations in most people are indeed mediated by emotion.

The album cover designers for Enya’s Shepherd Moons and Metallica’s Master of Puppets may have subconsciously chosen colors that matched the emotional qualities of the respective artists’ music.

People who actually see colors when listening to music

There’s a small minority of people – maybe one in 3,000 – who have even stronger connections between music and colors. They are called chromesthetes, and they spontaneously “see” colors as they listen to music.

For example, a clip from the 2009 film The Soloist shows the complex, internally generated “light show” that the lead character – a chromesthetic street musician – might have experienced while listening to Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

Chromesthesia is just one form of a more general condition called synesthesia, in which certain individuals experience incoming sensory information both in the appropriate sensory dimension and in some other, seemingly inappropriate, sensory dimension.

The most common form of synesthesia is letter-to-color synesthesia, in which the synesthete experiences color when viewing black letters and digits. There are many other forms of synesthesia, including chromesthesia, that affect a surprising number of different sensory domains.

Some theories propose that synesthesia is caused by direct connections between different sensory areas of the brain. Other theories propose that synesthesia is related to brain areas that produce emotional responses.

The former theory implies little or no role for emotion in determining the colors that chromesthetes experience, whereas the latter theory implies a strong role for emotion.

Which theory is correct?

To find out, we repeated the music-color association experiment with 11 chromesthetes and 11 otherwise similar non-chromesthetes. The non-chromesthetes chose the colors that “went best” with the music (as described above), but the chromesthetes chose the colors that were “most similar to the colors they experienced while listening to the music.”

The left side of the image below shows the first choices of the syensethetes and non-synesthetes for fast-paced classical music in a major key (like selection A), which tends to sound happy and strong. The right side shows the color responses for slow-paced classical music in a minor key (like selection B), which tends to sound sad and weak.

The color choices of synesthetes and non-synesthetes after listening to fast, major key music and slow, minor key music.
Author provided

The color experiences of chromesthetes (Figure B) turned out to be remarkably like the colors that non-chromesthetes chose as going best with the same music (Figure A).

But we mainly wanted to know how the non-chromesthetes and chromesthetes would compare in terms of emotional effects. The results are depicted in Figure C.

Author provided

Interestingly, the emotional effects for chromesthetes were as strong as those for non-chromesthetes on some dimensions (happy/sad, active/passive and strong/weak), but weaker on others (calm/agitated and angry/not-angry).

The fact that chromesthetes exhibit emotional effects at all suggests that music-to-color synesthesia depends, at least in part, on neural connections that include emotion-related circuits in the brain. That they’re decidedly weaker in chromesthetes than non-chromesthetes for some emotions further suggests that chromesthetic experiences also depend on direct, non-emotional connections between the auditory and visual cortex.

Musical anthropomorphism

The fact that music-to-color associations are so strongly influenced by emotion raises further questions. For example, why is it that fast, loud, high-pitched music “sounds” angry, whereas slow, quiet, low-pitched music “sounds” calm?

We don’t know the answers yet, but one intriguing possibility is what we like to call “musical anthropomorphism” – the idea that sounds are emotionally interpreted as being analogous to the behavior of people.

For example, faster, louder, high-pitched music might be perceived as angry because people tend to move and speak more quickly and raise their voices in pitch and volume when they’re angry, while doing the opposite when they’re calm. Why music in a major key sounds happier than music in a minor key, however, remains a mystery.

Artists and graphic designers can certainly use these results when they’re creating light shows for concerts or album covers for bands – so that “listening” to music can become richer and more vivid by “seeing” and “feeling” it as well.

But on a deeper level, it’s fascinating to see how effective and efficient the brain is at coming up with abstract associations.

To find connections between different perceptual events – such as music and color – our brains try to find commonalities. Emotions emerge dramatically because so much of our inner lives are associated with them. They are central not only to how we interpret incoming information, but also to how we respond to them.

Given the myriad connections from perceptions to emotions and from emotions to actions, it seems quite natural that emotions emerge so strongly – and perhaps unconsciously – in finding the best colors for a song.

The Conversation

Stephen Palmer, Professor of the Graduate School, University of California, Berkeley and Karen B Schloss, Assistant Professor of Research, Brown University


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