I’m getting into these book reviews! I’ve just written the following for a music education journal but thought I’d share it here first. Do let me have any feedback – particularly if you’ve read the book itself!
Computers in Music Education is written by Andrew Brown, a senior lecturer in computer music at the Queensland University of Technology. It provides a general overview of the key issues associated with using computers (and other pieces of technology) in the classroom and attempts to blend theory about the conceptual and philosophical ideas behind these technologies with the practical implications of using such tools in a learning environment. Brown’s text is divided into five main sections: Context, Production, Presentation, Reflection and Implementation.
In the first section, entitled ‘Context’, Brown gives a theoretical, philosophical and historical background to his ideas about computers and their use in music education. These early chapters are particularly important as they set out Brown’s thesis that adopting technologies for music education will result in significant changes of practice in many different areas. Brown’s contention here is that through changing technologies we can begin to change minds. This is a significant assertion but one that is well argued, although references to wider educational and psychological texts (e.g. Wertsch 1998; Lave & Wenger 1991; which could have been used to underpin and extend several of his key points) are generally avoided.
There is a significant shift in the second section of the book. Entitled ‘Production’, Brown explores several major types of technological tools including audio recording, music publishing, MIDI sequencing, algorithmic music and sound synthesis. Within these chapters, Brown presents a range of knowledge about each particular topic in a helpful, informative style. For example, Chapter 4 is concerned with Audio Recording and here you will find and exploration of sampling, signal flows, recording production techniques and much more beside. As this writing is not related to any specific piece of technology per se, it is generic in nature and should stand the test of time. On the positive side, this should ensure that this basic information is easily applicable to the reader’s particular set of circumstances; on the negative side, perhaps key issues are presented in a somewhat obvious manner and skirted around a little. For example, in discussing ‘clarity’ within the ‘Recording Production Techniques’ section (p.52), Brown states that ‘The recording quality is dictated to a large degree by the equipment and capturing process’ and urges readers to ensure that ‘extraneous noises such as page turns, coughing, foot tapping’ are avoided!
Other more important issues are somewhat underplayed. In the following chapter, Brown makes the point that notation is an ‘abstract representation of the ideas and sounds of music’ (p.59). One could make a similar point about MIDI data and sequencing in the next chapter. But those seeking a detailed analysis of the implications of this in how musicians handle musical data in a digital age may have to look elsewhere, perhaps to Wishart’s work (Wishart 1996) and his comprehensive analysis of notational ‘lattices’ in compositional systems. Perhaps the opportunities to link back to key conceptual and philosophical ideas of the first section could have been taken here?
The third section of the book moves onto issues associated with presenting music. This includes chapters of live performance (the use of synthesizers, other electronic instruments and using the computer as a musical instrument) and the presentation of music through recorded formats and contexts (including process of digitisation, sound design, other forms of interactive media and the Internet).
The curiously titled fourth section of the book is ‘Reflection’. This contains an interesting mix of chapters covering areas diverse as computers and music research (note that this is not ‘music education’ research), different strategies for analysing sound, aural and musicianship training, assessment and administration. I found many helpful ideas contained within these chapters, but I did struggle to maintain a sense of narrative through this part of the book. All too often I found myself thinking about important concepts or writers who had been missed out. As an example, the chapter on assessment is peculiarly idiosyncratic, a little clumsy in places and makes many assumptions. Take the opening sentence of the second major paragraph, entitled ‘What to assess’:
There is evidently, in human kind, a musical intelligence as labelled by Howard Gardner, manifest in a number of ways not least that almost every human culture on the planet has developed a musical practice, even if at time these were closely linked to dance, religion or some other cultural expression. (p. 247)
The richness of an assessment pedagogy that comes through other texts (Black & William 1998; Chapman & King 2005) is missing here. It is one example where an exclusive focus on musical issues associated with assessment and technology can be detrimental to the wider argument. It may result in changes in practice, but may not be the best way forward in changing minds.
The final section is entitled ‘Implementation’. Here, Brown explores practical issues about how to set up a computer music system in an educational context, e-learning technologies, how to integrate new technologies with other more traditional ways of working and a number of possible future applications for computers in music education. As a conclusion to the book, I think that some music educators may find these ideas a little disappointing. Certainly the richness of the debate about how new technologies implicate pedagogical approaches (undertaken in the United Kingdom by organisations such as Becta (Becta 2007) and others) is missing here.
Computers in Music Education is a helpful book for the music educator seeking to extend their knowledge of all types of technology in instructional settings. In that sense, the title of the book is somewhat misleading as the text does much more what it implies. Brown’s text is a bit rambling in places and, on occasions, you have to sift through his ideas to find that important nugget of information. That said, the book is helpfully structured with reflective questions, teaching tips, suggested tasks and chapter summaries at the end of each chapter and a helpful glossary at the end of the book. These will promote thinking about key issues. However, be warned! Sometimes these frustrated this reader and would be quite fanciful, unrealistic and, probably, unhelpful in the United Kingdom’s education system. Take the ‘Teaching tips’ from the ‘Integrating New Technologies’ chapter (p. 307) as an example:
1. Use the computer’s cachet to enhance the perceived relevance of the music program to students. …
10. Encourage students to bring their laptops to class so that activities started in class can be continued at home.
In conclusion, the book is a personal, at times idiosyncratic, walk through the application of new technologies in music education. As a practical guide it has many strengths, not least in its breadth and coverage of key issues and ideas which, despite the increasingly fast rate of technological change and development, should stand the test of time.
Becta (2007) Harnessing Technology Review http://publications.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=33980 [accessed 26/2/08]
Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London, Kings College.
Chapman, C. & King, R. (2005) Differentiated Assessment Strategies: One tool doesn’t fit all. Thousand Oaks, California, Corwin Press, Inc.
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation Cambridge, CUP.
Wertsch, J. (1998) Mind as Action Oxford, OUP.
Wishart, T. (1996) On Sonic Art Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers.