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Designing Creative Music Projects for the Masses

SBO Staff • Book ReportJune 2021 • June 12, 2021

(Adapted from Electronic Music School: A Contemporary Approach to Teaching Musical Creativity by Will Kuhn and Ethan Hein, Oxford University Press 2021.)

If you want to teach a music production class, you will face technical, logistical, and creative challenges. One of the biggest challenges is serving students with a wide range of musical ability and experience. You may have band and orchestra kids who have been playing instruments since they were three years old alongside self-taught rock guitarists, aspiring DJs, and quite a few students without any previous music background at all.

An optimal learning experience balances challenges with students’ capabilities—if the task is too hard, they will be stressed and anxious, and if it is too easy, they will be bored. How do you keep a class in the flow channel if the students have huge differences in their ability levels? Class projects will need to have goals that are attainable by students with little or no musical experience, while also challenging those with more experience to extend the projects and to explore within them. In this article, we present strategies for designing projects that are consistent in their results, customizable to you and your students’ needs, and achievable by anyone who walks in the door.

Tropes

Each pop subgenre has characteristic sonic and musical gestures that culturally define and situate it, which are sometimes known as tropes. Deploying the right tropes signals to listeners that you are immersed in the culture to which you are contributing. Using recognizable tropes necessarily imposes some constraints, but that does not make tropes incompatible with creativity. When students are required to use the tropes of house or trap, it ensures that their projects will be stylistically legible, and signifying on those tropes is a firm platform for original ideas.

Here is an example of a checklist of tropes for a vaporwave project

  • Music from a dream about a post-apocalyptic version of the future imagined from the point of view of the 1980s in which all we can remember is advertisements. Required elements:
  • Tempo between 60 and 90 BPM
  • At least one smooth-sounding 1980s sample, slowed and pitched down
  • At least one drum track that uses the 1980s drum samples with a gated reverb effect
  • At least one MIDI clip that has been converted from a sample and
    cleaned up
  • Sidechain compressor on all synths, triggered by the kick drum
  • Sidechain gate (optional) on a synth, triggered by the hi-hat
  • Sound FX one-shots to supplement
  • a e s t h e t i c (a feeling that is nostalgic yet futuristic)
  • At least two minutes long

These are all elements one would expect in a vaporwave track, and any project that attempts to include all of them will sound recognizably like vaporwave.

Customization and Aesthetic Opportunities

Beyond its required elements, every project should have some opportunity for customization and personalization. If a project for 30 students is designed without any room for personal touches, the result will be 30 copies of the same song. It’s a delicate balance; if projects are too open-ended, then it will be difficult to keep a class of 30 students moving at roughly the same pace. Fortunately, students are able to exercise meaningful creative choice even within a tight structure.

You might invite your students to customize their projects by ending the song however they want (fade out, end tracks one by one, sudden ending), by adding transition sound effects of their choosing between form sections, by choosing instruments and drum kits, or by choosing a tempo within a given range. If you want to allow wider (and riskier) customization, you can open things up further: place no restriction on song form or length, place no restriction on the number of tracks, and allow any tempo.

Listening to and Observing Students

In his song “Still D.R.E.” (1999), Dr. Dre bragged about keeping his “ears to the streets” as a way to maintain his relevance in a changing world. So, too, must teachers respond reflexively to students’ interests. Just because students found a genre-based project engaging last year, there is no guarantee they will respond to it next year. While classical music pedagogy can remain the same from one decade to the next, music technology teachers face the challenge of constantly reworking their curricula in the face of pop music’s rapid evolution. This is no small task! Teachers are not likely to enjoy the same kinds of music as their students, nor will teachers share their students’ cultural references. Meanwhile, teenagers rarely know how to describe the kinds of sounds they prefer, much less how to produce them. Even if they can describe their preferred music, students may be reluctant to tell a teacher about them out of fear of rejection or disapproval. So, to keep things fresh, you will need to do some ongoing ethnographic observation.

The Project Formula

The approach to a project can be boiled down to the following formula: Music concept + technology concept + fun hook = successful project. Like many music tech educators, we often design projects in order to teach ourselves a particular technique. Perhaps students have told you that they want to be able to remix a vocals-only version of a song, which you have never done before. You can run a pilot version of the project with yourself as student. As you do, document the steps you’re taking.

Technical and Aesthetic Goals

Each project should have both technical and aesthetic goals. A project can emphasize one aspect or the other, but it must address both. For example, in a drum and bass project with advanced students, the aesthetic goals might include sequencing broken drum variations, writing rhythmic bass lines, and choosing mysterious-sounding progressions of two or three chords. The technical goals might include learning how to sample drum loops from sources “in the wild” and mixing sampled material with MIDI-based material. For an ambient soundscape project, the aesthetic goals might include manipulating mood via consonance or dissonance and creating evolving synth drones, while the technical goals might include using audio effect chains, time-stretching effects, and frozen reverb effects. You can also do “technical études” that are more aesthetically open-ended; for example, you might require students to adapt existing MIDI files using any combination of software instruments.

Deconstructing a Genre

Let’s say you have noticed that trap is dominating the airwaves, and you want to build a project around it. You can begin by doing some critical listening to an iconic track from the genre, for example, Future’s “Mask Off” (2017). (You will probably want to stick to the instrumental in class due to the explicit lyrics but be sure to listen to the full version yourself to hear how Future applies Auto-Tune and other voice processing.) Try to identify each of the instruments and see if you can reverse-engineer them. Is the flute sampled from a live performance, or is it a software instrument performed via MIDI? Are the backbeats played on a snare or a clap? Are the hi-hats hand-programmed, or are they performed with a repeater/arpeggiator? Is the bass a sampled 808 kick or another kind of instrument?

Try reconstructing the instrumental yourself and see how close you can get. You should do exercises like this in front of your students so they can understand your thought process. How might you develop your own process into a class project? Where are the opportunities for individual customization? For example, if you look up “Mask Off” on WhoSampled.com, you will learn that the flute is sampled from “Prison Song,” from the 1976 musical Selma. What other 1970s soul tracks could be good sources of trap samples? If you teach trap drum programming as a formula and then allow the students to “crate dig” their own distinctive samples, you will have a strong and satisfying project.

The Prime Directive

We love Star Trek for its optimistic vision of the future. As the crew of the Enterprise seek out new life and new civilizations, they are bound by the Prime Directive: do not interfere with the natural evolution of alien worlds. Starfleet officers can observe, but they can’t intervene, even with good intentions.

The Prime Directive means that educators should allow students’ creativity to evolve with minimal interference. Our job is to provide tools for the toolbox, along with enough scaffolding to ensure that students are able to learn to use their tools. Once students start coming up with their own ideas, teachers should back off. If a student’s project isn’t working, we have to resist the temptation to step in and “fix” it. Instead, our challenge is to give guidance that ultimately leaves creative responsibility in the student’s hands.

Continued in the book: Electronic Music School: A Contemporary Approach to Teaching Musical Creativity. This book is a practical blueprint for teachers wanting to begin teaching music technology to secondary age students. Our goal is to inspire classroom music teachers to expand beyond traditional ensemble-based music education offerings to create a culture of unique creativity and inclusivity at their schools.

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