Teaching Music Composition With Digital Tools: A Domain-Specific Perspective


As the digital paradigm began to make itself felt in the arts during the early 1990s, digital tools were making their way into all aspects of creative music production, including composing, performance, and recording. During this pioneering period of digital history, computer music emerged as a genre, although the term was soon rendered imprecise by the widespread use of computers in nearly all types of music productions. Today, electroacoustic and sound-based music (Landy, 2007) are more generally accepted terms describing genres of music in which sounds and their development alone create and maintain musical interest in a composition. An important stance in the domain of sound-based music was introduced by composer Edgard Varese, who proposed that music rests on the deliberate organisation of any sound (Varese, 1966). However, composer John Cage contended that it is the act of listening that turns sounds into music, regardless of whether the sounds have been deliberately organised (Cage, 1939). Contemporary artist Bill Fontana embraced both perspectives in his view that “from a musical point of view, the world is musical at any given moment” (Rudi, 2005). Perhaps most essential to composing and appreciating sound-based music, then, are skills in deliberative listening, whereby musical narrative and meaning are constructed in both the abstract and the concrete. This type of deliberate listening also distinguishes sound-based music from interval-based music; through active engagement in both the contexts and micro-phenomena of sound, there is the potential to change a listener’s understanding of what constitutes music. How might creativity and learning in such a musical domain be conceived and studied?

A domain-specific view of creativity argues that to explain creative accomplishment in music “knowledge and skills rooted in the content and activities of a particular domain are necessary” (Kozbelt, 2017, p. 163). Accordingly, creativity specific to the domain of sound-based music, as with other forms of artistic expression, is defined by experts in the field (Kaufman &c Beghetto, 2009; Sawyer, 2012). A working definition of sound-based music will thus include the ability to produce new and unique sound material; to understand and work with the referential and spectral properties of sound; to hear, identify, and compare contexts and origins of different sounds; to produce new relations between types of sound material; and to use sound material in musical expressions as a compositional resource in unique ways (Emmerson, 1986). A concentration on abstract movement of timbre in space is perhaps most crucial to distinguishing sound-based music from an historically trained attention to harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic movement in interval-based music. As there are no formal compositional rules, conventions have emerged to define different types of sound-based music, e.g., electroacoustic, noise music, glitch, turntablism, and other approaches to sound file playback (Cascone, 2000).

Although sound-based music historically dates back to the late 1940s, the development of digital tools and software introduced sound-based composition approaches and aesthetics into both professional and educational practices on a broader scale, putting new aspects of timbre and musical structures within reach of more composers, musicians, teachers, and students. Digital composition tools also became widespread in interval-based music, which remains most prominent in music education curricula in schools and colleges (Dobson & Littleton, 2016; Vratulis & Morton, 2011). Today, the use of digital tools and apps is the international norm in music education (Wise, Greenwood, & Davis, 2011), concentrated on composition in “pop” music and the familiar cultural references and structures that characterise this type of interval-based music. The appeal of teaching composition in pop music may be explained in part by easy access to freely available sequencing software like GarageBand, Soundation, and Incredibox and sound-editing programs like Audacity, which allows the simple manipulation of sounds. In comparison, sound- based music is a small musical genre with little visibility in classroom contexts and fewer freely available and easy-to-use digital tools for teaching composition.

In this chapter, we consider the relationship between features of digital composition tools, teaching approaches, and perspectives on creativity and learning in music education. We explore nuances and contrasts in these relationships by reviewing studies of digital composition tools in both interval-based popular music and sound-based music education, identifying key perspectives on creativity and learning in the respective domains. The aim of the chapter is not to compare or evaluate types of music but to contribute to domain-specific perspectives on creativity and learning in technology-enhanced music education, with a particular focus on sound-based music. We draw on understandings of musical creativity as situated in specific practices, with values and features that differ accordingly, defined by Odena (2012) as “the development of a musical product that is novel for the individual and useful for the situated musical practice” (p. 203). Three questions are investigated: How do perspectives on creativity and learning in music education differ in relation to interval-based (pop) and sound-based (electroacoustic) music? What are the affordances and constraints of digital tools when teaching composition in the different musical domains? How may principles for supporting creativity and learning be applied in teaching and assessment in sound-based music education? To exemplify the latter, we draw on data collected from a Norwegian composition workshop in sound- based music. We draw on established use in the learning sciences (Gibson, 1977; Roth, Woszczyna, & Smith, 1996) of the concepts “affordances” and “constraints” to analyse the action possibilities of digital tools and software features in a non-deterministic approach.

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