We recently sat down with Ethan Hein, part of the team behind MathScienceMusic.org and the NYU Music Experience Design Lab to discuss their amazing project and the software they’ve developed to help all children learn the fundamentals of music, even if they have no instruments.
CFM: Tell us about yourself.
EH: I’m from New York City. I have been a musician of one kind or another for 15 years in a serious way. I am currently teaching music technology and music education at NYU and Montclair University.
CFM: What specifically are you teaching?
EH: How you make music with computers. Specifically, the more pop, hip hop, techno end of things because that’s the type of music that sounds really good when you make it on the computer.It’s something that kids in music school hardly do at all. If you aren’t interested in classical or music therapy major the chances of you coming into contact with the creative process behind anything you hear on the radio is pretty much zero. So my job is to start to chip away at that imbalance a little bit.
"Necessity is the mother of adventure."
CFM: In addition to being a teacher, you also work on side projects. You have a blog that seems to be widely popular.
EH: I started it as a way to self-promote as a performer and a producer and it took on a life of its own. It has really been the basis of a lot of my academic life. I mean I did go to grad school but honestly I think the blog was a bigger factor in my being here talking to you.
CFM: We met through the event at Spotify with the Hackathon. Are you participating in a lot of events like that?
EH: At NYU I’m part of a research design lab called the music experience design lab, which is a group of a programmers, education people and designers working on new interfaces for music learning and expression. The lab hosts these monthly meet ups and has been very closely involved in the Spotify hackathons. Developing software is more fun when you do it in a group especially when you know people who are developing similar stuff.
CFM: How has collaboration been a part of what you do? How does that go into what you do?
EH: There might have been a time where a lone person could just put together a reasonable IOS app or something but for anything ambitious or complicated, there is no one who knows everything about everything. We have all these people who are terrific programmers, who might be good musicians also but might not understand how people learn music right? There is a really big difference between being able to do it and being able to explain it. Our main graphic designer at the lab is an incredible DJ and she has no formal music background at all but for an electronic music interface, her experience is perfect.
CFM: You started the music experience design lab with Alex Ruthmann. First of all, how did you come together to do that? And tell us about the aQWERTYon project.
EH: Alex Ruthmann is a professor of music technology and music education at NYU. I was a Master’s student at NYU for a year and half before Alex showed up. I was in the music technology program and I wanted to be doing education, I wanted to design something for beginner drum programmers and I was alone. And then they hired Alex and my life changed, because all of a sudden he is this guy who is a national level expert in this exact intersection of how do you design technology for learning, expression and creativity. So he started the lab, I was one of the first people involved in it and he is the person who thought of the aQWERTYon, which is the project you’re referring to. This is one of our flagship projects in the lab, it’s a way of turning your regular keyboard, a qwerty keyboard into a playable instrument. Garageband lets you do musical typing where it lays out a piano keyboard on your computer keyboard. And it’s pretty terrible, it’s just an awkward mapping, even if you know how to play the piano doing it on a computer keyboard is weird. So we thought that there was a lot of room for improvement. What if we filled the entire computer keyboard just with the notes of particular scale and laid them out so that each vertical column of keys gives you a chord from within that scale. So if you set it to G Mixolydian mode, then every key on the keyboard will play a note from G Mixolydian and if you just play vertical or horizontal stripes, you’re going to get these nice patterns, you can’t do anything wrong. You can use it just to play sounds within itself or you can use it to play the software instruments in Garageband, Logic Pro, Ableton or anything else. We are really excited about that, we feel that it really opens up the door to playing around, not just with music theory but with improvisation and composition for people who are complete novices.
CFM: You guys are launching your site soon and you’re also launching the aQWERTYon soon as well.
EH: The aQWERTYon has been live in a low key way for a while but in a week and a half we doing a big website launch. We got a grant from Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz to do some web interfaces for learning jazz and the aQWERTYon is one of those. So that site went live April 30. (The project was officially announced with the help of Herbie Hancock and the White House during International Jazz Day. For more on that see at the end of the article.)
CFM: Throughout this whole process, I imagine that you’ve been working with students or testing the software out. What have you been seeing? What has hit you the most or has been the most interesting to you?
EH: We are trying to have our tech be usable in the real world as well as actual public school music classrooms so part of the impetus of wanting to use the regular computer keyboard as a music interface is that, at this point all the classrooms have computers but they don’t tend to have anything extra. The constraint that we put on ourselves is, what can you do with just the web browser, mouse and keyboard. We were testing things out, we discovered that you can’t take an internet connection for granted in a lot of these schools. Maybe they have it but it’s very slow or it’s restricted in various ways, which is what prompted us to use raspberry pi, these tiny, cheap computers. We put all of our web apps on this raspberry pi that can broadcast its own WiFi network. So if you’re in a school that doesn’t have reliable internet then we can just send you one of these and it creates its own wireless network, you just hook up the classroom computers to that local WiFi hub and then you can access everything. The constraints faced by public schools especially are pretty difficult but necessity is the mother of adventure.
CFM: I would imagine that the debate would come up about ‘Hold on, you’re teaching music theory and music without an instrument. Why not put a guitar in their hand or put a piano at their fingertips?’ What would your argument for your approach versus the traditional approach be?
EH: I’m dealing with the future of music teachers and I get the most push back from them. If you’ve been studying classical piano for fifteen years, you’re naturally going to be a little resistant to this idea of doing a shortcut around that whole long arduous process. I do not want people to stop learning musical instruments. It has been my experience, that using these music interfaces makes learning the physical instrument a lot easier. If you have these sounds in your ears, under your fingers, if you can visualize them, then it’s much easier to do the hard work of training your muscles on the instrument. If you’re trying to train your muscles, your ears and develop visualization techniques for the concepts you’re trying to execute, that’s a lot to ask, and the vast majority of kids give up long before they get to a place where they get to do anything creative.
CFM: So you’re actually advocating an approach where you take one aspect of music education at a time.
EH: Just have it be a manageable amount of information. I’ll give you an example I spend a lot of time programming drums and after spending many years of doing that, I discovered that I could sit down with a conga and play a reasonable beat effortlessly. Even though I wasn’t physically practicing, it just spending all that time thinking about it, hearing the different rhythms and seeing it on a screen, I implanted that knowledge in my head so the physical part came to me instantly. I’ve seen that happen with other people that if you understand music on an intellectual level figuring out how to blow air through the tube and where to put your fingers, that’s the easy part.
CFM: I’m sure you have a vision for it for the next five, ten, twenty years, what do you hope to accomplish with the aQWERTYon project?
EH: Among the technology people, there is this very utopian idea that we democratized creative expression. The internet lets everyone be a publisher, Photoshop lets everybody be a design studio, and all these electronic music tools lets everyone be a composer, producer, musician. In theory it’s true but the distance between a ground level beginner and even something like Garageband, is pretty large. Garageband is a pretty sophisticated tool and it presumes a lot of implicit knowledge about how music works. I definitely feel that technology has the ability to bring a lot more people into creative music making that might not have access to traditional instrument training. They might not have music in their school or do have access to all those things but simply are not necessarily interested in band or orchestra while still having ideas and wanting to get them out there. Maybe for one of these kids the aQWERTYon is the key to their particular lock. I just want to create more paths up the mountain.
CFM: We both have the mission of creating leadership in children through music education. What are your final thoughts on the value of music in schools and the value of music education in your life essentially? Would you see yourself not being a musician?
EH: Oh God! What would be the point? It’s a cliché but I’m one of these people for whom music saved my life. There have been times where my life has been really hard and have been really unhappy and music has been the thing that made it worth getting out of bed for. Now my life is actually really great and I’m really happy but still taking music out of it would just be like living in black and white instead of in color, it would just be hard. I have little kids now and music is such an important way to communicate and connect with them, long before they could talk and after they could talk. It still continues to be a strong way to communicate emotions and to play together, to calm them when they are upset. I feel like it’s the most powerful emotional technology we have and we treat it with a frivolity or as an extra. I think it’s part of the reason so many people in America are so sad. I don’t think there is a right way to participate in music but I definitely think it’s a thing a normal person, anybody really, is able to do in any way or another. You don’t have to be a virtuoso piano player to get some joy out of it. I just want to open that door to kids that think that door is closed to them.
Ethan Hein is an Adjunct Professor of Music Technology at NYU and Montclair State University and a researcher with the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. His blog can be found at http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/ and more information on the Lab and all their amazing projects head over to https://musedlab.org/ and https://mathsciencemusic.org/.
For more on the International Jazz Day celebration see below for videos from The White House.