Recorded music and distance learning

I have been greatly enjoying reading David Byrne’s ‘How Music Works’ for the past week or so. It’s a brilliant book that brings together Byrne’s rich and personal experience with a theoretical perspective that neatly captures the intimate relationship between context and musical form: that music is not some abstract and etherial entity that emerges in isolation from its surroundings but a highly constrained and context-sensitive thing that is co-determined by place, history and technology as much as the creativity and expressiveness of the musician, probably more so. 

Byrne’s examination of the effects of recording on how music is played and perceived is wonderful – I think I’ve highlighted every second paragraph or so when he enters this territory. One of the reasons for this is that I see huge parallels between the ways that recording technologies have opened up new adjacent possibilities as well as imposing new biases and constraints, and the ways that online technologies have changed and are changing how we learn. The ways that technologies such as compression or the constraints of the physics of gramophone records made ‘invisible creative decisions’ for musicians mirrors the myriad ways that learning technologies shape and determine how we create learning experiences with them. This is not always for the better – I like a quote from Bix Beiderbecke on the time constraints of records: “For a musician with a lot to say it was like telling Dostoevsky to do the Brothers Karamazov as a short story”. The parallels run deep. Mixtapes, mashups and remixes beautifully echo the overlaid complexities of reusable and open content in a learning context. The ways that conventional music notation fails utterly to capture the sonic palette of modern music, deriving its form from an acoustic era, neatly aligns with the ways that our learning designs draw from patterns of face to face teaching and fail to begin to encompass the many ways that different technologies provide nuances and forms that make all the difference: it’s like playing a Hendrix riff on a ukelele and thinking they are the same thing. Perhaps most interesting of all, the separation of time and place that recorded music allows has led to phenomenal changes in perceptions of music, how it is played, how it is understood and how it is experienced, and has changed not only recorded music but also music that is performed live, how we learn to play, how we pass knowledge from one musician to another. Many things have been lost as well as gained. ‘Recorded music can be ripped free from its context, for better and worse. It becomes its own context,’ he notes. Much is lost in the process – ‘Records may do a lot to preserve music and disseminate it, but they can’t do what direct transmission does….History and culture can’t really be preserved by technology alone’. This is not a bad thing in itself – Byrne discusses the rich interplay between the expansive benefits of being able to hear music from different places and times, and the homogenizing effects of that music feeding back into and, often, destroying or massively mutating diverse musical cultures that were once distinct. But it is different, and it brings its own dynamics of change. In one of many wonderful insights into this process, he describes how early jazz recordings forced drummers to play bells, wood blocks and the sides of their drums instead of snares and kick drums because the thumps of the drums would make recording and playback needles skip, and that upright basses were replaced with tubas for the same reason. Consequently, players who heard the records came to believe that this was how jazz should be played and changed their live performances accordingly. 

The massive changes to music caused by separation of time and space are just beginning to similarly ripple through the more recent separation of time and space in online distance learning. Distance learning is different learning as much as recorded music is different music. When we accompany our lives with soma-like chunks of recordings on an iPod, the music is transformed and divorced from its context and, on the whole, is designed to be listened to in that strange and disconnected way. In fact, it’s different depending on the context we listen – the same music on an iPod, in a cafe, with friends, alone in a room, is different every time. It’s not bad, and it brings a wide range of new possibilities and ways of understanding music, but it is certainly different. When we learn in machine-constructed communities in isolation from our teachers and fellow learners, the learning experience is similarly transformed, ripped from its context and played in different spaces. And it is different for both creators or consumers, just as it makes it different for both musicians and listeners. The majority of modern music simply cannot be played live the way it is heard in a recording – quantization, overdubbing, and the many manipulations that sculpt music played in a studio change not just the sounds we hear but the way they are played and understood by the musicians. Similarly, when we use the technologies of online learning, those of us who are not doing the equivalent of simply standing in front of a microphone and playing (which, in teaching as in early days of recorded music, is a hopeless task doomed to abysmal failure and unnatural-sounding results) are changing how we teach, changing the contexts and ways that  learners learn, and adding textures and mixes that are impossible in a live classroom. That feeds back to systemic changes in face-to-face as well as online learning. The recent trend to the flipped classroom (something many of us have been doing for our whole teaching careers) is a case in point – something that emerged from technology constraints and affordances that now changes the live performance. This is a better change than the converse, for instance that lectures are just content and so can be replayed or transcribed onto a new medium without modification.

Distant education is to live education as recorded music is to live music. Recorded music can never replace the richness of communication, context-sensitivity and transformative engagement of live music. As a musician and a teacher, I love live performance, of being part of a real, human, breathing crowd, of being carried away in an unrepeatable and unique moment. On the other hand, live music can never replace the complexity, flexibility, range, precision and breadth of recorded music, and live teaching can never replace the richness and complexity, breadth and depth of online learning. Both can inspire, engage and transform us.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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