A first-year seminar offered at Wheaton College in Fall 2019. Essentially an introduction to topics in media theory and sound studies, while also satisfying institution-wide requirements for preparing first-year students for college.

Making and Consuming Music in the Digital Age

Ia. Course Introduction: Subject matter

Consider a song on Spotify. The musicians are performing on instruments, which are recorded with microphones, into computer software that converts sound into data, at which point the data is processed according to the tastes of the artist and producer—tastes shaped, no doubt, by the array of processing software available to them in the first place. After that, the finished product is printed to tape or disc, circulated at various compression rates online, and consumed on everything from car speakers to $1,000 headphones to iPod earbuds. The song is as likely to end up in front of you because of the whims of an algorithm as it is to be something you elected to hear.

By the time this song on Spotify gets to our ears, technologies have exerted a significant influence on the sonic content and character, and thus our experience, of the music. Technologies gatekeep. Technologies want. And all of these technologies and techniques have complex histories and social contexts that have guided their development and uses, from early experiments to their present-day incarnations. Those histories and contexts leave audible traces in the music we hear and make today — traces worth excavating.

This course explores what technology has done to, for, and with music. As a subset of human behavior, music might present us with an especially fertile environment for exploring our creative relationship with our tools, the way that humans and technology are co-constitutive, and the permeable boundary between humans and technology.

Please note that this is not a class about making music with technology — that’s Music 103, which I also teach and which is offered every fall. No prior musical background whatsoever is required to take this course. There is a substantial listening component in the course and you will be required to engage seriously and at length with a wide range of musical examples.

Ib. Course Introduction: Skills

This is also a class about being a successful college student. As such, a good deal of our time will be spent learning how to do “college” well — which, in turn, should help you do well in college. These skills are in service of your development as a thinker and as a citizen of the world.

Specific skills this class will help you cultivate include:
  1. Conduct independent scholarly research on a particular subject
  2. Navigate the Wheaton College library
  3. Write cogent and targeted prose that synthesizes and builds on a range of sources
  4. Present your thoughts to your peers succinctly and without relying on a script
  5. Collaborate with your peers on research and written work
  6. Explain the broader significance of seemingly narrow and specialized material to a lay audience
  7. Time management, organization, workflow
  8. Mental health, social wellbeing, mindfulness, and how to enjoy school

II. Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students should be able to:

  1. Listen to music with more detail, nuance, and contextual understanding, and demonstrate that increased level of perceptual detail in writing
  2. Use music as evidence for claims which extend well beyond music and into all corners of humanistic inquiry
  3. Articulate problems and opportunities in (digital) technologies, including their political and ethical dimensions
  4. Articulate what is meant by “technology,” and how technologies are socially and historically constructed

III. Assignments and Grading

Attendance + quizzes 20%

Discussion posts + homework 25%

Presentation 10%

Bibliography project 15%

Essay 30%

IV. Course materials

The textbook for this course is Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff. It is available at the college bookstore. I prefer that you use a paper book rather than an e-book, and if you do use an e-book I prefer that you read it on an e-reader rather than on your laptop.

Every Song Ever is a fun and accessible book that is, essentially, about things to listen for in music. Its subtitle is “How to listen in an age of plenty,” and it is written in dialogue with, or as a response to, streaming music in the age of the cloud. Chapters are short, around 5-10 pages each, and the book fits easily in your bag — carry it around with you!

We will supplement Every Song Ever with more targeted scholarly readings. Readings and listening examples will be posted to the class OnCourse site.

I suggest purchasing a three-ring binder to store course materials and for note-taking.

V. Sequence of topics:

Fundamentals of music: rhythm, meter, melody, harmony, timbre, form
Technology and the Sublime
Attendance at The Body concert in Providence RI
Streaming and algorithms
Sampling and property

Supplemental readings (NB: I also assigned a number of shorter articles from journalistic sources. We spent a lot of time on these four articles, moving very, very slowly and pausing often to reflect on reading strategies.)

Tara Rodgers - Synthesis
Elizabeth Margulis - On Repeat (excerpts)
Walter Benjamin - Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Daniel Black - Where Bodies End and Artefacts Begin: Tools, Machines, and Interfaces