The Challenges of Multimedia in the Music Curriculum

August 31, 1994

The term "multimedia" once conjured up thoughts of a sound/slide presentation; however, today's computer-based multimedia products can interactively link text, still graphic images, full-motion animation, digital video and sound. The massive storage and memory needed for multimedia were once beyond the general user, but the affordability of CD-ROM (a "Read-only" format for compact disc) has changed that. CD-ROM drives can now be purchased for as little as $150, and the latest Macintosh and IBM computers - some with built-in CD-ROM - offer the necessary processing speed and power for under $2,000.

Multimedia is a powerful educational tool, for it involves more senses in the learning process. It also allows users to access information in any way they choose (unlike a book, which presents only text and still images in a predetermined, linear fashion). Advanced users can proceed directly to higher-level concepts; beginners can receive on-line help and can select material appropriate to their current level of comprehension. Music -- a multimedia discipline -- will benefit greatly from this technology. Musical study tools will be able to incorporate interactive analytical insights, animated music graphics synchronized with a CD recording, historical pictures, video clips and information, real-time text translations, running commentary, and text- or audio-based quizzes. Advanced students will be able to examine various dimensions of a work in gradually superimposed layers of complexity, or see and hear long-range structural relationships that cannot be demonstrated through traditional methods.

Though all this is possible, don't expect to find such products at your local software vendor. So far, commercially available CD-ROM music applications (such those produced by Voyager, Warner New Media, and Microsoft) have chosen to limit their content to that of "music appreciation." Though understandable from a financial standpoint, this may prove to be a mistake for the growth of this industry.

In reviewing two CD-ROM music applications for the CMS Newsletter, James Parakilas is justified in questioning the current commercial standard, which is geared primarily toward presentation rather than interactivity. We should not assume that a musical analysis is automatically improved if "set to music" via multimedia, or that students will develop a greater love of music history if we format tomes of historical data in a long succession of "windoid" screen images. Newer instructional applications will need to reflect a truly interactive medium, offering the user not only navigational choices, but also choices of substance, so that the computer environment unfolds according to the user's input and elicits rich responses.

While commercial developers are unlikely to venture out of their safety zone, educational publishers (which function under an entirely different licensing and marketing system) will need to move in more advanced directions. In the coming months, several textbook publishers plan to release integrated CD-ROM-based music products, but only a few will incorporate higher-level theoretical or historical concepts. It is clear that instructors and educational publishers need to learn more about what multimedia is before this can be remedied. For publishers, this involves overcoming new licensing, copyright and marketing problems inherent in the production of electronic books and computer-based learning products. For educational institutions, this requires a willingness to explore new teaching models, devise mechanisms for training teachers and students in the use and development of these technologies, and ultimately recognize the scholarly, pedagogical and technical development of such software as a valid research activity.

Once this happens, the largest market for CD-ROM multimedia may prove to be in small music classes, where students can assume greater control and autonomy in structuring their own learning experience. This will reverse the usual paradigm for software development: Instead of making software as automated as possible to facilitate passive use, the interactive multimedia of the future will invite users to make decisions, set goals, reorganize material, evaluate and revise perceptions. With this power comes responsibility. Users will need to do more than hit the "Play" button and sit back to gain the benefits multimedia offers. Instructors will need to study and personalize the new multimedia applications, teach students to use them effectively, and structure new ways to integrate them successfully into the curriculum.

At the present time, the most exciting prospect for music educators lies in the power of "object-oriented" programming languages, such as Mac/HyperCard or IBM/Toolbook, which enable teachers and students to develop their own multimedia software with relative ease. With just a minimum of experience, it becomes possible to design basic interactive study projects that incorporate text, graphics, and audio from a factory CD. Here again,

we see a reversal of the usual paradigm, with music experts empowered to design and create in a domain formerly reserved for programming experts.

Today's computer environment is not ideal for this purpose, however. For one, the Sonata and Petrucci music fonts were designed for high-quality printing rather than optimum screen display. Besides, there is an inherent awkwardness in displaying complex musical scores on a computer screen -- this may never feel as natural as the eye moving across a printed score. Extended musical scores are particularly problematic, for they force us to scroll through dozens of virtual pages, impeded by limited screen size, memory, and speed. Part of the problem is in our own cognitive limitations. Scores are too big to be interpreted entirely in one glance. Thus, music theorists are compelled to develop more concise graphic models, such as those inspired by Heinrich Schenker. In a similar manner, theorists can use the power of multimedia to devise new graphic representations that change and evolve in real time. The proportions of the computer screen can be linked directly to the real proportions of an audio CD performance, using open-ended models that engage and challenge the user in new ways.

With the coming of the "Power PC" chip (due for release in a few months), we will soon experience better graphics, improved sound, faster performance, easier access, and greater interactivity -- especially if we can tap into the potentials of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Since multimedia is a digital-based format, it can be transmitted through fiber-optic telephone lines or projected via high-definition television for classroom use. Whether you decide to use commercial CD-ROMs, or design your own software, multimedia will put a world of new resources literally at your fingertips. With these new resources will come new questions, opportunities and challenges for the academic community.

2012 Last modified on May 2, 2013
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