Microcomputer-Based Teaching—Computer-Assisted Instruction in Music Comes of Age

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It is the author's perception that there has always been a certain eagerness among musicians to experiment with technology. The converse also holds true, as technologists historically have been intrigued with the production and modification of sound. The music box provides an early example of digital encoding of information and the modern pianoforte stands out as one of the technical achievements of the eighteenth century. Our means of producing and manipulating sound continue to exemplify high levels of technology, most recently demonstrated by our fascination with the music synthesizer as well as to applications of various aspects of the synthesizer to existing acoustical instruments. To a lesser degree we have attempted to apply technology to music instruction, with applications of a variety of teaching machines to the instruction of music as well as applications to specific musical skills as exemplified in the 1950s and 1960s through the work of such authors as Carlsen, Ihrke, Spohn, Mears and Shrader (reviewed in Carlsen and Williams, 1978).1

Unfortunately, completely successful applications of technology to programed instruction were rare. Researchers who utilized magnetic tape reinforcement devices were tied to a linear context, with little potential for branch programing. Other applications with greater flexibility lacked the potential for immediate feedback in an aural context, and only the programs of Ihrke2 and Shrader3 provided immediate feedback for musical performance. For while there were enormous advances made in electronic technology during the 1950s and 1960s, most early applications of this technology to instruction lacked the sophistication necessary to meet the often subtle demands of comprehensive and interactive music instruction. The wonders of integrated circuitry had a tremendous impact upon such performing media as group instruction keyboard instruments and music synthesizers, but there were few direct and effective applications of this technology to individualized instruction.

Then we became aware of the concept of the multipurpose machine, the modern day electronic computer. It seemed probable that it had the sophistication, the flexibility and the scope to respond appropriately to the needs of music instruction, with the potential for solving some of the thorny and age-old problems of our discipline. With computers a new technology was available, a technology with the potential of meeting the needs of a great number of students as well as the ability to tailor instruction to the specific needs of each individual student. The more we looked the more we knew that the potential was there, waiting only for the right combination of funding, programing skills, and educational insights. So we said to our colleagues, "Picture this! Picture an interactive music environment in which students can receive immediate reinforcement and have learning experiences that are specifically tailored to their own abilities, an environment which can accept and provide musical as well as intellectual responses."

The skeptics said, "That sounds very interesting, but isn't that what we as teachers already do?" And we responded, "Yes, but we also have a responsibility for making music with our students. A large amount of our time is invested currently in the teaching of fundamentals, and not in the manipulation of these fundamentals in the musical context." And in most instances we were successful in addressing the concerns of the skeptics. The interest for applications of computer technology to music education grew. The directors of music schools, deans of colleges, and heads of music departments now became involved and said, "How about being a little more specific?" We responded by saying, "Picture a music teaching laboratory where students can (1) practice melodic, rhythmic and harmonic dictation by listening to melodies, rhythms and chord sequences which are tailored to their specific abilities; (2) practice solfeggio ear training skills by identifying scale tones with solfeggio symbols; (3) develop their music memory through successive identification of computer-generated tone sequence; (4) improve their ability to perceive nuances in pitch, with the capability of examining and comparing (in an audio context) all existing intonation systems such as the meantone, well-tempered, and monochord systems; (5) investigate the actual construction of musical sound, with the use of a simple form of Fourier analysis both to create and to hear complex waveforms; (6) compose one-, two-, three- or four-voice compositions, easily programming traditional music notational symbols with corresponding audio realizations, provided with instantaneous playback and editing capabilities; (7) identify, spell and recall the basic musical data that are imperative to musical literacy, including names and dates of composers, major works, musical symbols and performance terminology; (8) participate in sound synthesis through the computer, with complete control over all aspects of the production and modification of sound, including timbre, pitch, dynamics, attack and decay characteristics; (9) review texts and course materials currently utilized in academic courses through a series of multiple choice and matching study programs; and (10) interact with the computer in a performance context, either as an instrumentalist or as a vocalist, performing and receiving immediate performance reaction from the computer related to intonation, rhythmic accuracy, dynamics and other aspects of musical performance."

The same administrators smiled and became enthusiastic and said, "Wow! How much will it cost?" Unfortunately, the answer was, until recently, "A great deal." With the reality of the high expense of developing and utilizing computer-based education, most of the dreamers continued to dream, and only a few found the resources necessary to pursue their interests within available contexts, those contexts being large scale computer installations. These fortunate individuals were generally faculty members who were associated with one of the handful of graduate institutions which had both the resources and the commitment to computer-based education necessary to initiate and carry out research and development programs in music instruction. Where the combination of professional, monetary, and computer resources existed, the results were spectacular. Fred Hofstetter, in his article "Microelectronics and Music Education"4 listed nine NASM schools which were using large-scale computer-based education in the teaching of five basic areas: performance, teacher training, music fundamentals, ear training and set theory. Hofstetter found that in all of the nine schools there were certain common attributes, including immediate feedback, individualized instruction which encouraged students to tailor learning experiences to their own needs, and an ability to save both teachers and students valuable time. While Hofstetter did not attempt to evaluate directly the effectiveness of the nine installations surveyed, he did cite several published evaluations of these programs as references, evaluations which documented the strengths of this form of education, Among the best examples of large scale computer based education are the highly successful PLATO project at the University of Illinois and the GUIDO project at the University of Delaware. The work of Fred Hofstetter, David Peters and others has set a standard for computer-assisted music instruction in America, and they are still doing so. With a vast and steadily expanding offering of quality programs within the PLATO and GUIDO projects, we were able to realize many of the "picture this" dreams which we knew were potentials of the field. For the first time, through large-scale computer systems with the addition of such hardware "peripherals" as sound modules for computer controlled manipulation of sound and random access audio disks, students could drill basic music concepts by responding to aural as well as visual stimuli. Dictation, both rhythmic and melodic, and a host of related music and intellectual skills could be approached with immediate reaction in an effective and individualized context. The students liked the approach, the teachers were pleased, and best of all the evidence seemed to suggest that learning actually took place.

But there were drawbacks: Ludwig Braun, Director of the Laboratory for Personal Computers in Education at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in a recent guest editorial for BYTE Magazine stated:

The computer has had a role in education in the United States for two decades. Until recently its role has been minimal for a number of reasons. Among these reasons are:

  1. The lack of adequate amounts of high quality courseware.
  2. A lack of training among teachers and administrators in the use of computers in education.
  3. The cost of providing computing, which frequently has been far beyond the budget even of the most interested schools.5

Certainly computer based education with large scale installations has been and remains very expensive. Hofstetter indicates that each PLATO terminal at the University of Delaware costs approximately $3800 per year to operate.6 Although there have been reductions in the cost of large scale computer usage, it still remains prohibitively expensive for most institutions and school systems. At Illinois State University we foresaw a need for at least 500 student hours per week if we were to meet the basic needs of our music majors. Translated to practice this meant that we needed between eight and ten PLATO terminals operating ten hours a day, five or six days a week. As with most other institutions of our size or smaller (20,000 students, 500 majors), funding was difficult to find. Despite grant applications, pleas, and threats, we were not able to fund our requisite eight terminals. We were not able to get even one of them.

When it became apparent that traditional large scale applications of computer-based education to music were going to be denied to many institutions for financial reasons, committed faculty at these schools began examining alternative and less expensive potentials. In most instances the most immediate alternative to the use of large scale computer systems was the utilization of a variety of smaller "in-house" minicomputer systems that were already present on most campuses in noninstructional contexts. Institutions such as Northern Kentucky University, North Texas State University and York University in Toronto, which were fortunate enough to have faculty with combined interests and abilities in both music and computer programing, developed excellent courseware for their less expensive "in-house" equipment. Unfortunately the lack of standardization in the computer industry precluded widespread access to these efforts, computer installations were often idiosyncratic to specific institutions where they were installed and programs which worked well on one system would not work at all on another system. So these planners remained without a feasible approach to their educational goals, and it is from these ranks that the microcomputer revolution in education began.

Is "revolution" too sweeping a phrase? We doubt it. For the first time a computer was available for a price that any institution as well as many individuals could afford. The microcomputer, initially emanating from and directed toward a group of individuals categorized as "computer hobbyists," found immediate commercial acceptance. Marketed under such catchy names as Apple, Pet and Atari, these recent outgrowths of computer technology and space program miniaturization shared three major attributes: they were relatively inexpensive ($400-$1200), they were standardized, and they were nationally available. They also found immediate acceptance far beyond the realm of the computer hobbyist. Within the last three years (about as long as the term "microcomputer" has been a commercial reality) several hundred thousand microcomputers have been purchased, primarily by individuals who were personally intrigued with the technology, and by schools which were convinced of the potential of microcomputers for computer based education. In fact, we learned recently of a purchase made by a single school district for 1,000 microcomputers.

Certainly the microcomputer is rapidly becoming a part of contemporary society, affecting our homes, our businesses, and our schools. With an element of concern, Braun notes that "Computers will move into our homes and our schools whether or not anyone does anything to insure their effective use."7 This "effective use" refers to courseware development. For as a multipurpose machine, the microcomputer cannot make any contribution, good or bad, which is not tied directly to its software. Braun's concern is mirrored by most thoughtful educators, who recognize the disparity between the great number of microcomputers being sold to educational institutions and the limited availability of quality educational courseware. In addressing this concern, David Williams makes the observation:

In three years' time, amazing progress has been made in miniaturizing and marketing the personal computer. Unfortunately from one perspective, the development has been entirely in hardware research. The hardware technology resulting in the personal computer represents a high level of maturity that goes beyond the early "toy" concept associated with computer games and the like. The software technology, however, is quite immature. There is a terrific potential for software development and only in the past year have individuals begun to realize the potential by considering the adaption of software applications to the microcomputer which have been traditionally associated with large-frame maxi-computers. The first serious interest in personal computer software (other than computer games) were from those interested in applications for the very small business: accounts receivable, general ledger, word processing, etc. Education has just begun to consider seriously microcomputer-assisted instruction.8

Development of quality courseware for the microcomputer has been sporadic, with little encouragement from the commercial sector, both for educational use in general and for music instruction. Braun describes the educators' point of view as follows:

The essential problem here is that the private sector (i.e., publishers' and computer manufacturers) is unwilling to commit resources at the level required because the market has not developed sufficiently to insure profitability in courseware production. Consequently until courseware is developed in sufficient quantities, school people are unwilling to commit their resources to the provision of computing power for their students—thus establishing a "vicious cycle" which will dissipate very slowly unless there is a substantial intervention.9

Alan Meyers, formerly advertising and public relations manager for The Bottom Shelf, Inc., sums up the publishers' point of view in equally strong terms:

The microcomputer software industry is the most exciting new industry to appear in a long time. But anyone who thinks that it's all glory and gold is mistaken. This seems to be the view held by most software consumers. It couldn't be further from the truth. In this non-standardized industry, the choices are many, the problems are endless, the headaches never stop, and only the strong survive.10

As might be gathered from the above, commercial courseware which related directly to music was not available except in instances in which it was tied directly to a hardware product such as the Unitech Video Brain or the immensely popular Merlin. However, programs were available which enabled the nonprograming teacher to develop courseware for music in limited contexts. Bruce Tognazinni developed a delightful answer-matching game which allowed teachers to enter their own data for drill by their students. Muse, one of the early developers of quality software for the microcomputer, developed a PILOT interpreter for the Apple which made it possible for teachers with minimal computer training to develop text-oriented music courseware, with the potential of producing musical tones directly through the Apple II microcomputer.

Not content to wait for commercial introduction of comprehensive music courseware, academicians throughout the United States became involved in courseware development. Early examples from university settings include the works of Reynold Allvin at Oakland University in Michigan, Arthur Hunkins at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, Gerald Balzano at the University of California, Allan Winold at Indiana University, Bruce Benward, J. Timothy Kolosick and Marcia Reiser at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, David Williams at Illinois State University, Dorothy Gross at the University of Minnesota, Robert Sidnell and Dan Beatty at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, Wolfgang Kuhn at Stanford University, David Cohen at Arizona State University, as well as work by several faculty at Southern Methodist University. There has also been activity at the community college and secondary levels as exemplified by the programs developed by Linda Borry in her work with the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium (MECC) and the work of George Makas at William Rainey Harper College in Illinois.

Not surprisingly much of the impetus for courseware development in music originally emanated from hardware developers. Micro Technology Unlimited pioneered applications of microcomputer computation and generation of audio waveforms for the Pet, KIM and Apple II microcomputers; and ALF pioneered a hardware "synthesizer" board for the Apple II. At last count there were at least seven different sound generation boards available for just the Apple II, including a 16-voice board produced by Mountain Hardware, Inc. As might be expected each of these products included attendant courseware designed to facilitate utilization of the hardware board. Adopting an approach based upon the one available software-oriented sound synthesis system, David Williams at Illinois State University developed a four-voice composition program which brought the elements of computer-generated sound and graphics within the reach of the novice music student, and provided a basic set of machine routines for music graphics and sound generation that were needed before further music courseware could be developed. Williams and Shrader recognized the need for quality control of courseware, as demonstrated in courseware developed for use at Illinois State University. They stated that:

  1. Software must be well "human engineered" and must assume that the student has no prior computer experience.
  2. Software should minimize verbal information and use nonverbal, performance-oriented instruction where possible.
  3. Software should maximize user interaction with the computer through alternative forms of input other than entering verbal responses through the keyboard (e.g., graphics menu, light pens, sense panels, game paddles, etc.).
  4. Software should be designed to make learning transparent to the user.
  5. Software should be designed to self-adjust to learner performance by maintaining on-going assessment of proficiency and by providing adjustable levels of skill difficulty. To do this successfully the software must be sophisticated enough to compose or generate the examples on the basis of a general purpose algorithm.11

Utilizing the machine language sound and graphic routines developed by Williams, as well as his guidelines for courseware development, a host of other authors have accepted the challenge of microcomputer programing through the Apple II. A good case in point is Bruce Benward at the University of Wisconsin, as well as J. Timothy Kolosick at the same institution, who developed a number of highly effective programs directed at music training at all levels with focus upon error detection, interactive drills to supplement Benward's text Music in Theory and Practice, music memory, training in solfeggio and other forms of interval identification.

Charles Stokes and David Poultney at Illinois State University have been active in the development of courseware as a supplement to a competency-based history/theory/literature core program, utilizing MUSE APPILOT12 and aspects of Williams' sound generation and graphics routines for the Apple II. At Northern Kentucky University William Rost and Gary Johnston have translated some of their very effective earlier programs for the PDP 11 over to the Apple II, and at North Texas State University Rosemary Killam is proceeding with plans to adapt NTSU mini-computer courseware to the Apple, using the Apple PASCAL language system under a grant from the Apple Education Foundation.

As a result of the work of these and other authors, a number of courseware resources are now available to the interested educator. Music courseware by Borry is available through MECC,13 and courseware by Williams, Benward, Rost, Johnston, Shrader, Kolosick, Sidnell and Stokes is available through Micro Music, Inc.14 Earlier mentioned programs such as "The Match Game" are available through Apple, Inc.,15 and other products associated with commercial names are available through those corporations.

Much of the quality courseware which has been produced thus far in music has been produced for the Apple II microcomputer. However, the need is so obvious and the incentives are so great that it can only be a matter of time until comprehensive music courseware libraries are available for all nationally distributed microcomputers. For the message is clear: the dream of high quality microcomputer-based music instruction for all students is a reality. Illinois State University has already enlarged its Music Science Center to encompass the entire College of Fine Arts, and currently serves 700 students per week using a 10 Apple laboratory.

Similar programs are being developed and funded at universities and high schools throughout the United States. They are coming into existence because the "picture this" speculations of this paper are now realities; with the exception of speculation No. 10, all of the first described potentials are now realities, realities which are currently meeting the needs of students at Illinois State University and other similar institutions. The microcomputer revolution in music instruction has already occurred and it is now only a matter of time until it permeates all levels of instruction.


1James C. Carlsen and David B. Williams, A Computer Annotated Bibliography: Music Research in Programmed Instruction 1952-1972, Music Educators National Conference Publication (1978).

2Walter R. Ihrke, "Automated Music Training: Final Report on Phase One," Journal of Research in Music Education XIX (1972), 474-480.

3David L. Shrader, An Aural Approach to Rhythmic Sightreading Based upon Principles of Programmed Learning, Utilizing a Stereo-Tape Machine (Dissertation, University of Oregon, Dissertation Abstracts, Vol. 31 [1970], p. 2427A).

4Fred T. Hofstetter, "Microelectronics and Music Education," Music Educators Journal (April 1979), p. 24.

5Ludwig Braun, "Computers in Learning Environments, an Imperative for the 1980's," BYTE V, No. 5 (July 1980), 114.

6Hofstetter, p. 41.

7Braun, p. 110.

8David B. Williams, "Using the Microcomputer for Management of Music Data Bases," paper presented at the Loyola Symposium, Loyola University, 1980.

9Braun, p. 112.

10Alan M. Meyers, "The Perils of Pioneering in the Software Industry," On Computing II, No. 2 (Fall 1980), 40.

11David B. Williams and David L. Shrader, "The Development of a Microcomputer Based Music Instruction Lab," paper presented at the Association for the Development of Computer-based Instructional Systems, Arlington, Virginia, April 1980.

12Product of Muse Software, Inc., 330 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201.

13Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium, Minnesota Department of Education, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

14Micro Music, Inc., 213 Cambridge Drive, Normal, Illinois 61761.

15Apple Computer, Inc., 12060 Bandley Drive, Cupertino, California 95014.

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