Review: Microsoft Musical Instruments and Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

By reviewing a couple of recent CD-ROM disks designed for music courses, I mean to open a discussion of what potential this new medium has for college music teaching and learning. It may seem premature to speak of reviewing works in this medium, since the existing works are by nature experimental. So let me begin by congratulating the creators of the pioneering products in this field for making it possible for users to discuss the potential of the medium.

In my college, CD-ROM is, so far at least, a library rather than a classroom medium. The hardware is kept in the library, and the software provides homework exercises and reference resources rather than classroom activities. I am aware that my sense of the medium is shaped and limited by that siting. That the format is "interactive," for instance (that users create their own path through the material rather than following a predetermined one), marks the products as reference works; they are more like dictionaries than novels. Traveling by mouse along computerized paths is, of course, a lot more appealing, especially to the present generation of college students, than traveling by alphabetical order from page to page, and that appeal in itself promises to help students apply themselves to the subject. But as a reference tool for learning about music, CD-ROM is really distinguished by its capacity to connect words and images to musical sound. For the first time, we have entries on music that we can listen to as we read.

In fact, the one disk that I have assigned to a class is very much a CD-ROM dictionary. In a course on "Players and Instruments" for first-year students, I asked the students to use the Microsoft Musical Instruments disk (Macintosh/Exploration series, Microsoft Corporation, 1993). Their assignment was first to look up the instrument that they themselves play, finding out what they could about the kinds of music and musical ensembles it has been used in; then to find a non-Western instrument that produces its sounds by similar means and learn the same things about that instrument. Microsoft Musical Instruments lends itself beautifully to these tasks, since it has material on instruments of the world, organized by family of instrument, by continent, and by musical ensembles, as well as in alphabetical order (keeping the dictionary principle alive!). Furthermore, the combination of sights and sounds beautiful colored photographs of the instruments appearing while short samples of real music are played on them made a captivating introduction to the unknown non-Western music for my students.

Appealing as this disk is, I wish the authors (who are not named anywhere that I could find) had treated their subject more systematically. For one thing, the "Families of Instruments" system that leads from one instrument to related ones Brass, Strings, Woodwinds, Keyboards, Percussion doesn't match the classification given to each instrument within its own entry Chordophone, Aerophone, Idiophone, or Membranophone. That inconsistency didn't bother me much; in fact, it provided a useful pretext for a class exercise in uncovering the motives and difficulties in classifying instruments. More disturbing, I found, were inconsistencies of information. In the illustrations of instruments, for instance, parts of the instruments are labeled, but only those parts that happen to show up best in the illustrations; in the picture of the piano, the lid and music stand are labelled, but not the hammers or dampers or soundboard. Here an opportunity is lost to teach students how the instrument works. And the instruments are not treated as equals. More information and more musical examples are provided for the principal instruments of Western classical music the piano, the violin, the clarinet than for antiquated, folk, popular, and non-Western instruments (and in those cases, the music examples are less often identified). The nonlinear organization of the CD-ROM medium makes it possible to present musical instruments without giving precedence to one over another, but here that possibility has been discarded.

The test of a reference work is not just how much you can learn from the work itself, but also how well it leads you to other resources. I asked my students, once they had discovered a new instrument from Microsoft Musical Instruments, to move out into the rest of our music collection, find out more about the instrument, and listen to recordings and videotapes of it. This part of the assignment didn't work so well, partly because it was the students' first experience searching for musical resources in a college library. But I also found that once they had their hands on the mouse, they had trouble leaving it for other forms of exploration (not usually a problem when students use a dictionary!). I can see that I have a lot to learn about how to turn the attractiveness of the CD-ROM medium to pedagogical use.

The dictionary nature of Microsoft Musical Instruments makes it unusual among CD-ROM materials designed for music courses; the others I have seen are all guides to single musical works from the classical canon. These are evidently intended to be used primarily in introductory music courses for undergraduates. It is not very clear to me what role these disks are intended to play within such courses. To some extent they are simply handbooks in computer format, presumably supplements to some more general textbook. But to some extent they act as substitutes for classes. An example will show what I mean.

The example that I have examined (and that a colleague of mine has used in a course) is the CD Companion Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring by Robert Winter (in the CD Companion series of The Voyager Company). Some of the sections of this disk consist of background information, pretty much of a sort that a book could provide: Stravinsky's orchestra, Stravinsky's world, The Rite as dance. The largest section, and the crucial one in the sense that it exploits the medium the most fully, is "A Close Reading," in which passages of the work are played while verbal descriptions of them appear on the screen. At the end is a quiz, entitled "The Rite Game."

The value of the disk as a whole depends, I would say, on whether the "Close Reading" supplies something that could not be supplied in another medium. This is an ambitious section, not just because Professor Winter has taken the whole score apart, drawing users' attention to individual lines and textures and events throughout the work, but also because in talking his listeners through the work in this way, he is competing with the most interactive medium of all, the class. I'm not sure that for purposes of teaching students to listen attentively and analytically, this flashing of printed descriptions before students while they listen to the music can compete with the classroom exercise of asking students to listen and say what they hear and then discussing their descriptions with them. And for purposes of bringing The Rite of Spring alive for students, I'm not sure that giving them any "companion" can compete with showing them the ballet on videotape.

In short, I'm not sure that guides to individual pieces will turn out to be the most useful items in CD-ROM format for teachers of music. I can imagine lots of different uses of the format for the teaching of performance, theory, composition, and history. I can also imagine uses of the format that are not strictly pedagogical, in music bibliography and scholarship. No doubt many enterprises of these kinds are underway now. In the meantime, the pedagogical disks we have can provide us and our students with a way to get used to the new medium and a goad to imagine new uses for it.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 22/05/2013

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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