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Music Education in the Information Age

As I was once told by a professor of mine, the tides of history always seem to wash everything with them. At the time he was referring to the second world war. Nearly ever aspect of humanity was affected by that single event—science, technology, agriculture, manufacturing, education, politics, religion, philosophy, art, literature, and of course music. Historical movements seem to bring nearly all aspects of society with them. To the joy and dismay of many, music education is no exception to the affects of these historical forces.

The first historical tide which fundamentally changed music education was the industrial revolution. Prior to the industrial age, the basic needs of a society were met by individuals providing for themselves. This is known as subsistence living. Music education in the age of subsistence was primarily an individual experience. Wealthy parents would pay for private music instruction for their children. If their children wanted to pursue music professionally, they might apprentice with a local/town musician.

While there were a few isolated music schools which existed in this era, they were nothing like their modern counterparts. There were not very many of them, they lacked any type of formalized curriculum, and they existed primarily within the context of various religious institutions in order to promote the musical endeavors of those institutions.

However, with the industrial revolution came mass production, specialization of labor, and the concentration of productive capacity into large institutions. These innovations were extremely successful at raising living standards and accumulating wealth. It was no coincidence that modern public and university education systems developed during this era. After all, a literate society was the backbone of an efficient industrial economy. Widespread literacy made communication with large numbers of people very quick and effortless. Disseminating a message to the public became as simple as publishing an article in a newspaper.

A public school or college is simply an industrialization of the education process. Schools do have a lot in common with factories: students are educated in batches (grade levels), daily classes are timed and regulated with bells and clocks, curricula ensure consistency from one class and grade to the next, and standardized tests serve as a quality control measure on the education delivered.

Consequently, this industrialized education system also became the natural environment for music education. At first, music education was provided only to talented individuals who auditioned for admittance into specialized music conservatories. Later on, music education found its way into public school systems and universities. Over time this evolved into the same music education system we all know and love today.

However, those historical tides continue to exert their forces over music education. For better or worse, over the last fifty or so years the age of industry has been steadily coming to an end. Factories have been closing their doors. Manufacturing, as a percentage of national output, has declined in many wealthy nations. The average size of a firm has declined, but they are also many more of them. The industrial age is largely being replaced by a new historical movement: the information age.

What is driving this change? According to many business economists, it all relates to what are known as transaction costs. Transaction costs are the costs necessary to do business—the cost of printing a catalogue, sending a message, having a negotiation, and etc. Prior to the information age, transaction costs within a firm were usually significantly cheaper than transaction costs between firms. Therefore, a firm gained a competitive advantage by becoming larger. Smaller firms had to rely more on other firms to do business, which forced them into paying these higher transaction costs.

For example, it was far cheaper to run a school by contracting a large number of teachers for full time hours and putting them all within a single building. They could meet, coordinate their lessons, develop curricula over time, and etc. The students could all be sent to a single location to learn many subjects, saving on transportation and utility costs.

However, over time these external transaction costs have greatly declined. Computers and information technology have enabled students to interact cheaply at a distance with their teachers (email, video conferencing, digital classrooms, and etc.). They have also given teachers many cheaper alternatives to interacting with one another in person. While face-to-face meeting is still very necessary for many aspects of education today, it is far less essential than it was 50 years ago.

Consequently, the innovations of the information age have caused many of us to question the notion that a school environment is the best means for obtaining all aspects of one’s education. While schools can educate many students very efficiently, they only achieve this by educating students all in the same classroom at the same time learning the same information in the same way for the same reasons.

Half a century ago, this made sense because the economy at large was dominated by a smaller number of very large firms. Those firms also tended to stay in business for a very long time. As a result, many people graduated from school expecting to have a similar type of job. They also expected to have that same job for their entire career.

Most professional musicians either performed in venues and recording studios in major cities, worked at a large church, or taught in a public school or university. They also expected to be able to continue being hired at these institutions indefinitely. All the demand for music was concentrated into a few very obvious places. If you wanted to listen to or learn about music, you did so through these institutions. If you wanted to perform or teach music, you did it through these institutions.

As transaction costs fell, large companies became more vulnerable to competition from smaller and more flexible firms. The variety of career opportunities grew, although each of those jobs became less permanent. Fifty years ago, the only way to get any kind of mass distribution was to sign a contract with a large firm—a major record label, large publishing company, etc. Today, anyone with an internet connection can distribute their own music to a worldwide market, and that music can be consumed at nearly any time of the day from nearly any point on the planet—all thanks to information technology.

As a result, those large musical institutions are now struggling to stay relevant. Their investors constantly claim that the music industry is dying. In fact, there has never been another time in history when more music was sold or consumed than right now. It has also never been easier for an artist or musician to promote themselves without the help of a large institution than right now. This has both solved old problems and created new ones.

Large educational institutions have also found themselves struggling to keep up with the times. Schools educate everyone uniformly, but this era demands that education be customized for each student. Schools educate everyone once and mostly before they begin working, but this era demands that education be continuous, lifelong, and constantly relevant. School curricula are devised by educational experts who attempt to predict the most important things a student might ever need to know. However, this era makes most predictions about the future nearly impossible for speculation (just think about all the 50+ year old people working in the computer industry—jobs almost none of them could have even imagined when they were students).

I have more information available at my fingertips today than was contained in all the libraries of the world combined just fifty years ago. No amount of formal schooling could ever hope to present even a significant fraction of this information. However, the internet is also filled with a lot of erroneous information. In fact, it is often virtually impossible to know whether or not something is true. This is of course not a problem unique to the internet. Printed books and articles in peer reviewed journals often contain misinformation which has been passed down for generations, as do the lectures of many college professors. Students no longer need schools to teach them information. Instead, they need them to be taught how to discover, consume, process, verify, and utilize all the information made available to them.

All of this said, most musician friends of mine scoff at the notion that music can be taught via the internet. They tell me that lessons via a video chat are a joke, some of the best books and music ever written have never been made available on the internet, and that the best musical experiences are always had in person. Of course, I completely agree with their assessments. However, none of this changes my overarching narrative. We should not concern ourselves with where things are right now. We should instead focus our attention on the tides of history and ask ourselves, “what might the future be like?”

Video chat is a frustrating medium for teaching music lessons. However, ten years ago it was not even an option at all. How much faster will the internet be in ten years? How cheap will high definition cameras and microphones be? Yes many great books and recordings might still not be available online in ten years. However, which collection is going to grow the largest over the coming decades: the recordings which are available on the internet, or the ones which are not? And yes of course the best musical experiences will always be had face-to-face.

When I was first studying music in school, I had essentially two options for studying a piece of music: libraries and music stores. For this reason, a significant part of one’s decision to go to a particular music school used to be based on the size and scope of that school’s library. Thanks to amazing resources like IMSLP, YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and etc., today’s students can access nearly all of this information (and many wonderful video masterclasses) almost instantly and at minimal or zero expense. Whenever recently I have had the opportunity to walk through a school library, the majority of the students at any given time are not paging through a book. They are staring at a glowing screen.

So where does this leave music education in the information age? To paraphrase my professor’s words, it leaves it washed by the tides of information technology. In the information age, a successful music education is student driven. Student’s should determine what they need to learn and take a more active role in searching out that information, rather than just relying on the collective decisions of administrators, faculty boards, and accrediting agencies.

Does this leave music schools obsolete? Absolutely not. Despite the transition to information technology, many factories still exist and have themselves taken advantage of these technological advances. While factories do not dominate the economy the same way they once did, those that still do have learned to downsize and specialize in producing the things which only factories can best deliver. Similarly, music schools will thrive as they find successful ways to focus on those things which are best provided in the context of a school environment.

There are many things which could never be learned via information technology. However, there are many others which are probably better taught by these new methods. Instead of pitting one approach against the other, we should be finding successful ways to hybridize the two. Ultimately, the students/teachers/schools/institutions who are the first to successfully embrace the challenges of the information age will be the ones to reap the long term benefits from it.

As I constantly remind my students, there is no longer any excuse for not knowing something. We spend a lot of money to have internet access on our computers and mobile devices. Go educate yourself, and then let your teachers know when you need help trying to sift through everything you have found.

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