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Learning Music Online: Creative Education For The World

In the first part of this series on music education, we look back at its history: how did it work in the past and what was possible, how has it grown, and what might this mean for its future?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Perry Cook. Dr. Cook is the co-founder of Kadenze and a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.

In this article, which is part 1 of a multi-part series, we’ll first look at the history of studying music and art remotely, away from any physical campus. We’ll also look at some of the things that make music different from other subjects in school, and we’ll talk about how those affect the possibilities of learning music online.

Music represents and conveys so many things to us. We all exhibit natural, involuntary physical and emotional responses to music and sound. Some of our reactions may differ from person to person, but many are shared. Beyond the basic appreciation of music, some of us actually decide to “study” music, often by practicing it in private lessons and participating in choirs, bands, orchestras, or other ensembles.

Some people take this further to study music history, theory, counterpoint, composition, and more. Others still major in music, in the hopes of achieving a lifelong career in this passion of ours, while others major/minor in music while studying yet another discipline (music is a popular pre-med major at Princeton, and it’s a popular dual major for many students).

I say “ours” because my first degree was in music. I followed that up with additional degrees in engineering (all with the purpose of learning more about music: physics, acoustics, mathematics of tuning systems and scales, spectral analysis, etc.). Increasingly, music and art study have many potential career paths, especially when one studies technology as well — it adds coding, production, and design skills to a core art curriculum.

But What About People Who Couldn’t Or Can’t Get to Campus?

Even back when I was in music school in the early 1970s, a subset of the Conservatory curriculum was available via “correspondence courses,” so people could earn some credits remotely, away from campus. These students paid their money and received fat envelopes in the mail.

The envelopes were filled with books, workbooks, and assignments. These correspondence students would read, do the homework, mail in written work, receive their work back with grades and comments (from humans), and then often have to show up to campus for a final — possibly including music listening tests.

This model worked OK for music history, theory, and some other types of courses that didn’t require immediate human interaction and feedback. But there was never any notion that students would take private lessons, or play in ensembles, by correspondence. Teachers, classrooms/studios, conductors, rehearsal spaces, and concert halls are required for any music educational experience involving real-time human-interaction. In music production/technology, there was certainly no notion that courses such as these could be done remotely, largely because no normal student would have the equipment available outside the expensive purpose-built campus studios and computer labs.

Much has changed of course, both in the music production capabilities of the average personal laptop (or tablet or cell phone), and in the ability of people to remotely access arbitrary resources via the internet. So it’s not surprising that we now see more and more online music courses available. Now it’s easy to find lots of courses in music and other arts topics offered online.  MOOC providers Coursera, Kadenze, and others host courses from dozens of institutions including the top conservatories and music departments in the world.  Some institutions have created their own platforms, including the Berklee College of Music (who offer hundreds of courses via their online.berklee.edu platform, with certificates and 7 fully-online Bachelor’s Degree programs), and Frost School of Music at the University of Miami (who offer many courses, and two fully online Master’s Degrees via their http://frostonline.miami.edu portal).

Except for the addition of video lectures and online assignments (which is a BIG deal), many of these courses are still somewhat in the correspondence course model: that is, they’re primarily history, theory, or nuts-and-bolts-type topics, with assignments that are relatively easy to design and grade, human grading, and feedback provided after a waiting time. Some music MOOC courses are now beginning to be offered with automatic grading, which we will talk about in the next part of this series. But what about the real-time, interactive aspects of music school, arguably the main thing that separates music from most other forms of art and education in general?

Networked Music

In fact, beginning as early as the 1990s, some academic researchers were looking into the ideas of using high-quality, networked teleconferencing systems for musical instruction and performance. Initially of interest more for regions with large and often remote geographical distributions of population (e.g. Canada, Australia), research was funded and conducted on designing networks with guarantees of QOS (Quality of Service); this was specifically for high-fidelity conferencing applications, but music education was often cited as a prime test example.

By the turn of the millennium, many projects, research programs, and concerts using “Telematic Performance” were underway. These included a networked performance via ISDN between San Diego and Thessaloniki Greece at the 1998 International Computer Music Conference; an Internet2/CA2Net performance between Princeton and McGill at the 2003 New Interfaces for Musical Expression conference; the SoundWire project at Stanford CCRMA (See figure 1.1); and many others. This topic of interest has continued to grow, and recently Chris Chafe (SoundWire) created and offered an online course on Kadenze, “Online Jamming and Concert Technology,” on the topic.

Figure 1.1 Soundwire (CCRMA) remote location trio performance (Image courtesy Chris Chafe and SoundWire/CCRMA).
But What About Music Lessons?

Interestingly, some of the original networked music grants and projects specifically looked forward to a rich future of real-time remote private/group instruction. Indeed, this is happening more and more (mostly lo-fidelity, unfortunately) in a completely ad-hoc way, with some teachers using Skype, Google Hangouts, and so on to connect with their students on a regular basis.

Probably the most interesting things happening in online and computer-mediated arts education today have to do with networking, social/community, and the use of Machine Intelligence (Machine Learning, Deep Learning, AI, etc.) in the construction of “robot” assessment tools (auto-graders) to evaluate student work.

That’s what we’ll be talking about in part 2 of this series, so stay tuned!

Perry R. Cook, PhD,
Professor Emeritus, Computer Science (also Music), Princeton University
Co-Founder and Executive Vice President, Kadenze Inc.

Some references 

“Virtual Laboratories for Education and Training”  NSERC Project, University of Victoria, Media Magic, ACD Systems Ltd.  CA 1995  http://dspace.ucalgary.ca/bitstream/1880/43077/1/q04.pdf

“Global Visual Music Project” (ISDN ICMC 1998 Concert)  http://www.visualmusic.org/gvm/b.htm

“Networking Audio and Music Using Internet2 and Next-Generation Internet Capabilities,” Bargar, Church, Fukada, A., Grunke, Keislar, Moses, Novak, Pennycook, B., Settel, Z., Strawn, Wiser, Woszczyk, W., Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Volume 47, Number 4, pp.300-310., April 1999.

“Best Practices in Network Audio,”, AES White Paper, Bouillot, Cooperstock, et. al., 2009


“GigaPop Ritual”  NIME 2003 Performance, Kapur, Cook, Wang, Davidson, 2003.


SoundWire Project at Stanford CCRMA:  https://ccrma.stanford.edu/groups/soundwire/about/


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