Modern Technology Helps WPI Professors Teach Music History Or What Happened To Your Turntable

Contact: WPI Media & Community Relations

WORCESTER, Mass. - "Really, Mom and Dad, I AM doing my homework. It's for a music history class - I'm listening to Vivaldi on my computer, brushing my teeth and talking on the phone to you, all at the same time."

Professors in Worcester Polytechnic Institute's music program were facing two problems. First, with the addition music majors and minors at the University and the growing popularity of the school's music education and performance programs, enrollment in courses in music history and theory were growing steadily. Second, the growing enrollments were taxing the limited audio playback equipment (including aging turntables and tape players no longer being maintained). Professors who require students to listen to musical selections as part of their courses were in a quandary.

"I could throw a fit, or I could use my head," said Louis Curran, professor of music, who teaches several music history courses, including a course in music from the Baroque period. "So I used my head."

The solution sprang from WPI's Glee Club, which Curran directs. The club had been invited to perform with the Concord (Mass.) Orchestra on short notice. The group had just three rehearsals to learn the music, which has German lyrics. Curran asked Glee Club member Jeffrey Hayes if he could put a recording of the composition on the Web to allow further individual practice. It worked so well that Boston Globe reviewer Richard Dyer praised the resulting performance, noting the WPI singers "pumped out sound of ringing quality in comprehensible German."

Curran realized the same technique could solve the problem with required listening. So he hired Tom Hall, a WPI senior and long-time tutor in music theory, to help. Hall, assisted by WPI Web Coordinator Amy L. Marr, used Blackboard CourseInfo, a software package WPI purchased to help faculty members develop online content for distance learning and on-campus courses.

He created a site for the course and placed recordings for students to listen to there. To play the music files, students simply downloaded an electronic music player, for free, over the Internet. Students in the course listen to the files on their personal computers or go to a multimedia lab on campus.

Hall and Curran took measures to make sure their use of recorded music in the course met the requirements of the Fair Use Doctrine of U.S. copyright law. For example, they placed the recordings in a password-protected site, open only to those enrolled in the course, put a copyright notice and disclaimer on the site, and removed the material when the course was over.

The online music offerings for Curran's course will become a model for similar sites for other music courses offered at WPI, Curran says. In addition, both he and Hall say they see limitless potential for using the Web in music instruction. Hall recently scanned in sheet music for class use, and he envisions links to music videos, information about composers and much more.