Sunday, December 6, 2009

Assigning Music

I have a question for the musicological internets: what would we think of using iTunes as a vehicle for our students acquiring required music for class?

Back when I was first taking music history courses as an undergraduate, my professor lo those many years ago carefully made cassette tape mixes which were available on reserve in the library. To be perfectly honest (sorry Peter!) I can't say that I often did the listening assignments. It was a pain to go to the library in the first place, and sitting on a hard wooden chair with headphones on is just not how I like to engage with the music. As an alternative, some of my courses made use of CD compilations associated with a textbook like Grout/Palisica, which we bought at the campus bookstore with the rest of our required books for the semester. These CDs were pricey, but then you could listen to them at home.

Since then, technology has obviously made great strides in making music available for required listening assignments. At UCLA, both the Music Library, and, separately, a Digital Humanities initiative thingy both had systems whereby recordings chosen by the professor were streamed via web pages. That way a student could listen at home, but copyrights weren't being violated, at least as much. The downside to that, I've found since leaving UCLA, is that creating systems like those take time and money, and I have yet to teach at another school that has made that investment. Another common option is that many of us put recordings on Blackboard sites, and students then just download the files. Totally illegal, of course, and the large files are unwieldy, but it does have the important advantage that students are much more likely to do their listening if it is available in a format that they can put on their iPod.

For standard survey courses there is often a CD compilation available, but they are super-expensive, and lock you into certain musical works that might not be ideal. And if you are doing anything outside of a standard survey--oh, let's say a course on American music during McCarthyism, hypothetically--that doesn't work.

Enter iTunes. If you click here, your iTunes store will open up to a sample iMix I made based on some music I recently assigned to my minimalism seminar. You make these by simply assembling a normal playlist in iTunes, and then choose "Create an iMix" under the "Store" menu. Apple thinks about it for a few hours--I'm not sure exactly what is happening, but it isn't instantaneous--and then spits out a link like that above. In assembling your mix, you theoretically aren't limited to tracks you purchased on iTunes originally. On this list, for example, I had bought Failing Kansas through the Amazon MP3 download store, and iTunes was smart enough to find the same album in their catalog.

1. I'm not entirely comfortable having everything go through one corporation, even a better one like Apple. Enterprising students can of course buy most of these recordings through Amazon or whoever else on their own, but I'm just not going to make the effort to assemble a similar mix through competing sellers.

2. Not everything is available on iTunes, and when it is, sometimes Apple has made it so that you have to buy an entire album just to get the track I want. I imagine that I will still have to put some tracks on reserve, and maybe alter the music I choose a little bit if it makes it easier to buy.

3. For a big survey course--I'm thinking using this system for my Music of the United States course in the spring--it's not entirely cheap. But at the same time, I think it is cheaper then a compilation, or at least comparable. The CD set for the Crawford textbook, for example, runs about $60. I will, however, probably still put CD mixes on reserve on the library in addition to using iTunes.

So what do you think? I'm inclined to give it a try this next semester. Copyright is not my most important concern as a teacher, but especially when it comes to contemporary music or smaller-scale performers and labels, I do care a bit. And more importantly, I do have a desire to instill an ethic in my students that listening to music takes some care. You need to think about what recordings you are listening to, not just find a YouTube video of the piece in question, or take whatever BitTorrent gives you. It's not so much about the money, but the idea that music matters enough to seek out a specific recording for its quality, and sometimes that requires money. At the same time, I want to use a method that works best with contemporary listening habits. So barring any unforeseen issues, I think using this iTunes iMix system, while still putting CD mixes on reserve in the library, is the way to go.


Glenn said...

Interesting idea, but depending on the course. If your library subscribes to any of the Alexander Street Press databases or Naxos, I'd say to use those first because students can also purchase individual tracks from them but purchasing tracks is also not a requirement to access the course materials, unlike the iTunes method. Granted, they might not have the exact performance you want.

I would be wary of putting CD mixes on reserve. You're essentially giving away the music at that point, and defeating whatever educational goals you had about copyright. Still, how to handle tracks that aren't available via iTunes or another service, and if you're not able to build a relatively secure way to stream them, is tricky.

0re0 said...

I have actually thought a lot about this lately, as I move into teaching more and more contemporary music (and especially POPULAR music--where you can't get a compilation).

One alternative that seems viable is Rhapsody. You can make/share a playlist of the tracks you need; they pretty much have the same selection as iTunes; and students can purchase monthly subscriptions that allow either unlimited streaming ($10/month) or unlimited downloads ($15/month) to an mp3 player (except the iPod, obviously, but I purchased a cheap 1G player at Best Buy and it works great). The total cost for a semester of listening then becomes $30-45, which is both cheaper than a CD set and allows them to listen to as much extra stuff (Adam Lambert) as they want. Plus, since the cost is a flat-rate, you don't have to be concerned with the number of tracks you can go ahead and assign ALL of "Nixon in China", not just "The Chairman Dances"!

I have not *required* this in a class yet, but I have put together playlists for those students who want to subscribe--I have not had that many takers, but those who did it said it was a good deal.

Has anyone else tried this?

PMG said...

Thanks Glenn, for reminding me that you can buy tracks in Naxos. (I was hoping you'd chime in, since you're the expert!) You're right that CD mixes do still offer plenty of copyright violating potential. I hope that is slightly mitigated by having them available as as audio CDs (rather than MP3 mixes) so if ripping them would, at least, entail some work inputting track names and such. Which I know is still very likely, but then again, anyone can always go rip CDs in the music library so I'm at least not offering

Rhapsody is an interesting idea. Something about requiring a commercial subscription strikes me as...not quite right, but I can't totally put my finger on why. Partly it's because I myself don't like subscription services; my own listening habits are too old-fashioned not to "own" a piece, I think. But it's not so intrinsically different than Naxos, I realize.

I also, by the way, know people who assemble lists of YouTube videos, since there is a staggering amount of music out there in that format. Not my style, since I would like them to own it in a way that they could put it on their iPods and such, but it has the virtue of putting copyright enforcement in the hands of Mother Google.

Glenn said...

If you want them to own content and to at least consider taking part in the great Library Building that befits scholars of all disciplines (an aim I of which wholeheartedly approve!) then the iTunes idea is a good start.

It's too bad Amazon hasn't built something similar because their files are better quality and aren't DRM'd (this is another thing to consider about iTunes tracks -- they only play on an iPod).

I'd say it's at least worth a semester's experiment. If nothing else you could get a library conference paper out of it since it crosses so many areas of interest. ;-)

John said...

I have been considering this for my classes next semester, and I have been leaning towards Rhapsody as well. iTunes was an option, but it seems more limited. In Rhapsody, they can stream all the music for the course, as well as other things they are interested in. With iTunes, they need to pay for one item, and then only get that item. So, worst case, something in class sparks their interest, but they don't follow through seeking out similar material because it costs too much on iTunes.

The bigger point was encouraging responsible (hell, legal) music consumption. As a professor of music, I think we can have a positive impact on this issue, and requiring a streaming or download service also lets us introduce issues of legality into a class that it otherwise would not have fit. Just me two cents.

Glenn said...

"the virtue of putting copyright enforcement in the hands of Mother Google"

I can't stop reading that as "Mother Goose." Puts a whole 'nuther spin on things that way... ;-)

PMG said...

Yeah, I'm going to go ahead and give it a try. You're totally right about Amazon, which is what I often use myself. I might motivate to at least make a page of links for Amazon, in addition to the iMix.

Which actually reminds me: I was wrong when I wrote in my post that the iMix recognized non-iTunes purchases. I was mistaken; I actually had purchased all of those tracks from iTunes, and some tracks I bought from Amazon or ripped from my own CDs were not included. So another strike against iTunes.

Mother Goose would probably rule the internet benevolently.

Daniel B said...

I have used with my high school theory and band students. Without any subscription, they can listen to a full-length recording once through, after which it reverts to a 30-second sample. If they want to join, they can pay $0.10 to be able to stream a track as many times as they want, or they can pay a typical download fee to own the track. A nice feature is the ability to easily embed a track, album, or playlist on a website or blog. The Lala player loads quickly and shows the album cover without taking up much space on the screen. Since I know my students are unlikely to listen to something a second time, it works well for me, especially for a student who misses hearing a piece in class.

Anonymous said...

Can I disagree? There is a pretty good argument to be made for the wooden chair and headphones. When students have the music on their Ipods (or preferably their creative zens or some such) they will be able to walk around the house, run the vacuum, walk the dog, make lemonade, read their biology homework and all sorts of other things instead of paying attention to the music. I ask my students to listen to the music as though they were reading or studying, in a place with very few distractions and with a notebook. You are right, the chair and headphones are a pain at first, so is Shakespeare's antiquated English, but after some adjustment it pays off.