Music Tech – Part III (MITA)

Part III: Music in the Air (MITA)

While the obstacles outlined in the previous section of this white paper present serious challenges for both music instructors and their students, change is underway. In this section, we outline some potential solutions based on more than 40,000 hours of design, authoring, and testing that have gone into the all-digital Music in the Air.


Solution 1: Explore Music Naturally Across Musical Disciplines

(See Obstacle: Theory, History, and Performance Remain Segregated)

There is no inherent reason why the various components of a musical education need to be narrowcast or treated as discrete subjects. Music in the Air (MITA) was designed from the ground up to treat music study as one undertaking with multiple dimensions and multiple levels of challenge. This means that a student or teacher can oscillate quickly between context (aka history), musical languages (aka theory), and performance, while choosing their own level (novice, expert, etc.). Brightly colored icons render this oscillation natural and quick. The barriers between traditionally segregated areas simply evaporate without a shot being fired.

Both printed and eBooks offer one Table of Contents, arranged in the familiar chapter layout, usually divided into style periods (a few offer a list of Listening Guides). MITA’s Table of Contents allows you to sort the material in eight different ways, depending on your focus.

In An Eventful Story (a friendlier term than “history”), hundreds of musical excerpts illustrate immediately the passage a student is reading about. MITA’s 1,100+ images are carefully chosen to reinforce the chronological narrative rather than suit an art editor. MITA conserves space by using thumbnails that link to larger, full-window images, often accompanied by extensive captions that tie in directly to the material being read. “More Reading” links take the user to particularly illuminating articles or books, with direct links to JSTOR or to Amazon’s Kindle. More than 500 carefully curated and narrated links to external web videos use performance footage and documentaries to enrich the main narrative.

MITA’s 160+ Listening Guides (always a single click away from both the Interactive Score and An Eventful Story) offer the chance to listen to pieces from start to finish with informative prose guidance all along the way—including, in vocal works, the original language and a sense (not a singing) translation directly underneath. Textual commentaries at two levels (the user may choose novice or expert/music major) every 10-15 seconds explain what students already hear. Following the commentary encourages them to listen critically and stay engaged. The Guides are designed so that a student can quickly access the Deep Glossary (suitable for both novices and experts).

Listening Guide at Level 1 for La bohéme. A portion of the text and commentary are highlighted as Rodolfo sings.
Listening Guide at Level 1 for La bohéme. A portion of the text and commentary are highlighted as Rodolfo sings.

Instead of exploring history, theory, and performance all with separate texts, faculty members in each of these disciplines from smaller academic programs might consider using a single integrated resource such as MITA across courses, allowing students to deconstruct and then reconstruct a work (after all, the best way to learn how an electric car works is to disassemble and then reassemble it).

MITA’s 4,000+ pages of fully Interactive Scores represent a first in publishing history. More than 130 scores offer majors and non-majors alike the opportunity to explore the value and limitations of this central pillar of the Western musical tradition. Instead of the static scores in conventional text packages, MITA’s scores (using our trademark Bouncing Blocks) play instantly from any of the 25,000 interactive regions on which you choose to click. Beginners can understand the large red commentary, learning the basics of music notation the same way that they learned to speak their native language. Nerds like the author can select “More” to dive even deeper into the music on a page.

Score to Pérotin’s “Viderunt omnes.” MITA’s bouncing block follows the music as it plays
Score to Pérotin’s “Viderunt omnes.” MITA’s Bouncing Block follows the music as it plays.

One of the most exasperating features for users of eBooks is the Glossary. If you find a term with which you are unfamiliar, the first thing you have to do is find the Glossary itself (usually placed at the very end of a long Table of Contents). You must then browse through to find your term. In both music history and appreciation texts, glossaries are generally long, ponderous lists with minimal, often very incomplete definitions. They are also silent. When you finish, you must re-navigate back to the location where you first found the term. Moreover, when did the trombone become a “tenor-range brass instrument that changes pitch by means of valves”? [Machlis]. How is it that the leading history text has entries for “tuba” and “violin” but no other orchestral instruments?

MITA’s Deep Glossary works entirely differently. First, it is always available with a single click from anywhere in the program; second, it can be viewed in two ways: either with All Terms, which includes ca. 1,600 vocabulary-enriching linked words that both native and ESL students will appreciate; or with just the 600+ Core [Music] Terms. MITA includes extensive videos performed by students who explain and demonstrate more than 75 musical instruments (lest we think undergraduate students are already well acquainted with the characteristics of orchestral, much less world, instruments, they are not.)

Every occurrence of a term anywhere in the text is linked directly to the Glossary.[18] Terms pop up in a smaller (but easy to read!) window. Other terms appearing within a Glossary entry are also available with another click of the mouse. Regardless of how deep they drill, users—unlike poor Orfeo and Euridice—find their way back to the top with our handy Glossary back arrow. When you are done with a Glossary entry, simply click anywhere on the portion you were reading and voila, you never left.

Screenshot showing MITA’s “Eventful Story” and “Deep Glossary” sections
A screenshot of a page from MITA about the first movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. A glossary entry for the term “ritornello” is open. Color coded icons enable the instant playing of sounds as well as the quick navigation between sections. Issues relevant to history, theory, and performance are all integrated into a single discussion.

While every term always opens with a concise definition that orients the student quickly, hundreds of terms (“beat,” “rhythm,” “score,” “guzheng,” “Boethius,” “Petrarch,” etc.)  move naturally to more extended essays that fill out the back stories. Entries associated with musical performance include carefully chosen audio excerpts with hundreds of visual popups that illustrate for both novice and expert exactly what is happening. The student who looks up (or clicks on) “subdominant” or “augmented sixth chord” will read and hear how the multiple meanings are derived and how they work, with dozens of custom examples drawn from MITA’s rich recording base. This base includes performers such as the Early Music Consort of London with David Munrow, Renée Fleming, and ensembles like the Chicago Symphony and the Emerson Quartet.

The “Musical Languages Guide” available from every page in the Glossary offers an alternative structure. Rather than arranging entries alphabetically, it builds knowledge step by step, starting with “Music” and leading into entries such as “Modified Strophic Form” and “Disability Studies.” Instructors thus have the opportunity to build familiarity with musical concepts in a digestible sequence and weave it into a discourse focused on culture.

MITA was built for collaboration and integration at the departmental or school level, providing sturdy bridges on which students can scurry back and forth. We can scarcely overstate the flexibility with which MITA can be used.

Solution 2: All Media Together Under One Roof

(See Obstacle: Poor Interface Design)

A student smiling as arrows show the interconnectedness of scores, listening guides, and text

Separating text, listening, and scores is a relic of the print age. MITA was designed from the beginning as a small application governing a large but unified digital space. Everything is accessed from one integrated, easy-to-use platform, with each resource only a click away from the other.

In addition, within sections, media are combined to provide an experience only possible within the digital realm. Discussing a clarinet-scat call/response between Jimmy Strong and Louis Armstrong? MITA provides a red “Play” button (one of thousands within the program) within the text so that students can instantly connect the music to the story of its actual sounds.

Solution 3: Focus on Music as a Carrier of Ideas

(See Obstacle: Still Too Much Emphasis on Facts, Not Enough on Ideas)

A black-and-white photo of Pete Seeger singing and playing the banjo
The music of Pete Seeger was often a vehicle for the anti-war sentiment of the 1960s.

To shift from fact-based learning to a greater emphasis on ideas, students must be encouraged to consider more deeply the intent behind what they’re listening to. Why did the rhythmic modes championed by Perotin and Léonin focus on grouping musical units into threes? Why were shapes such as ritornello and binary form so popular in the Baroque? Why does the 12-bar blues have 12 bars? What led Schoenberg to compose using Sprechstimme? What effects have digital technologies had on the creation and consumption of music today?

Exploring questions about musical ideas leads naturally to discussions that move across periods and oscillate between history, theory, and performance—a task that MITA’s integrated design is uniquely positioned to facilitate.

Solution 4: Flip the Classroom

(See Obstacle: Learning Remains More Passive than Active)

Let’s begin with a student’s relationship to facts. The necessary facts at the core of today’s music textbooks are counterintuitively easier to retain if they are not the primary focus. Facts clearly stated are, of course, essential in order for students to form their own ideas. But rather than facts as the central component of quizzes, tests, and class discussions, why not make the facts available and then challenge students to tease out their implications? The higher-level conversations that result build active context, whose facts students have now internalized.

To promote this kind of engagement, in lieu of a bank of multiple-choice review questions at the end of each chapter, MITA provides dozens of thought-provoking questions in the “Discuss” feature available at any point in each chapter. Some examples:

From Ch. 2 (Medieval Polyphony): What do you think are the most persuasive explanations of the Western turn to polyphony beginning in the late ninth century? Was this development inevitable? What other direction(s) might Western music have taken?

From Ch. 17 (Absolute Music, Tone Poems, Popular Music): What is particularly challenging about nineteenth-century concepts of “absolute music?” Can you cite three figures each of whom had an individual take? Which view is most persuasive to you? Why?

From Ch. 23 (Expressionism and Serialism in Vienna): What differentiated the turn-of-the-century scene in Paris from that in Vienna? How could two major cultural centers only 650 miles apart be so different? What outlooks did they share?

From Ch. 30 (Jazz: Bebop and Beyond): What was now the relationship between jazz as dance music and jazz as music to be listened to? How might the development of bebop be compared to the emergence of atonality and serialism?

A student sings with a MITA Interactive Score on the projector in the background
A UCLA student sings as she helps lead a class on La bohème.

This leads to a central pedagogical feature of MITA: it is designed from the ground up to actually flip the classroom. Students now have the same rich resources in hand as their teachers. For any topic students can construct their own take, bringing in audio and video as they see fit. When the author first announced that students were going to teach his music history survey for majors, the groans in the room were audible. But by the time their turn came around again, those formerly reluctant were chomping at the bit. Groups of two and three afford them the opportunity to learn about working together. Such a setup permits instructors to assume a mentor/guide/resource role rather than the traditional authority figure. They promote, as an end goal, students who can speak cogently about music’s stories and languages, be it in the classroom, the living room, the blog post, or the concert hall.

In the flipped model, students learn in the most direct manner possible to be empowered. When it is a student’s turn to be the Instructor, they generally outdo themselves (if partly out of the same fear of embarrassing themselves that teachers feel). A recent CMS essay by Art Brownlow described one model for the flipped music history classroom: “the context is learned outside of class … and class time is then spent assessing student progress, and, more importantly, in application of the learned information through discussion and the study of musical scores.”[19]

These last two words—“musical scores”—are especially telling. In all current music history texts, however narrowcast, the actual study of scores is largely peripheral. The language provided with which to discuss them is so restricted as to be pointless. MITA brings scores to [re-]sounding life.

Solution 5: Harness the Power of Digital to Reconfigure the Curriculum

(See Obstacle: Narrowcast Models Constrain Student Learning)

While print textbooks and ported eTextbooks continue to limit themselves to a single organizational paradigm, MITA offers a host of new opportunities for reconfiguring content to fit the needs of both instructors and students.

Multiple Lenses for the Same Content

The flexibility of digital media should make any singleminded approach to content a thing of the past. Students already familiar with platforms such as Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon are used to category-based entry points, in which a single work may appear a number of times under various umbrellas. For example, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring might appear under modernism, Russian music, ballet, musical turning points, folk traditions, octatonic pitch collections, or even misogyny. Music students are already creating their own musical universes.  

A search in MITA for all mentions of the word “wedding.” Six linked results are displayed
A search in MITA for all mentions of the word “wedding”

All print texts and their eBook counterparts include lengthy indexes. Spoiler alert: students accustomed to Google searches do not consult an index! MITA’s Search function replaces the traditional static index, quickly flagging all occurrences (or designated occurrences, using the checkboxes on the right) of a term, placed in its location and context. One collaborator on this white paper searched MITA for “wedding” to identify potential candidates for music at his own wedding; he actually used several of the results.

MITA invites browsing of both text and sounds, including almost 400 custom videos and thousands of custom audio clips. Students create their own neural networks—always the most rewarding pedagogical strategy. An easy retrace using the delete (Mac) or backspace (Windows) keys allows them to review instantly where they have been.

An Interface Designed for a Wide Range of Student Abilities

Students in a single course often enter class with widely differing backgrounds. MITA addresses these unavoidable inequalities by, as shown above, layering the content. Whether in a Listening Guides, Interactive Scores, or Deep Glossary, students can seek out the level that works best for them, and then work their way up.

MITA’s sounding Interactive Scores and unique Bouncing Blocks afford even the most novice beginner the opportunity to speak the language of scores just as naturally as we all learn to speak. Beginning music appreciation students exposed to Interactive Scores finish their courses with a much enriched understanding of the inner workings of music.

Throughout MITA, the continuous presence of living music tied to ideas makes content infinitely more accessible. Students do not need advanced degrees; they simply press “Play.”

An annotated Interactive Score for Pictures at an Exhibition, with measure 8 highlighted as it plays.
An annotated Interactive Score for Pictures at an Exhibition, with measure 8 highlighted as it plays.

Use One Resource Across Multiple Courses

A new feature of MITA called Pathways provides ready-made structures for moving through MITA’s vast content. We include Pathways for academic courses such as music appreciation, history, and even theory—which function as enhanced, clickable syllabi—as well as ones built around topics like jazz, the orchestra, the history of modern notation, and women in music. In future academic releases, Pathways will be editable by users, who will also be able to bring in outside media as well.

Solution 6: Incorporate Serious Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion that Address Oppression and Racial Injustice

(See Obstacle: Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Honest or Thorough Enough)

There are many opportunities for inclusion within the framework of traditional texts. How does Lully represent Turkish culture? How did early American colonists describe the music-making of the Wampanoag? In what ways did Dvorák’s New World Symphony represent the composer’s constructions of Native American and African American traditions? How did the blues interact with country music? What can we derive from Western representations of musical exoticism?

Yet how can the major Western music history text of more than a thousand pages mention both Islam and ethnomusicology only once, and in passing? And the Silk Roads, or LGBTQ, or disability studies, or feminist musicology, or music and race not at all? Or offer 38 timelines whose only mentions of Asia are “First use of atomic bombs” and “Korean War”?

When exploring non-Western musics, students derive the most by experiencing them not as tourists visiting exotic, insulated sonic landscapes but by immersing themselves in their social and cultural practices. Virtually all of these musics have been affected by Western exploration and, frequently, exploitation. These should be acknowledged and integrated. Discussions of popular music across the world need to acknowledge the seminal roles played by racial injustice, inequality, and resistance.

Textbooks now devote increasing space to women composers. Yet how can we include several paragraphs on Clara Schumann (who composed many of her finest works while still a Wieck) without ever discussing a single piece of hers? Or dispatch Julia Wolfe with three words and make no mention at all of Augusta Read Thomas or Missy Mazzoli? And how can we survey music in America without acknowledging the seminal contributions of early ethnomusicologists such as Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Frances Densmore? Or conducting without chronicling the challenges faced by Marin Alsop or Joann Faletta or Alondra de la Parra? All this is to say that the discussions of women’s many roles continue to feel like supplements rather than core components.

An enlarged photo in MITA, showing ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore with Mountain Chief of the Montana Blackfoot.
An enlarged photo in MITA, showing ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore with Mountain Chief of the Montana Blackfoot.

What is all too easy to overlook—whether in an introductory or upper division music major course—is that today’s students are already acutely aware of many of these issues. In a country as diverse as America, many of our students live with these realities day in and day out. They wonder why their music studies seem so untethered from the world they know.

Solution 7: Use Dedicated Digital Platforms to Reduce Course Costs for Students

(See Obstacle: Costs Remain Too High)

Instructors, increasingly sensitive to the ways in which rising textbook costs have affected students’ lives and academic performance, have been searching for and demanding affordable options for students. Because the digital realm eliminates print costs and substantially reduces distribution costs, online content can be much more competitively priced. From 2016 to 2017, the number of students who report having used digital resources in their classes grew from 45 percent to 71 percent.[20]

One alternative that has been gaining traction in the past several years is the open educational resource (OER). OERs are licensed free to students and educators, offering instructors the potential for editing, customizing, and even authoring their own texts. Some teachers enlist platforms such as Top Hat to organize OER content, while others bring the content together through syllabi, printouts, and link pages. While the use of OERs represents a laudable attempt at cutting costs for students, they have serious drawbacks. Most obvious is the considerable time investment required on the part of the instructor, who must vet countless non-relevant resources before landing on the right ones, which must then somehow be integrated. Resources may become unavailable later, triggering an endless cycle of checking and re-checking. They are also—as anyone who has worked with OERs will tell you—highly variable in quality.

In the bar graph below, MITA may look underpowered because it lacks a print text. Yet MITA contains all of the benefits (and more) of the richest print book combined with the ground-up integration of a digital-only platform.

Bar graph showing the prices of various print and digital versions of music textbooks. Across the board, print versions are about twice as expensive. MITA is tied for the least expensive option, at $54.95. The most expensive print option costs more than $300.

An Invitation to Try MITA

MITA offers a multi-faceted but easy-to-use solution to the complex challenges posed by modern-day university music education. While we have been able to only touch upon some of its many features, we hasten to acknowledge that MITA is far from perfect. We are constantly in the process of developing further tools designed to empower rather than intimidate students. Instructors can learn more about MITA and download the free MITA Sampler here. Tips on using the program arrive via email, and we are always available to answer questions and act on suggestions. Thank you for spending time with our white paper.

Features Comparison

Industry-Leading Music History and Appreciation Texts
Chart comparing the features of MITA and 6 other industry-leading music appreciation and music history textbooks

Free Download

The free MITA Sampler lets you explore how MITA might serve your pedagogical goals. What to expect:

  • 40% of the content of the full Subscription version for fifteen days
  • 10% of the full content after the first fifteen days, for free, forever
  • Robust access to MITA’s powerful features: Interactive Scores, sound-drenched history, play-by-play Listening Guides, multimedia Deep Glossary entries & much more
  • Absolutely no payments, credit cards, or obligations (yes, it’s really free!); easy, two-minute installation

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    <- Back to Part II: Obstacles to Achieving Modern Course Goals Using Current Textbooks & Music Resources

    [18] A leading eBook text offers a link the first time a term appears but never again after that. This assumes a linear, rote memory-based approach to learning about music.

    [19] “A New Approach to Music History Pedagogy Using iPad Technology and Flipped Learning.” Brownlow. 2017.

    [20] Follett. “Outcomes Made Accessible.” 2019.


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