Hall of Notes

This piece was written in 2018 as a part of my studies at Bath Spa University.


Whilst known initially as part of folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon’s initial, enduring love was for the sound of rock and roll (Gilbert, 1973). Simon considers this sound to be “the essential vocabulary” of his songwriting (Simon, 1984), feeling that it gives his music “emotional validity” (Music Vault, 2014). Simon has also cited doo-wop groups and the gospel quartets preceding them as constant influences (Gilbert, 1973). Simon’s juvenilia display these influences in their most unadulterated form. For example, Simon’s first minor hit, 1957’s ‘Hey Schoolgirl’ (Tom & Jerry, 1957), is a light rock and roll tale of a youthful romance, channeling the harmonies of the Everly Brothers, themselves a huge influence on Simon’s work (Pareles, 2014, Leigh, 2016 & Fresh Air, 2000).

Throughout his career, Simon has displayed “rigorous eclecticism” (Ingham, 2000), and a determination to vary his musical style at regular intervals. The young Simon formed his own publishing company before having any hits, a diligence to business commensurate with his approach to songcraft (Leigh, 2016).

This careerist approach to music puts Simon in stark contrast with many of the artists from the folk community that he later engaged with. By 1963, Simon had decided that he wanted to “say something” in his songs (Griffiths, 1966), and feeling that rock and roll was “in one of its lulls” (Simon, 1984), he gravitated towards the burgeoning folk revival scene of Greenwich Village. The “mature” writing style (Fresh Air, 2000) of artists from this scene, including the young Bob Dylan (Music Vault, 2014) had a heavy impact on the content of Simon’s lyrics.

Simon’s engagement with the folk revival scene has been characterised as “second-generation” (Laing, 1974), influenced mainly by his contemporaries rather than their influences; Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger among others (Laing, 1974 & Leigh, 2016). Simon felt that the folk framework gave him more freedom than the “confined parameters” of the pop music being produced by the Brill Building songwriters during this period (Laing, 1974), and his involvement with folk music seems a carefully considered step in his career.

1.    The Sound of Silence

One of the earliest folk-influenced songs written by Simon is one of his most popular and enduring; ‘The Sound of Silence’. Whilst Simon released three versions of the song (Simon & Garfunkel, 1964 & 1966a, Simon, 1965), it was the third, and most heavily orchestrated, that became a hit. The analysis provided applies to this version. The song had a difficult start; Dave van Ronk has described the song as “a running joke” in the folk scene (Leigh, 2016), its poor reception linked with the perception of Simon as an interloper, an inauthentic rock and roll singer without folk pedigree (Leigh, 2016).

The song addresses the difficulty that people find in communication, a theme that clearly engaged Simon in the mid-1960s, and one he revisited for the song ‘The Dangling Conversation’, from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (Simon & Garfunkel, 1966b), albeit “on a personal level rather than a societal level” (Delehant, 1976a). Simon has highlighted the impact that the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the “escalation of the war in Vietnam” had on American society (Schwartz, 1984), stating that the “mood of the time” was “alienation”, a theme very clearly represented in ‘The Sound of Silence’ (Schwartz, 1984). This mood ensured that the song resonated with the disillusioned, disenfranchised countercultural youth of America growing up alongside the Civil Rights Movement and being “awoken” politically and culturally (Laing, 1974).

Structurally, the song is simplistic, adopting an AAAAA strophic form, with five verses, each largely the same melodically, but varying lyrically. The title of the song appears at the end of each verse as a refrain, a technique used regularly by Simon (Leigh, 2016). This technique continually re-establishes the central theme of the song, and allows Simon to re-contextualise his title in each verse, providing depth and variation.

Simon has repeatedly discussed the importance he places on the first line of his songs, stating, “I’ve always believed that you need a truthful first line to kick you off into a song. You have to say something emotionally true before you can let your imagination wander” (Schwartz, 1984). The first couplet of ‘The Sound of Silence’ is one of Simon’s most famous: “Hello Darkness my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again,” anthropomorphising the concept of ‘darkness’ and presenting it as a source of comfort and as a confidant. ‘Silence’ is also anthropomorphised, but by contrast is portrayed as something to fear: “Silence like a cancer grows.” Compared to the simplicity of his early works, such as ‘Hey Schoolgirl’, ‘The Sound of Silence’ shows a Simon as significantly developed writer, employing allusion and rhetorical devices. The third verse contains an effective example of Simon’s rhetoric: “People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening.” Taken individually, each line is powerful, with the subtle but important distinction between the two actions in each line causing the listener to consider human behaviour. When combined, the parallel syntax of the two lines amplifies the effect.

The song acts primarily as an allegory for the dangers of apathy. From a first person perspective, the narrator guides the listener through a vision he has had, in which hoards of people stand, uncommunicative, transfixed by a neon light. As the song warns against the dangers of non-communication, it is appropriate that the song takes the form of a conversation (Another Paul, 2009). Religious imagery runs throughout the song, with the “halo of a street lamp” and “the words of the prophets”. The neon light is a “neon god”, unquestioningly followed by the masses. The response to this “neon god” can be seen to act as an analogy for how television altered social behavior in the 1950s and 60s, and can be transposed to work for modern society, with television substituted for social media.

The song is performed in Gb major, and is fairly simple harmonically, relying solely on the I, IV, V and vi chords. The influence of the Everly Brothers’ close vocal harmonies is still apparent, but the harmonies on ‘The Sound of Silence’ vary much more than the diatonic thirds used on ‘Hey Schoolgirl’.

Each lyrical couplet performs a separate role; the first acts as exposition, the second develops the scene, whilst the third “presents the climactic thought of the verse” (Bennighof 2007:9). These roles are reinforced by the melodic contour of each couplet. The first couplet features a melody in the Aeolian mode over the chords Ebm-Db-Ebm. The “purity of the modal language” (Bennighof 2007:10) places the melody in the folk tradition, similar to the usage of the Dorian mode in ‘Scarborough Fair’ (Simon & Garfunkel, 1966b).

This first couplet provides a dark contrast to the major tonality used in the next two couplets. The second couplet is made up of two identical melodies, appropriate considering the parallel syntax used lyrically at this point in two of the verses, whilst the melodic peak occurs in the climactic third couplet, with Garfunkel’s vocal hitting the highest note in the song, a Gb, the tonic. Finally, the refrain returns to the modal harmony of the first couplet, descending to lead into the next verse, a technique that Bennighof refers to as “quite classically conceived” (2007:10).

2.    Still Crazy After All These Years

Simon and Garfunkel split in 1970, with Simon going on to release several solo albums, including 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years (Simon, 1975). The title song is markedly different stylistically from Simon’s previous material, using a heavily jazz-influenced sound, exemplified by the Rhodes piano and complex harmonic elements of the track. Simon discussed this period of his work at length in an interview with Playboy: “I felt I was defining a real identity” (Schwartz, 1984). He describes this identity as “New York rock, jazz influenced, with a certain kind of lyrical sophistication” (ibid.). The increased harmonic complexity of ‘Still Crazy’ is a direct result of Simon’s efforts to improve his compositional skills, studying harmony and orchestration with bass player Chuck Israels (Zollo, 1990a). Simon also studied the music of Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim (ibid.), observing that his melodies often used every note of the chromatic scale. Simon felt that replicating this would introduce greater variation to his work, and, although the average listener would not be consciously aware of these variations, it would reset the listener’s expectations, enabling his verses to sound fresh when revisited later in the song (Simon, 1974). Simon almost achieves the inclusion of each chromatic note on ‘Still Crazy’, omitting only the F natural.

Thematically, this work is more mature. The song discusses a rendezvous with his “old lover” with an emotional detachment not present in his earlier work. The song depicts a general ennui, contradicted by the use of “crazy” in the title, and comes from a period in Simon’s life when he was experiencing such listlessness, shortly after the failure of his first marriage (Schwartz, 1984). Woffinden notes the “intensely personal” nature of Simon’s work during this period, attributing it to an increased freedom, afforded by the dissolution of Simon and Garfunkel (Woffinden, 1975). The first line is plain and factual, sticking with Simon’s method of “simple and true” first lines (Zollo, 1990a). The title is contradicted consistently throughout the lyrics, which portray resignation rather than insanity, and a narrator that may be “still crazy”, but also “ain’t no fool”. The lyric could quite easily be the monologue of a neurotic New Yorker on his psychiatrist’s couch, and the constant claims that the narrator is “still crazy” seem an effort on the character’s part to appear more interesting.

This feigned instability is aided by the regular shifts in harmony present throughout, primarily in the bridge, which rapidly modulates through E major, F sharp major and E minor before returning to the home key of G major. The song lacks a chorus, using an AABA form with the title as a refrain at the end of the verse. Simon continuously subverts the listener’s expectation by constantly re-contextualising this refrain. Whilst in ‘The Sound of Silence’, Simon re-contextualises the title solely by changing the preceding lyrics, here the harmony changes each time. The final syllable of the first verse lands on the v chord (C minor), whilst the end of the second verse is supported by an I9 (G9) chord, with neither properly resolving, “indicating that there is more to the story” (Bennighof, 2007:70). Simon also introduces an unexpected key change partway through the final verse, shifting up a tone from G major to A, and providing a final recontextualisation of the refrain (Zollo, 1990a). Bennighof refers to the mood set by the key change as being one of “demented triumph” (2007:71). Notably, this is the only instance of the ‘Still Crazy’ title that resolves to the tonic triad, implying the narrator’s eventual acceptance of his solitude.

3.    Hearts and Bones

Shortly after the release of Still Crazy, Simon’s identity as member of the New York intelligentsia was reinforced when he was cast in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). Simon and Allen have regularly shared subject material – neuroses, New York life (Leigh, 2016), and the minutiae of relationships – as well as an intelligence and perspicacity that, unlike many other rock artists, Simon has not been at pains to hide (Gillett, 1973; Laing, 1974 and Schwartz, 1984). Unlike Allen however, Simon’s Jewish heritage is not often referenced in his material. Simon himself has noted that “you don’t hear the word ‘Jews’ come up too much in songs outside of the state of Israel” (Simon, 1984), and it is perhaps this that makes the opening couplet from ‘Hearts and Bones’ (Simon, 1983) so striking: “One and one-half wandering Jews/Free to wander wherever they choose.” Continuing with Simon’s tradition of strong opening lines, the listener is introduced to two protagonists, through syntax seemingly appropriated from an old joke (Zollo, 2015). There is a direct reference to Simon’s personal life here; he is the Jew mentioned, whilst his partner at the time, actress Carrie Fisher, was half-Jewish (Zollo, 1990a). The lyric also references the mythical ‘Wandering Jew’, cursed to traverse the earth until the Second Coming. The remainder of the verse uses Christian imagery, creating an effective juxtaposition of the two religions. The protagonists are walking through the “Sangre de Cristo” or “Blood of Christ” mountains. Simon translates “Sangre de Cristo” within the lyric, emphasizing the contrast between the wanderers and their culturally alien environment. The chosen mountain range hints at sacrifice and martyrdom (Another Paul, 2011c), precipitating the ultimate demise of the relationship.

The autobiographical references in ‘Hearts and Bones’ demonstrate an openness and honesty that had gradually grown in Simon’s songs. The song is “blisteringly honest” (Leigh, 2016) about the travails of love, tracing, as Simon calls it in the lyrics, “the arc of a love affair”, from its passionate outset to its practical conclusion. The song is a journey, emotionally and literally, with geography used as a means to both bring the lovers together, and to ultimately separate them – they “returned to their natural coasts”. Simon’s choice to discuss both ‘hearts’ and ‘bones’ adds a physicality and tangibility to the regular cliché of the heart serving as an analogue for love. This added physicality compliments the implicit sexuality of lines such as “love like lightning, shaking till it moans”. The final verse addresses the indelible impact the lovers have left on each other; “remain[ing] intertwined even after their separation” (Beviglia, 2012). The song again uses an AABA form, with Simon using two of his regular techniques: the title as a refrain at the end of each verse and an integral, harmonically distinct bridge to prepare listeners for the final verse.

‘Hearts and Bones’ retains the extended harmonic palette present in ‘Still Crazy’, but uses its more exotic flavours – diminished and extended chords – sparingly. Appropriately, considering the geographical setting, Mexico, the track also incorporates Latin influences, most noticeably the Latin percussion performed by Airto Moreira – a Brazilian percussionist who had previously worked with Antônio Carlos Jobim. Less obviously, the guitar figure in the introduction moves in parallel sixths, a common harmony in Latin music (Bennighof, 2007:99). The delicate accompaniment is compellingly incongruous with the heavy lyrical content; whilst occasional harmonic twists help deliver the intended lyrical message. For example, during the solemn explanation, “that’s not the way the world is baby, ” the harmony undergoes a rapid shift to the minor tonality to mirror the change of mood (Bennighof, 2007:99). Melodically, Simon makes good use of sequential movement, with a descending figure of three lines in the second part of each verse, each naturally leading on to the next by never resolving to the tonic and channeling the “sense of almost aimless wandering” present in the text (2007:99).

4.    Graceland

Simon has said that he does not believe Graceland (Simon, 1986b) would have been made if Hearts and Bones had been successful (Zollo, 1990b). Simon felt that the songs on Hearts and Bones had been let down by the production, so he decided to reverse his writing process, and produce the record before writing the songs (Zollo, 1990b). Fascinated by a cassette of South African jive music, mbaqanga, that he had been given, Simon insisted on a costly expedition to South Africa to work with authentic musicians of the style (PaulSimonVEVO, 2012). Critics have argued that, by doing so, Simon broke the cultural boycott of South Africa in place at the time due to the apartheid system (Sinker, 1987). Simon, for his part, argues that his trip to South Africa had no political intention (Tannenbaum, 1986) and there is very little lyrical material on the album that could be considered political comment in any way.

Whilst musically, Graceland relies heavily on the African influence, lyrically it is archetypal Simon, full of “New Yorkian preoccupations” (Reel, 1986), only more conversational and fractured narratively than his previous albums (Sutcliffe, 2011). At times the lyrics border on free association (Thomson, 2010), for example, Simon’s anecdote about the “girl from New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline”, part way through the title track. Again we see the centrality of New York to Simon’s persona, even when making cultural excursions such as Graceland. Simon felt that by cross-pollinating African and American cultural elements, he could appeal to audiences on both continents (Zollo, 1990b).

For the title track, Simon stripped back his recording from South Africa so that only the drum part remained (Thomson, 2010), a “travelling rhythm” that reminded him of Johnny Cash’s material on Sun Records (Simon, 2012). Simon had identified a simplicity and verve in mbaqanga that reminded him of the rock and roll sounds that had enraptured him during his youth (Smith, 1987). Simon asked his band to augment the drums with their approximation of American country music (Simon, 2012), later adding Nigerian pedal steel player Demola Adepoju to play lines idiomatic to country music and further blur the lines between the African and American sounds. The final product echoes the minimalistic production and arrangement style of the Sun Records material (Simon, 2012).

Perhaps subconsciously inspired by the sounds he had developed, Simon had a solitary lyric for the song: “Graceland”, Elvis Presley’s famous Memphis mansion (Simon, 2012). Seeing no connection between Graceland and the South African theme, Simon was initially dismissive of the lyric but eventually embraced the title and took a trip to Graceland with his son. This trip forms the basis for the lyric.

‘Graceland’ is a direct continuation of the story from ‘Hearts and Bones’ (Zollo, 1990a), with the narrator seeking solace after another failed relationship. Written in the first person, Simon references both his first wife – “the child of my first marriage” – and his second, “she comes back to tell me she’s gone”. The pain of losing the latter feels far fresher (Charlesworth, 1997) and the narrator abruptly switches between exasperation, “as if I didn’t know my own bed”, and longing, “as if I never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead”. Simon also addresses the public nature of breakups: “losing love is like a window in your heart” (Another Paul, 2012), a line that Simon has said “freed him” (Smith, 1987). In the song, Graceland acts as both a physical destination and a metaphor for redemption (Tannenbaum, 1986), with the story reading like a pilgrimage to both “the palace of the rock ‘n’ roll Sun King” and “a state of mind that borders on heaven” (O’Brien, 1986). Many elements give the song the impression of being Simon’s love letter to rock and roll, the direct musical quote of Elvis’ ‘Mystery Train’ at the start, Simon’s “favorite record” (DeCurtis, 2000), and the inclusion of Simon’s early idols, the Everly Brothers, on backing vocals.

“The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” is another of Simon’s strong opening lines, not only geographically defining the lyric, but also invoking the musical culture of the Deep South; of the Delta blues and the National resonator guitars often used in the style. Simon also refers to the area being “the cradle of the Civil War”, alluding not only to the historical war, but also the “domestic strife” he has recently experienced (Bennighof, 2007:112), and providing a “nod to the racial injustices that are at the root of U.S. history”, as well as to those occurring in South Africa at the time (Glitz, 2012). The song rapidly switches tenses and this confused temporality is reflective of the narrator’s emotional disorientation at this stage in his life.

Harmonically, the song relies mainly on the I, IV, V and vi chords – dramatically simpler than the harmony present in songs such as ‘Still Crazy’, and purposefully so, with Simon believing that the dominant rhythms of the track necessitated simpler harmony (Zollo, 1990b). This is partly carried over from the African music that inspired Simon, predominantly built on the I, IV and V chords (Simon, 2012). There are a number of features distinctly idiomatic to the blues or rock and roll; the modal interchange in the chorus that sees the bVII chord, D major, introduced is a good example. Unlike much of Simon’s early work, the melody varies vastly between verses, but interestingly, also between choruses. The constant changes are representative of the journey taken in the song, “underscor[ing] the narrator’s pilgrimage” (Bennighof, 2007:112).


Fascinated by the process and product of songwriting, Simon has experimented with a multitude of techniques, inspirations and forms, ultimately settling on a “distinctly synthetic approach to composition” (Bennighof, 2007:164); selecting musical, textual and cultural elements that interest him and pursuing them to their natural conclusion. This is exemplified by his work on Graceland, and stems from Simon’s “naturally analytical inclination” (Bennighof, 2007:164). Simon has consistently shown that he is conscious of his changing identity as a writer (Zollo, 1990b) and this awareness has been the impetus behind the huge variation between the four tracks analysed here.



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Examining the importance of music theory in music technology education: A case study of a Level 3 music technology qualification at a Midlands-based Further Education provider.

This piece was written in 2015 as a part of my studies at Nottingham Trent University. Appendices are not included with this copy.


This study set out to explore the importance of music theory in the education of Level 3 music technology students. The intention was to identify the significance of music theory in their current education, future prospects and, more broadly, their musical life and experience.

A case study was conducted in a single Further Education institute, and consisted of in-depth interviews with eight current students, as well as the course leader. In addition, three former music technology students were interviewed, although these were not associated with the education provider studied. Music theory is not currently taught on this Level 3 qualification.

The research provided the following three findings:

  1. Students are passionate about creating music that they enjoy:

This is important, because music theory can contribute to their ability to compose music that they are satisfied with.

  1. The difference of the level of music theory knowledge between students is vast.
  1. Music theory is ill-defined in students’ minds, and this leads to disinterest:

Music theory is often associated with classical or art music, and this can lead to students reacting against the term.

The research concludes that music theory is highly important to Level 3 music technology students, but that not all elements of music theory is as essential. Also, given the vast difference of theoretical knowledge between students, the risk is run of a classroom experiencing a split between those with music theory knowledge and those without. If all students have a basic understanding of music theory, a common language and framework is created that can encourage collaboration. Finally, a lack of music theory knowledge can inhibit a student’s future achievements.

The final recommendation of the study is that music theory be integrated into music technology, and a number of potential ways of doing this are offered.


Relatively speaking, music technology is a young subject (Boehm 2007, p. 8). As a result of its age and the speed at which the tools of the trade develop, music technology education has been a rapidly evolving field, and has established an identity separate from traditional music education.

Nevertheless, as is implicit in its title, music technology education does retain close links with music education. One major area of music education is music theory – a key component of instrumental lessons and compositional lessons among others. However, my experiences as a music technology teacher have led me to note a lack of music theory teaching for students in the field, a situation that I wished to explore. Firstly, I wished to explore my initial observation from other perspectives. Secondly, I wanted to explore the impact that either studying or not studying music theory has on music technology learners. The main purpose of the research is to determine the best way to serve the interests and ambitions of Level 3 music technology students. I have also noted the frustration that some music technology students face when unable to compose pieces of music, so wished to explore the possibility of a relationship between this frustration and music theory.

Beard and Gloag describe music theory as concerning “the measurement and description of sound properties and the abstract and syntactical components of musical language, for example its tones, intervals, scales, rhythms, timbres and key signatures” (2005, p. 182). Essentially, all of the elements listed are the building blocks of music, therefore, music theory is highly important in the creation of new music. Music theory does not describe the inherent creativity needed to create a pleasing piece of music; rather it is an understanding of the workings of music, guidelines that help composers understand the relationships between sounds. Throughout this study, music theory will be considered in this holistic sense, a term used to represent a general understanding of the workings of music.

Practically, my experience of music technology is of it being associated with the study of popular music. Tagg (1982) describes music as a whole as consisting of an “axiomatic triangle consisting of ‘folk’, ‘art’ and ‘popular’ musics.” For the purposes of this discussion, folk music is largely irrelevant, and Tagg distinguishes folk from art music1 and popular music by noting that the vast majority of folk music consumed is “produced and transmitted” by amateurs, whereas art and popular musics are primarily a professional concern. Music theory is an area of music most often associated with art music, and this is perhaps a reason that music theory is not consistently engaged with on music technology courses.

Literature Review

In my exploration of the available literature, I was unable to find any pieces that specifically address the importance of music theory to music technology students. The closest study to my own is Kardos’ (2012), in which the researcher has undertaken a case study of a Level 3 music technology student with rudimentary music skills. Kardos discusses the desire that students have “to create something that sounds impressive” (2012, p. 144), and cites this as “a common, powerful motivating factor”. This is something that I have personally observed in learners, but wished to explore in my research, as this evidence is completely anecdotal, and raises the question of if music theory teaching could help students to achieve this.

Kardos’ students are “from diverse musical backgrounds” (2012, p. 143), and “it is not uncommon for a typical class to contain a majority that cannot read staff notation” (2012, p. 143), characteristics that are echoed in the interviews that I have undertaken. Again, this raises a question of whether or not music theory teaching could help create a common framework for students with different backgrounds.

The weakness in this study is its limited scope. By choosing to only explore the experiences of one student, Kardos has produced a piece of research that is interesting, but incapable of making any firm recommendations. The use of music technology as a shortcut for those who lack certain aspects of music knowledge (music notation, in particular) is discussed, but the fact that this relies on the student having at least some knowledge of music theory is ignored.

Cain (2004) explores similar issues to Kardos, focussing on how music technology can be used in lieu of music theory knowledge when composing music. He discusses the difficulty in identifying “the extent to which pupils’ work is their own” (2004, p. 217), as opposed to being created with pre-existing loops or patterns provided by music technology software. This is not such an issue when the teacher is able to observe learners’ work, as the difference is obvious to an experienced music technology practitioner when presented with the visual representation of the piece provided by the software. The key differentiation between the work of Kardos and Cain is that Cain presents music technology as possibly entirely replacing musical skill in composition.

Another criticism of Kardos’ case study is that it relies on taking a student who wished to create “original pop music” (2012, p.145) and helping them create music in the style of Philip Glass, a composer very much within the art music canon. Much of the other literature considered demonstrates a belief that students work best in a genre that they personally appreciate. The work of Challis (2007) is a good example, as he works with music technology students within the genre of their preference. In his research, he discusses teaching composition to students with a passion for DJ culture and claims that using their chosen genres as a framework has “a motivating power to engage even the most difficult students in creative music making” (2007, p. 65). This opens a discussion surrounding the identity of music technology students, and their genre preferences. Not all students will be difficult, and not all will identify with the genres of ‘DJ culture’, listed by Challis as including “garage, drum and bass, house or R&B”. However, the notion of higher levels of student engagement when learning is related to their genre preferences is supported by the research of Lamont et al. (2003), who suggest that links need to be created between the musical life of students inside and outside of the learning environment. Savage (2007) offers a similar viewpoint, emphasising the importance of students’ “personal responses” (2007, p. 153) and a suggestion that “creating educational situations in which students can imbue their personality, character and creative spirit is the key for teachers” (2007, p. 153).

All of the genres that Challis mentions are completely dependent on music technology for their creation. Field (2007) alludes to this in her work and argues that music technology should not be applied to “historical musics” (2007, p. 160), and instead, music technology education should address the repertoire that has been enabled by new technologies. It follows that a student who is interested in creating the genres enabled by music technology would have an interest in a music technology course. Therefore, by focusing education on these genres, we can create “less cultural distance between the student and the syllabus” (Field 2007, p. 160). Field (2007) does not however, offer any new empirical evidence in support of her assertions, instead building on the work of both Cain (2004) and Lamont et al. (2003) among others, and offering seven “starting points for creative enquiry” (2007, p. 160) which remain untested.

The opposing argument to focussing on students’ genres of preference is that this will not help them expand their cultural awareness and broaden their music horizons. This argument is presented by a teacher interviewed in McPhail (2003), who suggests that students are often “stuck in their own ‘pond’ of influence” (2003, p. 51), and that an understanding of music is only gained by considering “the whole canon” (2003, p. 51). The teacher interviewed sees art music and music theory co-dependent, however, the disparity between this perception and the reality is highlighted by McPhail himself, who states “although the theoretical knowledge Robert identifies as so important is not exclusively the domain of classical music, the perception of most teachers and students is that theory knowledge and musical reading literacy are part of the more formal, traditional and classically based paradigm” (2003, p. 50). Teaching music technology through the lens of art music can also be seen as a less risky route. Research undertaken by Green highlights that “many teachers noted that they found it difficult to keep their knowledge and resources up to date with musical trends, which change rapidly” (2002, p. 160). This suggests that some teachers take comfort in the unchanging nature of the art music canon, and this can be argued as a fault of the teacher, rather than the concept of teaching music technology in the context of popular music.

Williams (2011) focuses his research on “the ‘non-traditional music’ student” (2011, p. 131), identifying such students as having “limited skills in the traditional instruments” (2011, p. 143), and as being those who “may or may not be able to read standard notation” (2011, p. 143). His research discusses “democratising music creativity through technology” (Williams 2011, p. 136), and this democratisation is echoed in much of the research reviewed here, not least in Kardos’ acknowledgement of the diversity of music technology students in Further Education (2012, p. 143). Williams’ work is broad in scope, and contains a large enough sample size to lend credence to his statements; this is helpful given the relative brevity of Kardos’ study.

When considering all the literature discussed so far, I believe that it is safe to characterise music technology learners as having a strong bias towards popular music, and as coming from a non-traditional musical background. At this point, I am keen to draw a distinction between music theory and an understanding of music notation. Music notation is a component of music theory, but is not solely indicative of musical skills. Green notes, “popular musicians rarely use music notation, and whether they use it or not, they must be able to play without it” (2002, p. 29), highlighting the importance of musical skill in the professional world of popular music, and the relative unimportance of music notation. Whilst not referring to music technologists directly, the point is transferrable, and supports the separation between notation and music theory that is not always recognised.

Another point explored heavily in literature is the wide scope of music technology. Boehm (2007) discusses the three elements of music technology: “technology”, “science” and “art” (2007, p. 9), and presents them as an identity crisis of sorts highlighting the huge variety of emphasises that HE courses considered within the music technology sphere can contain. For example, an ‘audio engineering’ course may involve no music creation at all, whereas a ‘music production’ course may rely heavily upon music theory and skill. At FE level, the only subject on offer is strictly defined as ‘music technology’, perhaps hinting at a divide in student interest between the ‘science’ and ‘art’ elements of music technology. Finally, Winterson and Russ (2009) explored this, finding that “students perceive the subject as being predominantly creative rather than scientific” (2009, p. 348). If this is the case, then this has implications for the emphasis of music technology education.


The research undertaken is a case study of learners on a Level 3 music technology course in a Midlands-based Further Education provider. The study consists of interviews with current students, a number of former FE students, and the course tutor. Each of these elements will be explored in more depth and justified below.

Partly due to the lack of literature on the chosen area of exploration, the first decision made was that this study would rely almost exclusively on empirical research, that is, “research which involves the collection and analysis of original data” (Wallace 2013, p. 5). Gathering empirical evidence also presented the opportunity to explore issues in more depth than would be available with documentary or desktop research.

As the initial research proposal was inspired by a real life situation in an FE provider, to conduct a case study seemed the most suitable approach. Denscombe states that cases that form “the basis of the investigation” will be real-life situations that already exist, rather than situations that are “artificially generated specifically for the purposes of the research” (2010, p. 54). In addition, the scale of a case study allows the researcher to go into more depth, allowing a more “holistic view” (Denscombe 2010, p. 54) of a situation. This is the desired outcome, as I wished to examine the importance of music theory to music technology students in every aspect, rather than a narrowly defined section of their current study.

A question surrounding case studies is the extent to which the findings can be generalised to other cases. This is a fair question to ask, and it is true that this study will not be applicable to all other FE music technology qualifications. I believe that the evidence gathered and findings presented can however be useful to other FE institutions specifically offering a Level 3 BTEC qualification, but would be less relevant in the case of other Level 3 qualifications.

Almost by default, given the methods selected, this research is qualitative in its nature. It will not seek to provide measurable ‘facts’, but instead focuses on “accounts of human experience” (Wallace 2013, p. 5). It is recognised that this type of research is highly subjective for a number of reasons; it is dependent on the participants’ opinions, and subsequently the researcher’s analysis of these opinions.

More specifically, the study could be considered to have a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology is primarily concerned with human experience, dealing with “people’s perceptions or meanings” and their “feelings and emotions” (Denscombe 2010, p. 94). This accurately describes the aim of this study. In phenomenological research “people’s everyday thinking is given credibility and respected in its own right as valid” (Denscombe 2010, p. 96). I hope that this is echoed in the findings of this research. Truth is not universal, and respondents’ answers will not be treated as ‘wrong’ because the researcher’s opinion differs from theirs; instead they will be acknowledged as a perspective and unless evidence suggests otherwise will be treated as ‘true’ to the respondent.

Interviews have been chosen as a medium to due the flexibility and depth they provide. In contract to questionnaires, responses given in an interview “can be developed and clarified” (Bell 2014, p. 178). I wished to have the opportunity to interact with what the respondent was saying, and hopefully develop and gain a better understanding of their experience through doing so. So that the flow of conversation was not impeded in the interviews, I decided to make audio recordings, rather than taking notes. A major concern was the manner in which interviews would affect the participants’ responses and the trustworthiness of these responses (Wallace 2013, p. 5). Perhaps respondents would feel able to be more open with a questionnaire, especially when given the shield of anonymity from the researcher. As I already know the bulk of the respondents from working with them, I was concerned that their answers may be affected by that existing relationship. Either they could be reluctant to answer certain questions for fear of offending, or they could simply say what they thought I wanted to hear. In retrospect, I believe that the range of answers given, coupled with the previously mentioned benefits of interviews justifies my choice in using the method. A final concern regarding the trustworthiness of the interviews is the wording of the questions. I have taken care to ensure that questions asked are not leading, do not put words in an interviewee’s mouth, or betray a personal opinion.

The selection of respondents was dependent purely on the number of volunteers from the Level 3 course in question. The upper limit of respondents was the number of people on the course, but not all opted to take part, giving me eight student respondents in total. If the number of respondents had been very low, I would have needed to consider alternative research. Fortunately, this was not the case. In addition, I advertised on social media for volunteer participants that had previous taken a Level 3 music technology qualification in Further Education, and eventually selected three to interview. The smaller number is due to the fact that these interviews are largely intended to be supplementary to the interviews with current students. Finally, I had already spoken to the Level 3 course leader about their willingness to participate in this research. They had responded enthusiastically, and as such, a final interview was arranged with them, to be given after the student interviews had been transcribed and analysed. These three distinct groups of interviewees were selected as a form of data triangulation known as informant triangulation (Denscombe 2010, p. 347). The validity of the information is supported by the use of different informants as sources of information. The validity of the data is also supported by the interviewees’ status as primary sources (Wallace 2013, p. 5).

Interview questions were pre-planned, and the initial interview was used as a pilot to check the quality of these questions and subsequent responses. However, the conversation was quite free flowing, and I was comfortable with asking new questions based upon respondents’ answers, or asking them to expand upon their answers. By some definitions, these could be considered semi-structured interviews. Denscombe suggests that, “semi-structured and unstructured interviews are really on a continuum” (2010, p. 175). Bell refers to these as “guided or focused” interviews (2014, p. 165), whereas in Sapsford and Jupp, they are simply referred to as “less-structured” interviews (2006, p. 95).

Ethics must always be at the forefront of any research methodology, especially when voluntary participants are involved. For this research, I ensured that the NTU Ethics Committee approved the methods, and that the methods complied with all BERA guidelines. BERA guidelines highlight four areas of responsibilities; chief of these is the responsibility “to participants” (BERA 2011, p. 5). The opportunity to engage in this research was presented to the students as a whole, with the intentions of the research made clear as well as what was expected of participants in order that they understand “the process” (BERA 2011, p. 5). Participants were informed that their involvement was entirely voluntary (BERA 2011, p. 5), and that they would have the right to withdraw from the research “for any or no reason, and at any time” (BERA 2011 p. 6). Finally, they were informed that the interviews would be used for publicly available research, but that the data would be anonymised before this happened.

When the interviews were conducted, participants were once again reminded of their full rights, and were asked for their permission to proceed with the interviews on tape. After these interviews were completed, all data was “kept securely” (BERA 2011, p. 8). As the information was digital, all documents were password protected, and not kept on any portable memory device.

In analysing the conducted interviews, both content and discourse were considered. The initial coding and analysis of the evidence eventually condensed into six key areas of enquiry. This narrowing of focus based upon the data collected is implied in the “exploratory character” or qualitative research (Sapsford and Jupp eds. 2006, p. 251). The final student interviews (Appendix A) contain annotations, correspondent to the six areas of enquiry. In addition, individual notes of interest are included. The six areas are as follows:

  • Previous musical experience
  • Understanding of music theory
  • Aspirations
  • Music genre
  • Musical understanding
  • Music creation

The interviews with former FE students and the course tutor were not analysed in the same way; instead they were explored for points that could be related to points made by the students.

Full transcripts of all interviews have been included to provide the opportunity for the reader to explore further, and also to guard against claims that quotations have been selected to fit a certain agenda.

Findings and Analysis

After analysis all of the interviews conducted, I believe that they have far more information and insight to offer than both the size and the scope of this study allow. Further interviews with the same students could also help to explore some of the below findings. In the interest of clarity, I have presented three key findings and justification for each.

  1. Students are passionate about creating music that they enjoy:

All students except one (Student H) explicitly put forward a desire to create music as a key, driving factor in their education. They want to be able to create music of a high quality, in the genres that they enjoy. Student C is a clear example of this. The length of their replies when discussing their own compositional ability makes the depth of their feeling on the subject apparent. They are unhappy with their compositional skills, and constantly compare their own music to their friends (Appendix A, Lines 275-282). Student A wants to create “music that you can dance to” (Appendix A, Line 64), and Student F sees their career in “producing beats, doing songs and tracks” (Appendix A, Line 570). To the students interviewed, music matters outside of their education, as well as inside. Student F expresses a particular level of perfectionism when concerning their music outside of education (Appendix A, Lines 570-573). Five of the eight interviewed students expressed a desire to pursue a career producing original material, and two of the remaining three have taken the course to gain recording skills to record their own material (see Appendix A, Lines 701-704 for an example).

A clear way of improving compositional skills is by gaining a better grasp on music theory, so provision of music theory could certainly aid students. Student C’s frustrations seem to mainly stem from the restrictions that their musical skill puts on their composition, rather than their technical skill (Appendix A, Lines 306-311).

In addition, students show clear interest towards the ‘art’ element of music technology discussed by Boehm (2007), rather than the ‘science’ element. Current students mentioned genres of music thirteen times. Nine of these mentions refer to genres of music exclusively created by electronic means, where the producer is often synonymous with the artist. It is clear from the students’ responses in both of these areas that they see music technology as a way to equip themselves with the skills to create this type of music, rather than a traditional music course, which perhaps would not deal with the creation of electronic based music.

  1. The difference of the level of music theory knowledge between students is vast:

There is a huge disparity between the starting musical knowledge of the students, and their level of music theory understanding. For example, Student E has no prior musical experience at all (Appendix A, Line 447), whilst Student G has a degree in music performance (Line 639). Interestingly, Student E has a more holistic view of music theory (Appendix A, Lines 455-456), whereas Student G sees it simply in terms of notation (Lines 647-648). Perhaps this difference in perspective stems from the fact that Student E has not been previously engaged with traditional music education. The range of musical knowledge is acknowledged by the students, and by the course tutor. Student B suggests that this disparity should be addressed early on (Appendix A, Lines 161-165), and Student D sees a clear line between students that are “traditionally musical” and those who are more “synth heavy” (Lines 380-384).

Both the former students and the course tutor viewed musical ability and theory as an important trait for music technology students to have, and tellingly, the course tutor felt that those who had the benefit of other musical training (instrumental lessons, GCSE music) were better equipped to go on to Higher Education that those that had solely been on the Level 3 music technology course (see Appendix B, Lines 90-97, 161-174, 346-352 and Appendix C, Lines 107-117). This is corroborated by Former Student B, who feels that they would not have been sufficiently prepared for their degree had their only music experience been a Level 3 music technology course (Appendix B, Lines 224-232). Music theory is therefore, a hugely diving factor among the class, and threatens equality of opportunities.

  1. Music theory is ill-defined in students’ minds, and this leads to disinterest:

Four of the eight current students understood the term ‘music theory’ to mean music notation, whereas the other half viewed it in a more holistic sense. For those that understood music theory to be specifically regarding sheet music or art music, the term held a negative connotation, and this is corroborated by the course tutor, who notes that students “detest” music notation (Appendix C, Lines 54-56). Those students with a more holistic understanding of music theory were subsequently more open to gaining a greater understanding of it, as they wished to increase their musical ability, whilst those with the narrower view were less enthused about learning music theory, but still wanted to improve their musical understanding, especially in regards to composition (see Appendix A, Lines 466-469 and 79-82). Student responses were different when music theory was discussed in terms of general musical and compositional ability, this indicates that given a refined definition of music theory, students would be supportive of its provision on their course.

If this research were to be repeated, one way to fix to confusion surrounding the term ‘music theory’, and to possibly better gauge students’ opinions on it, would be to explicitly define the term before the interviews begin. However, this could leave the research open to claims that it is biased, as the researcher would be putting concepts into the interviewees’ heads.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Given the passion for creating music present among the learners, I recommend that music technology teaching should be holistic in its provision, providing learners with the tools necessary to create music. In this way, we allow learners to achieve what they have enrolled on the course to achieve. Therefore, broadly speaking, music theory is exceptionally important to a music technology student that fits the profile of any of the students interviewed. More specifically however, some of the elements of music theory are exceptionally important, but others are of little to no importance (a point well made in Appendix B, Lines 371-376). This is largely consistent with the elements that a musician involved with popular music, rather than art music, may use. This is crucial to note, as the discourse currently surrounding music theory carries heavy connotations of the art music tradition. Perhaps a different term needs to be used to describe this music theory provision; the course tutor offers “music theory for computer musicians” (Appendix C, Line 79). Further research needs to be completed to provide accurate recommendations of the areas of music theory that are important to a music technology student.

Ultimately, students are able to pass a Level 3 BTEC in music technology without understanding music theory, and then move onto Higher Education (see Appendix C, Lines 107-116). The evidence for this is clear in all interviews. If our role as educators in the FE sector is to progress learners to HE, then we can achieve this without giving students the tools of music theory. If we take a more humanistic approach (Petty 2009, p. 459), and aim to enrich every aspect of a student’s musical life, and indeed their employment prospects, then we will not achieve this by keeping music theory out of the music technology classroom. At present, if students who already understand music theory enroll on a course that does not feature music theory teaching, they have a large advantage over those that do not already possess this knowledge (see Appendix C, Lines 97-105). With equality and diversity so high on the agenda in Further Education, we can afford equal opportunities to students by providing them with this knowledge (Wallace 2011, p. 44). In addition, by doing so, we create a common language between students, one that allows easier collaboration and peer-review.

On a local level, teachers can strive to embed music theory teaching in their lessons, much as they would with numeracy and literacy. Sequencing, for example, would be a good area in which to embed theory. This would not be simple however, given that teachers already have specific material that needs covering, and would require a concerted effort on the part of the teacher. On a personal level, this is something that I will be exploring, and attempting to implement in my own practice.

When an institution runs a course, they have the option of various modules that the course will consist of. Providers of Level 3 music technology courses should take care to select modules that will properly prepare their learners, both in terms of their technical ability and their musical ability. It may be that such options are not available through certain exam boards, a problem that the course tutor interviewed states explicitly (Appendix C, Lines 52-62). In these cases, institutions may wish to consider other exam boards, and exam boards should ensure that the units they offer serve the best interests of the students.

A final option would be to insist upon a certain level of music theory knowledge as a pre-requisite to entering Level 3 music technology qualifications. It could be possible to allow students to attend a short course pre-entry to allow them to gain these skills, but again, the main barrier to this would be funding and teaching time.

Further investigation needs to be done in order to decide the optimal method of including music theory in Level 3 music technology courses. This research demonstrates the importance of music theory when the views of learners are considered, but this view could be supported or contradicted by a quantitative study exploring the achievements of those who have and have not experienced music theory teaching.


Beard, D. & Gloag, K., 2005. Musicology: The Key Concepts. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Bell, J., 2014. Doing Your Research Project. 6th ed. Maidenhead, Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Education.

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