A new degree option will allow students to specialize in music technology

Katie Jacobs
December 05, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As students in Penn State’s School of Music prepare for end-of-semester concerts and recitals, they’ll engage in the same rituals as musicians hundreds of years before them. They’ll clamp new reeds in their clarinets, run bars of resin along their violin bows and make sure all instruments are in tune and tip-top shape. 

These traditions will never go away, but alongside music’s traditional world of pristine instruments, bright spotlights and hushed recitals is a newer, digital one — the world of music technology.

As the need for more tech-savvy musicians rises, the University has decided to implement a new music technology degree option within the Penn State School of Music’s bachelor of arts degree. The option will require students to complete courses in such technologies as desktop music production and recording studio maintenance as well as more general education courses in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“With the new degree option, it’s the same bachelor of arts degree, just with a technology focus,” said Mark Ballora, associate professor in the School of Music. “Musicians can’t avoid technology any longer — music is recorded, edited and distributed digitally, and many students want to specialize in that.”

One such student is Elliot Kermit-Canfield, who graduated from Penn State in spring 2013 with a bachelor of arts degree in integrative arts with a focus in music technology and a master of arts in music theory. He’s now finishing a master of arts in music, science and technology at Stanford University.

While the music technology degree option wasn’t yet available when he was at Penn State, Kermit-Canfield spent much of his time exploring his interest in the field and was also Ballora’s teaching assistant in his digital audio class.

Kermit-Canfield said his interest in the intersection of music and technology stems from just how much people depend on sound on a daily basis.

“From the emotional engagement with music to the fight-or-flight response to a loud sound, auditory cues shape our daily behaviors,” Kermit-Canfield said. “Computers and technology have become essential tools for research and consumer systems, and I see this dependence only growing in the future.”

The new degree option will take some of the courses students have been taking as electives — such as the computer programming for musicians class — and make them requirements. Although programming might not leap to mind when thinking about a music degree, the course is invaluable to those interested in composing music with technology.

The course teaches students to use such programs as Max/MSP and SuperCollider, both specifically designed for musicians.

“SuperCollider is my personal favorite, although Max/MSP is good as well,” said Ballora. “SuperCollider is code-based and great for sound synthesis, which is the process of creating sounds and compositions completely digitally.”

Sound synthesis is just one of the topics students can explore in the School of Music. They can also study digital audio or editing, among others. But Ballora pointed out that although the new degree option will have a strong focus on technology, it’s still a music degree at heart. 

Students interested in the option will still have to audition with an instrument and take the same core music classes. That way, after graduation, music technology students will have the flexibility of going on to either traditional music careers or newer, tech-focused ones.

“Students can continue pursuing their instrument of choice, or they can go into a field like music production and recording. If you know recording, that’s one more valuable tool in your belt,” said Ballora. “But arts students can go on to do so many things. That’s the great thing about an arts degree — it teaches you the critical thinking skills to be flexible.”

The music technology degree option will be available to students beginning in fall 2015. Until then, students interested in the field will be able to take the technology-focused courses as electives. 

As a student invested in the field of music technology, Kermit-Canfield believes the new option will be popular among incoming students.

“Penn State has strong programs in music, engineering and computer science, and I know several students (myself included) who struggled with the decision of whether to major in music or science,” said Kermit-Canfield. “I hope this new program will allow students to find a place in the middle.”

For more information, visit http://music.psu.edu/ug-handbook-2014-2015/ba-music-music-technology-option-recommended-course-sequence or contact Ballora at meb26@psu.edu.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

  • Man tracking and recording another man in a recording studio

    Bob Klotz recording Kevin Lowe in one of Penn State's recording studios.

    IMAGE: Paul Barsom
  • Microphones and equipment in a Penn State recording studio

    A recording studio used by Ballora and some of his students.

    IMAGE: Paul Barsom
  • Elliot Kermit-Canfield at the Penn State Lion Shrine

    Kermit-Canfield posing with the Penn State Nittany Lion Shrine.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Elliot Kermit-Canfield
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Last Updated December 08, 2014