Three’s company for music technology

In the city of bridges, Carnegie Mellon is a welcome member, fostering connections between numerous colleges and disciplines. The music technology program, a fusion of courses from the College of Fine Arts, the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and the School of Computer Science, is a new and much-anticipated addition to the university’s repertoire.

“There’s something in music technology for everyone,” said Derrick Walker, a junior in electrical and computer engineering. “It really can fit every type of person.” The field requires knowledge of different kinds of music and how it can be applied in various settings. For example, a technician could use music technology to design equipment for a concert to best benefit both the performers and the audience, taking into account that a concert venue is very different from a smaller area such as a studio.

Planning a program

“When I came in July of 2007, one of the things I thought was sorely missing at Carnegie Mellon University was a music technology program,” said Noel Zahler, head of the School of Music. Zahler was instrumental in establishing the new program, following several unsuccessful attempts in the university’s past. “I think it has to do with a matter of communication,” Zahler said, explaining why the program is only now coming to fruition.

“The creation of the program actually goes back many, many years,” said Riccardo Schulz, a professor for the School of Music’s Sound Mastering and Editing and Sound Recording classes. “Back in our first attempt, we had so many student demands,” he added. Administrators first started talking about music technology in the late ’90s, Schulz explained, although such a program was largely impossible until the creation of the CFA recording studio in 2001. After that, it was a matter of consulting with the relevant faculty and staff, including Schulz. “It’s taken a while to get all the players on board,” he said.

These players consisted of faculty from the music technology program’s three potential colleges; in addition to Zahler and Schulz from the School of Music, significant program planners included Roger Dannenberg from SCS and Thomas Sullivan and Richard Stern from electrical and computer engineering in CIT. After nailing down the program requirements, Zahler and others had to seek approval from faculty and administrative boards in all three colleges.

In addition to communication, Zahler’s fresh impression of Carnegie Mellon, combined with his great interest in developing a music technology program, were also key factors. “[Zahler is] the big difference between now and the previous attempts,” said Stefan Sullivan, a senior in music composition and ECE, who has watched the program develop from its planning stages during his time at Carnegie Mellon. Sullivan sometimes talks to Class of 2005 alumni who can remember hearing administrators talking about the program when they were undergraduates, and he is excited to see it materialize before his graduation.

Interdepartmental collaboration

The music technology program will feature courses from all three colleges, forming a curriculum unique to Carnegie Mellon. Zahler said he could not think of another university with “this kind of interdisciplinary degree program,” noting that curricula at other colleges often focus heavily on technology, neglecting courses in music theory and history. Music technology was already offered as a minor in the School of Music, but the new program will expand it into a major with roots in all three departments. “The requirements are equally divided among music, electrical engineering, and computer science,” he said. “It will be a small program with exceptionally rigorous course content.”

In its first year, the music technology program will admit four undergraduate students and eight master’s students; the program’s initial first-years will be in the Class of 2013, though some current Carnegie Mellon students will be able to apply to transfer starting in the fall.

“If I do have the option, I would definitely, definitely want to do it,” said Gemma Easterling, a junior in ECE. “There are a lot of students that are following the path currently.” Easterling considers herself one of these students, having fulfilled many of the forthcoming major’s requirements by taking classes that interest her. Along with courses, Easterline has worked with Schulz and pursued internships so as to explore potential careers in music technology, from production to owning her own record label.

Students in the master’s program will conduct research along with their studies, which could draw from a wide variety of undergraduate educations. “[Master’s students] could actually come from almost anywhere,” Zahler said, provided they are adequately prepared. Indeed, although much of the music technology program will benefit the current Carnegie Mellon community, it should also attract prospective students. “[When exploring reasons for the program], the overwhelming answer was that it will bring us students that are not coming here right now,” Zahler said.

Applicants to the music technology program will each be interviewed, and will have to be accepted into the School of Music and either SCS or CIT. Administrators made the decision to house the program primarily in CFA, Zahler said, so that the students can be around performing musicians.

A changing field

The music technology program will prepare its graduates for careers in both music and technology, which Zahler explained are becoming increasingly intertwined, from the way artists create music to the way they distribute it. “Technology has changed the face of music drastically over the past 25 years,” he said. “It’s ideal if this technology is created by people who know about both music and technology.”

Sullivan agreed, adding that a graduate of the program would succeed in a variety of careers, from recording and editing to hardware design. “It’s sort of a wider range,” he said.

“I know with all the new tools they have, it’s just becoming a more popular field now,” Walker said. “As far as future careers go, you could start your own music technology business or engineering business.”

Yet, Zahler sees music as only one of the program’s evolving fields of study. “I think computer science is changing,” he added, noting a rising interest in interdisciplinary study, as many computer science majors become excited about applying their knowledge to other areas. “I think sometimes we forget that technology is a tool,” he said. “These students [in SCS] really want to be involved in making things.”

A welcome addition

For the thousands of Carnegie Mellon students outside music technology, the program may still be of use, as it comes with a selection of new a la carte classes for students in all colleges and majors, Schulz explained. On a larger scale, the program reflects some of the unique opportunities the campus affords.

Though almost a decade in the making, Schulz believes the music technology program to be “such a given for a place like Carnegie Mellon” in light of the university’s widespread academic options and history of interdisciplinary programs. “We have opportunity here — especially on this campus,” he said. “Someone at Juilliard can’t suddenly decide to start taking a course in computer science.”

But aside from the environment at Carnegie Mellon, the need for interdisciplinary majors like the music technology program says something about the modern student. For example, Schulz does most of his teaching in the CFA recording studio, though this doesn’t stop him from interacting with students from all of Carnegie Mellon’s colleges, many of whom tend to drift over to the School of Music. “You can count on it every year,” he said. “It’s definitely a thing of passion.” Modern students are raised as individuals, Schulz commented, and they find the classes that interest them, regardless of intended majors.

And the impulse doesn’t go away after commencement; Schulz said he often hears from graduates with careers in science and technology wondering how to add music to their lives. “I probably get one or two e-mails every couple of months,” he said, adding that he usually replies to these with contacts for musicians he knows in the area, so that the graduates can continue to follow their passions.

On campus, the music technology program will draw upon various disciplines from the university, from music, computer science, and engineering to other useful fields like history and physics. “With music technology, you can combine a lot of those things,” Walker said. “It’s definitely a great fit for Carnegie Mellon.”