Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 3

Table of Contents

Crowdsourcing with Spotify in the Music Classroom

Brian D. Hoffman, University of Central Florida

In order to better engage students beyond the classroom, music theory educators have increasingly utilized mobile devices such as iPods, cell phones, tablets, and laptops. In several published methods, students complete listening assignments on those devices. Often, this occurs through free software such as Audacity and Spotify (Brian Alegant, Stephen Gosden, Kathleen Kerstetter, Brian Moseley 2012 and 2014, Crystal Peebles, and Anna Stephan-Robinson). These assignments allow critical listening to take place through the same media that casual listening already occurs. Blurring the line between critical listening and casual listening reinforces the real-life relevance of skills learned in the music-theory classroom. Additionally, Bruce W. Quaglia has observed that the adoption of familiar technology makes the learning environment more accessible.

Despite their effective use of technology, the assignments suggested by these authors remain traditional in that the teacher chooses recordings and repertoire for the students. This aligns the assignments with the compact-disc-based assignments that they have replaced. In this essay, I propose an alternative method for using Spotify in which student crowdsourcing generates the musical examples used in the classroom. Before detailing this method, I examine the pedagogical benefits of student-based crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing in the Classroom

Simply stated, crowdsourcing refers to the act of gathering information or generating content by consulting a large group, most often through the internet. Wikipedia is a commonly cited example of crowdsourcing, since the public generates the content of this online encyclopedia. In “Crowdsourcing Content Creation in Education,” Thomas T. Hills cites two types of crowdsourced content in the classroom. Found content refers to the examples that students locate in their daily lives. Created content refers to the artifact(s) that students create from these examples.

Hills proposes that crowdsourcing can fundamentally affect the lasting impact of a course: “For education to persist beyond the boundaries of the classroom, students must develop an interactive dialogue with information they are learning in ways that concern them directly.” In one instance at the University of Warwick, Hills tasked psychology students with locating examples of specific psychological principles in their daily lives. This generated the found content. Then, students posted a summary of their findings on a public blog, which Hills would call created content.

For music students, the found-content aspect of crowdsourcing provides critical experience not present in assignments that use mobile technology to deliver teacher-chosen content. In more traditional assignments, teachers attempt to demonstrate the real-life applicability of classroom concepts by choosing repertoire relevant to students’ performing and listening interests. However, such assignments cannot fully replicate the particular benefits of crowdsourced examples. As Hills points out, “having students self-generate content from cues in familiar environments outside the classroom…means that these cues are more likely to be present and encountered when students leave the classroom.” Because it is essential that students utilize the concepts taught in music theory courses when they leave the classroom, participation in crowdsourcing can make a meaningful contribution to a music student’s education.

Spotify’s Collaborative Playlist and Crowdsourcing

In a blog post from 2012, Moseley writes that the online music database and streaming application Spotify enables him to create a playlist of lesson-specific repertoire and share it with his students. Students can then access this playlist on a cell phone, tablet, or laptop. In my core undergraduate music theory courses, I create a blank Spotify playlist that is visible to all students. Each student can add tracks from the vast Spotify database to this playlist through the “collaborative playlist” feature. Roughly five times per semester, I have students search for musical examples that represent a particular in-class topic such as triple meter, period, or modulation. So that students seek examples in “familiar environments outside the classroom,” I encourage the inclusion of all musical styles. Students are assessed on both completion of the assignment and accurate representation of the topic. A student can receive partial credit even if the example does not accurately match the given criteria. Examples that do not accurately represent the topic still provide value; they help identify important gaps between in-class understanding and real-world application.

Once the students’ found examples populate the course playlist, I incorporate them into subsequent lessons, instilling a sense of authenticity. Without needing to make the point explicitly, students learn that concepts taught in class do not exclusively apply to hand-picked or textbook examples. For this reason, I remove any stylistic restrictions on the assignments. Such an element of teacher control could sully the authenticity of the results in the students’ minds.

Additionally, the encouragement of alternative styles provides a way for those styles to enter the classroom conversation organically. Often, due to a necessary focus on the common-practice period in core music theory courses, examples in other styles either become novelties tacked on to the end of a lesson (MacLachlan) or get remanded to independent portions of the course (Clendenning and Marvin). Through crowdsourcing, teachers have the opportunity to meaningfully address stylistic differences and similarities between an alternative style and the common practice period. This also ensures that the class time spent on alternative styles is focused on music that is of interest to the students.

The following two examples represent assignments I have used in my core theory classes at Butler University. In one assignment during an introductory unit on rhythm and meter, I asked my students to find music that was not in 4/4 and add it to the Spotify playlist. The resulting selections came from a variety of “familiar environments” in which students regularly encounter music. Examples included a selection from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, which was being performed by Butler’s orchestra at the time, underscoring from the video game Mass Effect 2, and recordings from Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, and Stephen Sondheim. The results reinforced the theory that crowdsourcing causes students to listen critically to music found in their daily lives. Equipped with student examples, I continued a standard lesson on compound meters and identifying meter through listening (begun before the assignment).

Although most student examples satisfied the basic requirements of the assignment, some did not. For instance, the student-chosen examples of Stan Getz’s “Só Danҫo Samba” and The Rippingtons’ “Curves Ahead” are both in 4/4. However, rhythmic patterns in the drums and guitar in “Só Danҫo Samba” and syncopations in the comping pattern of “Curves Ahead” obscured the meter for those students. These false examples led to an in-class discussion about the distinction between rhythm and meter. They also allowed a style-specific discussion of clave rhythm, musical texture, and performance practices in jazz. Using examples that had already caused student confusion instilled a sense of immediate relevance and spontaneity into a standard topic.

My second example demonstrates how the Spotify assignment works with a more advanced topic, such as modulation. After introducing common-chord modulation in a core music theory class, I asked students to add an example to the Spotify playlist that contains a modulation of any type. Some of the repertoire that students chose from the common-practice era simply functioned as additional homework or in-class examples for analysis. However, in one class the student-created playlist included the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” These examples enabled me to highlight the aesthetic contrast of smooth Classical-era modulations with expressively abrupt pop-music modulations. Through this contrast, students began to think about the compositional role of a pivot chord beyond harmonic function. Once again, the use of crowdsourced examples enabled me to address an essential concept and make it feel like an impromptu discussion.

Other Benefits of Crowdsourcing in the Classroom

Besides serving as a source of in-class repertoire, the Spotify playlist provides a venue for student interaction and an opportunity for teachers to discover new examples and learn about changing student interests.

For students, the shared playlist provides a low-stakes form of musical communication. With all styles equally viable, students enjoy the opportunity to share their individual musical tastes, pieces they are performing, or favorite songs of that week. In my first semester using this type of assignment, I learned that students were so anxious to share music that I needed to limit the number of examples they could add to the playlist each time. Additionally, this type of communication benefits kinesthetic or experiential learners in particular; it creates an opportunity for them to demonstrate their comprehension through non-verbal or written means (Quaglia).

For the teacher, these Spotify assignments have many of the benefits commonly associated with crowdsourcing. Each assignment generates as many potential examples as there are students in the class with a minimal amount of extra prep time for the teacher. In fact, some of these student-chosen examples may become teacher-chosen examples in future iterations of the class. Along with this, crowdsourced music examples produce an accurate picture of students’ evolving musical interests. I often assume that students primarily listen to pop and hip hop. As a result, I turn to those genres for examples that students might encounter in their daily lives. Through crowdsourcing, I have gained a more complete perspective on the breadth of styles that students find relevant, such as video game music or big-band swing.

In this essay, I have introduced a method for using Spotify to crowdsource musical examples through its collaborative playlist feature. Students benefit from both the task of locating the found content and the use of crowdsourced (and therefore immediately relevant) examples in class. Teachers reap many of the traditional benefits of crowdsourcing, such as remaining aware of current trends and gaining a limitless source of new examples with minimal extra work. Ultimately, this use of Spotify allows teachers to administer traditional content in a manner that feels spontaneous and organic, engages students, and reinforces the relevance of the material.