The Promise And Possibilities Of Music, Digital Media And A National Broadband Network

By Steve Dillon.

In this article I would like to examine the promise and possibilities of music, digital media and a National Broadband Network. I will do this based on concepts that have emerged from studies undertaken by Professor Andrew Brown and technologies that I categories as either representational technologies visual or technologies with agency
(Brown and Dillon, In Press-a).

Digital Representation

Generally, music technologies have always been about representational forms. Music notational systems are the most ubiquitous form of how music is represented. Sometimes representations are embedded in instrument design and include pitch relationships defined by guitar frets and keyboard layouts for example. These representation tools have impacted significantly on musical cultures and evolved musical uses and changed and effected advances in the technologies of representation such as the printing press. The impact of electronic and digital technologies on music over the last century has been significant. We have been able to represent sound in audio recording formats and visualisations and on oscilloscope displaying waveforms on computer screens. These technologies have transformed our ability to externalise, reflect, analyse, manipulate and distribute music.

Through digital technologies, these representational technologies have enabled new ways of encoding and decoding information; Provided new forms of storage and transmission in formats that allow transformation and abstraction and interoperability between forms and formats. In digital space, the representation of sound and vision is the same (digits) and, therefore, we can see sound and hear visuals or cross them over in a profound forms of digital synaesthesia. Most prominent is the access and flexibility that comes from their programmability and access to simplified systems for programming.

The effects of the National Broadband Network (NBN) on these things are reasonably obvious and come from speed and access to a wider range of content and ways of searching and synthesising content rapidly. Representational technologies are primarily about how what we already do now, can be enhanced.

Examples of this can be found in the interview with Kirsten Allstaff from the Online Academy of Irish Music ( where traditional Irish Music is taught via Youtube video clips and via video-conference links via Skype VoIP. The speed of access and parity of upload and download allows this music education organisation to teach traditional Irish culture throughout Ireland, the USA and Europe across similar time zones as well as widening the access to a global audience.

As reported in the previous article in this magazine (Education Technology Solutions Issue #40) with Dr Don Devito from Sidney Lanier School in Gainesville Florida, this requires an approach to learning and teaching that considers what aspects of knowledge can be transmitted through non-real-time devices such as PDF’s pre-made videos and sheet music/tablature, and what can be taught through a live video link. The educational advantages of this are becoming clearer. Firstly, the multi modal nature of the materials caters to a range of learning styles and secondly, the flexible use of time caters for the need for repetition and the need for real time interaction. In Dr Devito’s case, speech pathologists work with special education students to learn song lyrics during regular classes and then live interaction occurs with real musicians who participate over skype from their own location in a global community. Don’s guest teachers come from: Argentina, New York, Ohio, Africa, Ireland, China and Australia with a live interaction with a school for the visual impaired in Pakistan. In all cases a teacher has recognised the affordances of the technology of Skype and Youtube, as Don Devito says, ‘at a cost of only $30 for the webcam’, and developed rich teaching methods that have profound effects on the student’s progress. As a testament to the developmental educational aspects of this system and approach to teaching, Don Devito’s students performed with their music friends from around the world at Carnegie hall in 2010.

Possibilities in Australia

Australia is a country with a rich history of distance learning provided to remote regional locations. The NBN provides extended opportunities to activate and connect music education experiences as described above for young people, differently abled people and the aged community. Of consideration, however, is the aspect of parity of upload and download speeds as musician educator and home studio business owner Barnaby Gold suggests:

“Faster broadband would enhance the file transfer to clients. As its stands, my computer, i.e. my entire studio, is held up for several hours, whether I’m uploading locally or internationally. Productivity is frequently limited. The NBN would be a great asset to my workflow.”

In education, the issue of time in lessons and access to content is as important as it is in business and the timely access to content is of paramount concern. Steve Paix, music educator and composer from String Theory, a music production house, adds that:

“Our main use of the internet is for sharing sessions for mixing, mastering and transfer of video materials (often very large files) which need an accompanying soundtrack.”

Fast broadband with parity of upload and download would make Australian businesses competitive as producers rather than just consumers. This is the case for the production of Australian educational content production so that we are not dependent upon overseas content that may not suit our country and regional needs.

Further possibilities for music making in the region are outlined by Dr Robert Davidson Bass, player and artistic director of Topology, a ‘post classical’ Australia chamber group. Dr Bass articulated in an interview with me how the NBN might enhance their practices through the ability to transfer musical content via the internet and interact with collaborations with composers and performers in other parts of Australia and currently with collaborations in Indonesia and India. Skype allows rehearsals and musical conversations as well as the capacity to send and receive music sound files and notations rapidly. With the cost and environmental concerns associated with International travel escalating, this provides a low budget environmentally friendly alternative. Topology have always been an innovative ensemble and their use of social networks and web 2.0 applications have seen them utilise Youtube and Facebook effectively. However, they would like to move into live webcasts of performances that an NBN would enable with relative ease which would increase access to important Australian cultural materials both in Australian regional centres and internationally.

What Happens When Technology Has Agency?

In a prior article in this magazine (Education Technology Solutions issue #42) I asked this question about what happens when technology itself has agency? What we mean by this is perhaps served best by a common metaphor. In today’s jet air flight, the technology flies the plane- the fine complex adjustments are not left to the pilot, they are automated. The technology senses weather conditions and synthesises a response, it adapts to conditions and interacts with other technologies at the destination as well as up to the moment conditions. So what does the pilot do? The pilot can make the kinds of decisions in real time that the technology cannot. What happens is the pilot is in a partnership with the technology and together the plane is flown. These kinds of technologies are becoming prominent in education. Math programs and psychological tests examine conceptual knowledge and psychological capacities in assessment. Emerging cloud based programs like QWIKI ( can assemble and read a presentation for us in real-time that accesses web based audiovisual data like Wikipedia and Youtube. These kinds of partnerships are reasonably clear in psychological and mathematics testing but what do teachers need to do to manage these kinds of learning context where the technology moves from being a passive tool to being an active partner where we wonder about the ethics of the transaction and the authenticity of the experience.

When Technology Moves From Tool To Partner

What we are suggesting here is a shift in the relationship from musicians as users of a passive tool to musicians as creative partners with technology, as is possible when we use generative music systems. According to Prof Andrew Brown, this involves devolving responsibility for delegation of learning, the generation of and simulation of experiences and for modes of communication (Brown and Dillon In press-a-b). They require an approach to learning and teaching that is more clearly constructivist (Papert, 1980,1994) in its approach and creates contexts where the technology can be interpreted and constructed to provide experiences where the teacher takes on a more consultative and relational role. We need to ask what are the relational pedagogies that a teacher needs in these contexts? Our own work with jam2jam (Burnard et al, 2009) ( which is a generative music technology (Galanter, 2003) as reported in (Educational Technology Solutions issue 42) describes the context where technology with agency scaffolds the musical quality of each instrumental performance as well as supporting a competent interaction in an ensemble performance. This supporting and enabling role of the technology provides a unique learning experience for young people with a disability and any non-musician that provides an opportunity for expressive interaction that conventional musical instruments do not and also records all interaction and provides feedback on what is being learned and how the participants engage with learning ( In these kinds of technological partnerships, it is the judgment about how musicians and teachers interact effectively with these systems that constitutes a kind of musicianship. We define eBility (Brown & Dillon, in Press-a) as ‘the capacity to successfully manage musical interactions with computational agents.’

The NBN has the capacity to extend what we are able to do and the quality and currency of information we access in learning contexts. There is no doubt representational technologies will be extended and enhanced by this new infrastructure. As technologies increasingly acquire agency and mobility, the opportunities for immersion in serious games and simulations for learning also increase (Ruthmann & Dillon, in press). ‘In a musical partnership between person and generative music software, there is a sharing of responsibility for the musical result and this requires some understanding and skill with the collaboration this implies ‘(Brown & Dillon in press-a). I suggest what is needed is for educators is to re-examine the constructivist values presented to us by pragmatist such as Dewey (1989), Papert (199) and Bruner (1973) and examine what our relationship is with both the student and the technology so we do not limit these opportunities through teaching practice or policy. The simple affordances of these technologies are that they provide engaging environments for learning framed by clearly focused and managed technologies for accurate feedback. Our task is to construct meaningful partnerships that take advantage of these rather than limit their uptake.


This presentation owes its development to the work done in preparing a submission to the Inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network Submission to the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications. pdf/Advocacy2011/mcaAD11NBN%2 submission%20feb25.pdf

The article is also based on a presentation given by the author to the Music Council of Australia and the submission avaliable

Thanks also to the interviewees: Kirsten Allstaff, OAIM Limerick Ireland, Dr Don Devito Gainesville Florida, Steve Paix String Theory, Melbourne, Barnaby Gold, Melbourne, Australia, Dr Robert Davidson, Topology University of Queensland Brisbane Australia and Prof Andrew Brown, Griffith University, Brisbane Australia.



Brown, Andrew, and Steve C Dillon. (In Press.-a ),eBILITY: from tool use to partnerships. Journal of Music Technology and Education.

Brown, A. R., and Dillon, S. (in press-b, ‘Collaborative Digital Media Performance with Generative Music Systems.’ In Oxford Handbook of Music Education, edited by G. Macpherson and G. Welch. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bruner, Jerome, S. 1973. Beyond the Information Given. New York: . Norton.

Burnard, P., Baxter A., and Dillon, T. (2010), ‘Collaborative learning and exploratory playing with Jam2Jam’ Research Report 09-10, Cambridge Jamming Project. In Network Jamming Project. Cambridge, UK University of Cambridge.

Dewey, John. 1989. Art as Experience. (1st Ed.1934), 1980. ed. U.S.A.: Perigree Books.

Galanter, P. (2003), ‘What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory.’ Paper read at the 6th Generative Art Conference. Milan, Italy.

Papert, Seymour. 1980. Mindstorms, Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. USA: Basic Books Inc.

1994. The Childrens Machine: rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Ruthmann, S. A., and Dillon, S. (in press), ‘Technology in the Lives and Schools of Adolescents.’ In Oxford Handbook of Music Education, edited by Macpherson, G. and Welch, G. New York: Oxford University Press


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