Sound Technology

In addition to mastering their instruments, Penn State School of Music students will now have the option to delve deeper into the technological aspects of music, like digital recording, editing, and distribution.

Music performance is full of age-old rituals: clamping new reeds into clarinets, running bars of resin along violin bows, and ensuring instruments stay in tune and in 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. 

A music professor works with a student in a recording studio.

Recording a Bass Track

Associate Professor of Music Paul Barsom sits at the controls in one of the School of Music's recording studios as a student plays the bass guitar. Music Technology is an option with the school's bachelor of arts in music program; other degrees offered include the bachelor of music, the bachelor of musical arts, and the bachelor of music education.

Image: Michelle Bixby

As the need for more tech-savvy musicians rises, the University will 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.” 

"Musicians can't avoid technology any longer—music is recorded, edited, and distributed digitally, and many students want to specialize in that."—Mark Ballora

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 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.

"Computers and technology have become essential tools for research and computer systems, and I see this dependence only growing in the future." —Elliot Kermit-Canfield

Kermit-Canfield says 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,” says Kermit-Canfield. “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 course 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. 

Man tracking and recording another man in a recording studio

In the Recording Studio

Bob Klotz, an IT consultant in the College of Arts and Architecture, records musician Kevin Lowe in one of Penn State's recording studios. The recording studio suite is a multi-use facility intended for training and audio production and is capable of the highest level of professional recording and sound design.

Image: Paul Barsom

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

“SuperCollider is code-based and great for sound synthesis, which is the process of creating sounds and compositions completely digitally,” says Ballora. 

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. 

"If you know recording, that's one more valuable tool in your belt. 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."—Mark Ballora

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,” says 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.” 

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,” he says. “I hope this new program will allow students to find a place in the middle.” 

About the Music Technology Degree Option

The music technology degree option will allow students to explore digital audio, sound design, audio recording, music software programming, and more; it will be available to students beginning in fall 2015.

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 .