We all start somewhere. It starts with a camera we got for Christmas, a piece of software that came with our laptop, or for many, including myself, guitar lessons. Whatever the medium, there is an in point that starts us down a creative path in media. The way we learn to work with that first medium can profoundly influence how we approach working with all media. Formative influences are, well, formative.
Most of us, as fledgling creators, dug our claws into the first medium that stuck, and we dug deeply. People made careers out of being graphic designers, photographers, animators, special effects designers, cinematographers, audio engineers (tracking and mixing), mastering engineers, film composer, sound designers, foley artists, audio effects designers, etc. Eventually, most branched out and learned new techniques and new instruments (in the case of music), and new ways to go about creating. But reputations were, until recently, built on the initial specialization.
Today we find media design and production are growing increasingly less specialized. Now, people commonly wear many hats. Visual designers find themselves dabbling in the audio domain and vice versa all the time. This marks a fairly substantial change in the production process. It is happening quickly, and it is leading to some very exciting creative and professional opportunities.
Having somewhat of a sonic bias myself, one aspect of this transformation I find particularly interesting is that more and more musicians and sound designers are moving into interaction design. Why interaction design has been so visually biased for so long is beyond me. However, as of late, I regularly notice students coming out of sound engineer programs or sound design programs intent on finding jobs in interaction and game design. The road is still a bit rocky for them, but that too is changing.
What does this mean for the visually dominated world of media design? What does it mean to be a designer, game designer, interaction designer, or media artist with a background in music? I asked the Department of Music and Media Production at the Royal College of Music (KMH) in Stockholm, Sweden what they thought and how they go about training young musicians to be tomorrow’s media designers.
The Royal College of Music’s Department of Music and Media Production was founded in the mid-1990s, at first only offering short courses in topics such as basic recording techniques, PA-systems, and MIDI. In 2001, the Music and Media Production (Musik- och Medieproduktion) program was introduced. Every year 10 to 12 students are admitted into the three-year bachelor’s degree program, which now offers classes in music production, songwriting, film scoring, sound design, Web design, video, and interactive media, among others. The department also offers a two-year master level program in music design. That curriculum includes subjects such as advanced music production, composition and orchestration, media and communication studies, music psychology, music production theory, entrepreneurship, and project management. The graduate students also perform several music production projects in collaboration with external companies, artists, and other colleges.
Recently, I posed some of my questions about music and interaction design to Department Head Bo Westman and Assistant Professor Johnny Wingstedt.
Nyssim Lefford (NL): This program combines sound design and music production with multi-media production and Web production. All of these fields could be considered outside the scope of a traditional music education, some much more than others. Why did you develop this program? Did it grow out of KMH or was KMH just the right place for this course?
Johnny Wingstedt (JW): We could detect a need for this sort of program. It was clear that there were plenty of talented young musicians out there who combined their music production projects with other creative activities in Sweden. They might be songwriters who, besides composing and arranging, also wrote lyrics, did sound engineering, recording, mixing, programming synths, and then designed and produced their own promotion materials and Web pages. They would often also be involved in composing for film, advertising, or computer games. Some were even into producing their own videos or doing interaction design. Still, typically they saw themselves above all as musicians; that’s where they positioned their identity.
Bo Westman (BW): However, most of these musicians would not consider applying for studies at the Royal College of Music. They might not associate studies in a conservatory setting with the kind of music they were interested in producing. Or, sometimes they might hesitate, being intimidated by what they saw as the school’s traditional and tough entrance exams. We were, however, getting signals that many of them would be quite interested in less traditional studies at the conservatory level. So, we simply decided to offer a program specifically designed for these multitalented musicians.
JW: At the Royal College of Music we already had a department for (as it was called then) “Music and Media Technology.” It offered various classes for students who had already been accepted to other departments. At the time, Music and Media Technology could not award its own degrees. The classes included, for example, basic recording techniques, PA-systems, music notation software, MIDI, sequencing, and video and hard disk recording. We also offered some elective courses in film scoring, jingle writing, and music for games. All the teaching staff had backgrounds as music producers, film music composers, song writers etc—so we already had much of the skills and knowledge required for creating the kind of program we had in mind. We tried to build a program that we would have wanted to attend when we were younger. In 2001 we could admit the first class of students.
NL: What were some of the obstacles you faced developing these courses at a music conservatory?
BW: When we started the program in 2001, the Department of Music and Media Technology had already been in existence for 6-7 years. In the mid-‘90s we initially had to deal with some skepticism from other departments. Maybe they felt challenged. In particular, they feared that the competition from new technologies would put traditional musicians out of work.
NL: In the ‘90s!? That seems like such a DX-7 era attitude. Were they concerned that new technology allowed musicians to get by without playing an instrument or without formal knowledge of music theory?
JW: You have to bear in mind that KMH was basically a traditional European music conservatory. The Department of Music and Media Production represented something “unknown” in that environment. A few years earlier, I think our (then new) Departments of Jazz and Folk Music were initially met with similar responses. After a few years, however, most of these attitudes changed. Most of the staff in our department originally had traditional musical training and backgrounds, which in the conservatory setting contributed credibility to what we were doing. Also, over time, I think most of our colleagues came to realize that it was not a question of competition, but that we could all mutually benefit from respecting and sharing each other’s respective competences. By the time we started the new program, we had developed excellent relations with all the other departments of the school. It was a very smooth transition.
NL: How about competition or pressure from the Royal College of Art or more visual oriented media design programs? Was that a non-issue? Or did you step around it? How?
JW: We’ve never thought of the other art programs as “competition,” rather we want to see them as interesting potential collaborators. We hope to expand our contacts with the other art schools, as we approach similar areas from different perspectives. KMH is now offering a master’s in film scoring, jointly with the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts. It would be great to do more joint projects like that.
We have found it useful though to try and define what makes our program different from other related options—not only within visual arts, but also compared to more traditional programs in composition or EAM. The way we see it, our approach is leaning more toward “applied arts,” rather than “fine arts.” That is, our students typically work with projects where function is as important as aesthetics. [Wingstedt’s emphasis] “Function” here could be for example narrative functions (as in film and games), adaptive functions (as in game music), or multimodal functions (how music and sound interact with other modes of expression). Here, design aspects of the creative work are central. For example, good film music has to fill the function of actively participating in telling a story, at the same time as it should be just great music. As the other art schools here are generally more geared towards fine arts, the competitive aspects are not that pronounced.
NL: How does the musical foundation of the institution shape your curriculum? Many people who study interaction design never think of sound let alone music. In what ways is your program different from a visual design/interaction design program?
JW: From the start it has been clear that the focus of the program should be on music. We put music in the center. This gives us a distinct profile, compared to other programs of media production. Even though our program includes strong elements of technology, media production, graphic design, video, and Web design, we never lose sight of where music and sound is in all this. Most of our teachers, even in traditionally “non-musical” subjects, have a strong musical background—so we are able to relate what we are doing to a musical context.
BW: We are also able to benefit from including courses from the other departments of the school (classical, jazz, music theory, composition, etc.) in our curriculum. So our program offers courses in subjects such as music theory, ear training, arranging, composition, ensemble, conducting, music history, and so on.
Our campus also offers great opportunities for our students to meet and interact with students from other departments within the school. It is always possible to find good musicians in a variety of genres, including classical music, jazz, and world music. This makes it possible for our students to explore, write, and produce music for different styles. We make a point of not confining our program to any specific musical genre.
NL: What are your thoughts on the future of sonic media? Is sound growing in importance? What makes you say that?
JW: It definitely looks (or sounds!) like the impact of sonic media now is growing and expanding in contemporary media society. We can see that especially in interactive media, such as the Web and games. As technology is getting more mobile, this trend is rapidly increasing. This includes all aspects of composing, producing, promoting, distributing, listening, and interacting. After years of innovation focused on perfecting visual media, attention is now turning toward music and sound. New audio technologies are popping up. Many sound-based games, such as “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band,” have great success. Several of our alumni are now finding interesting work with sound and music for games and the Web. Some of them are even into developing their own engines for interactive music, which are being put to commercial use. As the scene for both music and interactive media is booming now, here in Sweden at least, some very exciting stuff is happening.
BW: Another venue is the quickly expanding market for music and sound-based apps for mobile applications. As our students have a strong foundation in music, as well as in technology and other media, they are able to come up with some very innovative and useful applications, at the same time as they can produce great music and sound for them. I think what we are seeing now is just the tip of an iceberg. The expanding number of books and articles on subjects related to this field is also a sign of how the market for sound and music is expanding.
NL: How will working as a media designer change in the next 10 years? 20 years? What does tomorrow’s media designer need to know?
JW: I think the key to working successfully in the emerging business is to acknowledge the need to be versatile. Learning specific techniques and skills is always a good thing, but more important is the ability to recognize and be open to how the scene is rapidly changing—to be able to find new creative possibilities, both technically and artistically, as conditions change and to welcome new challenges.
BW: Our program can be seen as being quite eclectic. The purpose is not that our students necessarily should be experts at all aspects of music and media production. It is also really important as a creative artist to develop your own “voice.” This makes it hard to be a Jack of all trades—and master of none... Our goal, rather, is that the students should develop tools for collaboration with others, as well as, for their own craft and art. It is important that they develop knowledge of complex production situations, an understanding of the nature and demands of the different disciplines involved. To understand and appreciate the work of your collaborators, and understanding your own place and role in a collaborative process. At the same time, of course, to find pleasure and confidence in your own abilities and expertise.
JW: How the work situation will look like in 10 or 20 years is impossible to predict. The only thing we can know for sure is that things will change. We believe that music and sound will have an exciting part in that change. Tomorrow’s sound, music and media producers will need to be able to creatively handle that change, whatever it looks (or sounds) like!
Examples of the students’ work are posted online.
Bo Westman is the head of the Department of Music and Media Production and teaches courses in piano and music production. He has extensive experience as a studio musician, arranger and producer and has appeared on numerous record, television and theater productions, such as “Chess” and “Mamma Mia.”
Johnny Wingstedt is an assistant professor at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. He teaches film scoring and music production at the Department of Music and Media Production. He has composed for film, television, and theatre in Sweden, Japan, the U.S., and China. Wingstedt earned his degree in film scoring from Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 2008 he received his Ph.D. from Luleå University of Technology. His research interests include functions of, and knowledge about, narrative music in multimedia.