How Georgia Tech marries music and technology
Georgia Institute of Technology, otherwise known as Georgia Tech, is one of the world's best technical institutions. With their School of Music, they also took a STEM-based route, offering all of their degrees, from Bachelor's Degree to PhD, in music technology.
Photo of Jason Freeman, provided by Jason Freeman
According to Jason Freeman, the School of Music Professor and Chair, the degrees are officially STEM-designated from the U.S. Department of Education. Because of the university's unique approach, the curriculum of their students varies a lot from those of other music schools. "Although we develop musicianship skills, our students are not training to become performers, composers, or producers", Jason explains. "We focus on training them to be creators and designers, scientists and engineers who make music technologies, whether that be a breakthrough algorithm for analyzing sound or a design for a new musical interface."

For undergraduate study, the admission process is mostly handled by Georgia Tech, therefore the candidates are expected to have a strong academic background, having tackled the most challenging courses available to them, and be a well-rounded individual who is constantly engaged in one's community. One of the requirements for music technology applicants is the Supplemental Application, which shows your background and experience as a musician. The portfolio is usually sent with a few audio or video examples of a candidate's work. "We are open to a very broad range of ways that a student can demonstrate their musicianship", Jason mentions. "It can be playing a traditional instrument, composing, arranging, producing, performing on a laptop, or playing instruments across any range of cultures." Another major factor is understanding why the applicant wants to do the degree.

With graduate study, the School of Music handles all admissions by itself. "We want to see a combination of musical and technical aptitude", Jason says. "The most compelling candidates are the ones who are both strong musicians and have some background in STEM." Both can be demonstrated in very non-traditional ways, as long as you show some kind of evidence of your interest and experience in combining music and technology together.
"While cultivating musical growth, we are really cultivating this interdisciplinary work at the intersection of music and STEM", the professor states. Being one of the best technical universities in the world, the institution gives a lot of opportunities. "All of the students take courses not only in music, but in other fields too", he continues. "They engage in interdisciplinary research in one of our research labs and work on collaborative projects that combine artistic approaches with scientific ideas."

There is a set of courses that cover musicianship from a number of perspectives, offered along with technological tools on the undergraduate level. "Sequencing, audio production", Jason recounts. "Theory of audio and technology, core classes in music production, audio synthesis, and a course in musical perception and cognition." Moreover, there is elective coursework, and more research that leads up to capstone experience in the final year of study. On top of music technology, students either have a minor or a concentration in a related field. "It is commonly mechanical engineering (a concentration in acoustics or in controls and robotics), electrical engineering (a concentration in signal processing), or computer science."

The graduate study takes two years, and during that period students take core courses with foundational skills, including signal processing, history of music technology, and psychology of music. At the same time, graduates have four semesters of supervised research that culminates in a Master's project or a thesis that they do in their second year. "We encourage our students to publish papers and present them", Jason elaborates, describing their fund which supports travel to conferences if a student's paper gets accepted.

Because it is a technical university, a lot of emphasis is placed on practice, which is why students are always busy building or creating something. "It is always a question of what they can do with the knowledge they learn", Jason tells me. This idea is imprinted in all of their classes, too. For instance, in their undergraduate laptop orchestra, their primary goal is to combine theory and practice. Taking the repertoire that wasn't originally written for laptop orchestra, students do sound design using virtual modular analog system, practicing and learning how things work. They then connect it back to the theory by writing short essays about the concept behind what they created.

To keep up with the changing industry, the university keeps close contact with it. "We have visiting speakers and recruiters from leading companies who talk about what they do and students can see what one can do to be prepared", the professor elucidates. "We have [had speakers from] Dolby, Bose, Syng, Turner, and Ultimate Guitar." While talking about their experience, visitors also learn about what Georgia Tech does and they give feedback, which offers a chance to adapt and continue to evolve the curriculum.

"We don't know what the future is going to bring", Jason reminds me. "The specific skills you learn today are not going to be relevant anymore by the time you're retiring." Instead, the professors focus on teaching students the fundamentals — the ability to manage projects from conception to design, then implementation, and finally evaluation; to assess what's out there and define something different and unique from it; to be able to talk to people and understand what they really mean; to create things that are responsive to a need that actually exists, and to acquire the skills needed to work across disciplines. "It is these core skills and ideas that give agility, and they tend to evolve much more slowly than specific technology", he concludes.

This year, Georgia Tech has seen a palpable increase in the amount of applicants. "The number of candidates has gone up dramatically from last year", Jason gives a rough estimate. And it is not surprising — music technology is a growing field and has gained quite some popularity among people, with more and more universities offering programs in it. "The demand continues to grow at a faster rate than the supply of programs", he believes. "I honestly think that we offer one of the best music technology programs in the world, which is why a lot of people are gravitating towards us." Although their undergraduate program is relatively new (it is only four years old), it has already shown to be one of the strongest, raising and guiding the next Elon Musks of music technology.
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