Bach and Instructional Design

Every year thousands of music majors graduate from universities around the world. The path to a music degree is a surprisingly difficult road for many. The academic study of music is merciless, annually exposing hundreds of blond-haired, blue-eyed, Andrew Lloyd Webber-loving sopranos to the mathematics of music theory. This introduction is a rather rude awakening for the young girls who just last summer laid in beds with their Les Mis CDs and dreamed of majoring in karaoke. In many ways, university music departments each fall semester are much like exercise clubs in early January. It was always somewhat entertaining to watch the newcomers pop energetically through the door each morning, knowing that in just a few weeks’ time most of them would have stopped coming altogether. Five romps per week through melodic dictation and perfect fifths at 7:00 am are just more than most would-be musicians bargained for.

The study of music theory has much to offer instructional technology by way of analogy.

The thousands of students around the world who pass their freshman and sophomore music theory courses each year have learned to write / arrange music according to rules (perhaps unknowingly) laid down by the great J.S. Bach. It is amazing to think that, every year, there are a few thousand or so people in the world who possess the skills necessary to arrange chorales, write two-part inventions, and otherwise work productively for their congregational choirs, just as Bach did. Amidst this amazement, however, the astute observer will be led to ask herself, “if every year there are another thousand people who have mastered the rules followed by Bach, why hasn’t there been another Bach?” If people can learn and master all the rules Bach followed, then why don’t they rise to the same level of musical mastery? The answer, of course, is that there is almost infinitely more to writing good music than avoiding parallel fourths and using contrary motion.

I always have to laugh to myself when I see books with titles like “How To Write A Hit Song” on the shelves at Borders. Yes, there are rules you can learn that will get you closer to being a Bach or a Gershwin or even a Norah Jones. But there is more to being a great songwriter than just following the sorts of rules that can be captured in a book.

Where do the melodies come from? Where do the lyrics come from? Composing music is probably best described as a cycle of inspiration and working through its (inspiration’s) consequences. A little inspiration along the lines of a melody can be extended into a full line. A little inspiration along the lines of an accompaniment can be developed into a full orchestration. In reality, this cycle of being inspired and working out the results of that inspiration occurs at both the highest and the lowest levels of work.

It is technically possible to write a song solely on the principle of working things out, but the results sound… uninspired.

Much of the instruction we encounter throughout our lives is like this last kind of music. Uninspired. Uninspiring. Even though the rules of the ADDIE process were followed to a T, and the brightest fourteen year olds did the development in the same garage where the Apple II was first assembled, the results are dull. Major blah. Simply awful.

You know the way you feel about the mass-produced garbage on the radio that all sounds exactly the same? That’s the way people feel about much of our instruction.

The big question for you and I is: what can we do about it? Where in our instructional design and technology programs do we cover things like “don’t create instruction that makes someone want to put their head through a wall” or “don’t be the New Kids on the Block of instructional design?” I’m not talking about applying the ARCS model to make sure that we have established relevance with the learner… I’m not talking about another set of recipes in the instructional design cookbook where Rachel Ray shows us how to create great instruction for 6 to 8 people in 30 minutes or less. I’m talking about taking time for genuine, deeply personal inspiration on the part of the designer.

Maybe a course titled “Caring about the craft in a world of deadline-meeting crank-turners” is in order? Let me get out my ADDIE handbook here and get to work on designing it…

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  • Tina Hagin Newton

    What an inspired way of describing the mix of art and science in instructional design! If you’re of a mind to add to this post, you could insert in some Bach and do some point-by-point comparisons of musical concepts to ID ones. Thanks for sharing!

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