Course name*[1]

Techniques and Tools for the Critique of Digital Music

Course code

Music UN3341


Eamonn Bell

Course meetings

Fall 2018, MW 10:10a-11:25a (1 hour, 15 minutes)

Office hours

Tuesday, by appointment (self-schedule)

Course description*

This course introduces students to topics in the production and reception of music since the introduction of digital computers, including: the history of digital speech synthesis, the importance of format to the study of digital media, file-sharing and music copyright, collaboration in twentieth-century music performance, the role of online communities and commercial algorithms in the emergence of new musical genres, the use of music in video games (“ludomusicology”), the challenges of designing improvising musical “agents” that use artificial intelligence, and the virtues and pitfalls of techno-optimism about music in the twenty-first century.

Each weekly regular class meeting is paired with a practicum, in which students will learn how to use a number of research software packages to: visualize and compare audio recordings, analyze social networks of musicians and music consumers, extract meaning from text corpora originating in online music communities, emulate old and obsolete hardware using a modern desktop computer, and access useful—but not always easy-to-access—online data sources using server-side web APIs.

PREREQUISITES: HUMA 1123 UN (“Music Humanities”)

Course objectives *

After successfully completing the assigned reading, weekly responses, and the final research project, students will:

  • have been introduced to a variety of topics in the study of digital music media
  • recognize recurring themes in the treatment of these topics, including, but not limited to: the relationship between society and technology, the historiography of technological progress, genre, community, identity, algorithmic critique, and circulation.
  • be able to identify, locate, and effectively cite relevant contemporary research in music studies, media studies, and other adjacent disciplines
  • be able to effectively evaluate this body of research through the practice of academic writing
  • understand the diversity of research methodologies and technical resources that are available to researchers in order to build compelling and new arguments based on the study of digital media

After successfully completing the weekly practica, students will:

  • understand the basics of digital-to-analog conversion, compression, and common digital audio formats and be able to use Sonic Visualiser, a freely-available software audio toolkit used widely by musicologists, to annotate, compare, and analyse music files
  • understand the following basic concepts of graph theory: nodes, edges, directed and undirected graphs, centrality, cliques; be able to use Gephi, a free and open-source graph analysis tool, to create and analyze diagrams of social networks derived from file-sharing and music performing datasets
  • understand the scope and limitations of the computer-assisted analysis of textual corpora and be able to use text-mining tools (such as Voyant Tools and AntConc) to tokenize and perform word counts, remove stopwords, determine the relative frequency of document terms, and reveal clusters of related documents in a corpus of online posts about music
  • understand the concept of and necessity of hardware emulation to the historical study of audio software and computer games and be able to use emulators and screen capture software effectively in the study of obsolete audiovisual software and video game soundtracks
  • be able to use server-side web APIs that conform to programming best practices (REST) in order to query, search, filter and update track and playlist metadata from an online streaming audio provider


HUMA 1123 UN (“Music Humanities”). Basic computer literacy (e.g. can download and install software from the web and effectively use graphical user interfaces) is expected; no previous programming experience is required. Students will require access to a laptop during class meetings in order to complete the practicum sessions.

Materials for the course*


Please download and install the following software in advance of the first class meeting:

  • Sonic Visualizer (
  • Gephi (
  • AntConc (
  • Voyant Tools (
  • Postman for Google Chrome (

If you intend to take this course, and you are having trouble installing the required software, please email me as soon as possible.

Required texts

All assigned readings be posted on Courseworks in advance of the lectures in which they are due, if an online copy is not freely available. It is ultimately the responsibility of the student to source assigned readings in good time for the relevant class meeting.

Grading criteria*

Final grade breakdown


Please note that the final research project is a significant element of the grade for this class. Students are advised to discuss the topic of their research papers with me as soon as possible, and will be expected to take advantage of office hours to provide regular updates on the present state of their research.

The weight afforded to the final project reflects the emphasis of this course on the production of original work using the techniques and tools introduced during the course.

[15%] Mid-point project proposal (three components)


  • 2-3 pages, double-spaced, 12-point serif outline of hypothesis/thesis
  • select bibliography
  • research timeline

[30%] Research paper


Strictly: 2,500-3,000 words of content; hard min. and max. (approx. 10-15 pages assuming 250 words per page), double-spaced, 12-point serif paper.  

Footnotes, figures, diagrams, and tables do not count towards the page limit/word count, nor do code examples or excessively lengthy citations e.g. from your dataset.

Please ensure that your papers are adequately cited in accordance with a style manual of your choice. MLA or Chicago are good places to start. I will take a very dim view of incomplete/missing citations; this is less a matter of pickiness and more a matter of academic honesty (see the language below).

[5%] Lightning presentation derived from research 

~ 5 minute presentations at end of semester


[20%] Weekly reading responses

150-200 words posted to course blog midnight before a regular class meeting (i.e. non-practicum session)

[30%] Weekly practicum sessions

For each practicum session, you will be expected to submit a single .zip file containing all your work. Please create a folder for each session, and a folder for each exercise within that folder. Each exercise will specify precisely which files you will have to submit to be considered for full credit for that practicum. These files will be submitted via Courseworks, under the Assignments page.

You should be able to finish the assigned tasks during the scheduled practicum time. If you are finished early, feel free to leave the lab—or stick around and help your peers, if you are interested in learning how to be an effective peer leader. If you do not finish in time, you have until 11:59 p.m. on the day of the practicum session to submit the completed work. You may not take advantage of this extension if you do not attend the entire lab: i.e. attendance at the lab session is compulsory.

Assignments and activities

A full schedule, including listening, viewing, and reading assignments will be available online.

Please check the course blog linked from Courseworks for more details and a link to the latest version of the schedule. This course will comprise of roughly equivalent numbers of weekly regular class meetings and practicum sessions

Assigned reading for a regular class meeting must be completed comfortably in advance of the class meeting: short, weekly responses to this reading should be posted to the course blog 24 hours before the start of the class in which they are assigned, to give students the opportunity to read their peers’ responses before class. The class meeting will feature the presentation of some new material and the opportunity to discuss the assigned readings.

Preparation for practicum sessions will usually involve assigned reading from the documentation of the software we will use during the session. Students will have to complete a number of tasks during the practicum and submit proof-of-work online before the end of the lesson to receive full credit for the session. The instructor’s role during the practicum is to help all students complete each task in good time. Late submission of proof-of-work is permitted until 24 hours after the practicum, but the student will not receive full credit for such a submission.

Class meets M/W during Fall 2018 (except 9/3 [Labor Day], 11/5 [Academic holiday])

Daily overview

Date Topic Content
M 9/3 [No lecture, Labor day]
W 9/5 Course overview/Toward the digital Readings (Sterne)
M 9/10 Vocal synthesis: Voder to Vocaloid Readings (Bell, Mills, Tompkins)
W 9/12

Practicum: Pre-flight checks, Sonic Visualiser I

Introducing SV, spectrograms, and speech synthesis

M 9/17 Digital audio formats Readings (Sterne, Kittler)
W 9/19

Practicum: Sonic Visualiser II

Using SV to annotate, match, and compare recordings

M 9/24 File-sharing and copyright Readings (Katz)
W 9/26

Practicum: Network analysis I

Basics of graph theory with Gephi; Formatting graphs for publication

M 10/1 Collaborative music-making Readings (Rose, Glowinsky, Topirceanu)
W 10/3

Practicum: Network analysis II

Analyzing communities in social networks with Gephi

M 10/8 YouTube and the music video Readings (Vernallis, Harper, Schaefer and Kessler)
W 10/10

Practicum: Text analysis I

Principles of text analysis with AntConc

M 10/15 Online music and sound communities Readings (Born/Haworth, Andersen)
W 10/17

Practicum: Text analysis II

Clustering related texts with Voyant Tools

M 10/22 Music in video games No class meeting (see Announcement)
W 10/24 Readings (Cheng, Summers)
M 10/29 Interactive music visualizations Readings (Collins, Darley, Moseley)
W 10/31

Practicum: Emulation

Emulating the SNES

M 11/5 [No class meeting, academic holiday]
W 11/7 Practicum: Breaking CD-ROMS (Class meets at CMC, Prentis Hall)
M 11/12 Music recommendation algorithms I: Content-based genre recognition Readings (Sturm, Askin/Mauskapf, Drott)
W 11/14

Practicum: Web APIs I

Introduction to HTTP; REST principles

M 11/19 Artificial musical agents Readings (Berkowitz, Lewis, Weizenbaum)
W 11/21 [No class meeting, Thanksgiving]
M 11/26 Music recommendation algorithms II: Collaborative filtering Readings (Levy/Bosteels, Bell et al.)
W 11/28

Practicum: Web APIs II

Using authenticated API endpoints

M 12/3 [Presentations and colloquy] Presentations (Lightning talk format, with group discussion to conclude)
W 12/5 Presentations contd.
M 12/10 Techno-optimism (techno-pessimism) and music TBD

Class and University policies (*)

Academic Integrity

(Adapted from Faculty Statement on Academic Integrity,, retrieved 3 January 2018)

The intellectual venture in which we are all engaged requires of faculty and students alike the highest level of personal and academic integrity. As members of an academic community, each one of us bears the responsibility to participate in scholarly discourse and research in a manner characterized by intellectual honesty and scholarly integrity.

Scholarship, by its very nature, is an iterative process, with ideas and insights building one upon the other. Collaborative scholarship requires the study of other scholars’ work, the free discussion of such work, and the explicit acknowledgement of those ideas in any work that inform our own. This exchange of ideas relies upon a mutual trust that sources, opinions, facts, and insights will be properly noted and carefully credited.

In practical terms, this means that, as students, you must:

  • be responsible for the full citations of others’ ideas in all of your research papers and projects
  • be scrupulously honest when taking your examinations;
  • always submit your own work and not that of another student, scholar, or internet agent.

Any breach of this intellectual responsibility is a breach of faith with the rest of our academic community. It undermines our shared intellectual culture, and it cannot be tolerated. Students failing to meet these responsibilities should anticipate being asked to leave Columbia. For more information, see

Assessment policies

All assignments must be turned in at the start of the class on the day in which they are due, unless otherwise indicated.

Late assignments will only be accepted on the next scheduled class meeting following the original due date of the assignment, and a penalty will be applied when calculating the grade for that assignment (see below). After that date, the score for that assignment will be set to 0%.

The value of the final grade for a late assignment will reduced by one fifth (20%). If it is impossible to complete the assignment on time for religious reasons, athletics, or personal/family emergency, please let me know as soon as possible, to make alternative arrangements.

Attendance policy

Attendance at scheduled class meetings and practica is a requirement of this course, and will be recorded regularly at the start of class meetings.

Excusable absences are strictly limited to: (1) absence for religious reasons; (2) absence to facilitate participation in athletics; (3) absence on account of personal illness; (4) absence on account of personal/family emergency.

Advance notification is required in order for your absence to be excused in the case of (2) only; it is appreciated in all other cases. Of course, I understand this is not always possible. Please contact me as soon as possible to be excused from class. Suitable written evidence (e.g. physician’s letter) may be required in some cases. You may consult my records of your attendance at any time.

Classroom etiquette

Food and drink is not permitted in Music Department classrooms.

You may use your laptop or tablet to take notes and refer to readings, at my discretion. Generally, you may not use electronic devices for any other reason. The use of cell phones and/or instant  (i.e. iMessage, Android Messages for the Web, WhatsApp Web etc.) is unnecessary, distracting, and inconsiderate. It is, unsurprisingly, forbidden.

If you require the use of assistive technology you must give me a heads up before or immediately after the class meeting in which you intend to use it.

The regular class meetings will be seminar-style; expect to be held accountable for your reading of the assigned texts. That said, be conscious of the judicious allocation of time to multiple viewpoints and voices during class discussions.

Disability-related academic accommodations

(Adapted from Faculty FAQs,, retrieved 15 January 2018)

In order to receive disability-related academic accommodations, students must first be registered with Disability Services (DS). More information on the DS registration process is available online at Faculty must be notified of registered students’ accommodations before exam or other accommodations will be provided. Students who have, or think they may have, a disability are invited to contact Disability Services for a confidential discussion at (212) 854-2388 (Voice/TTY) or by email at

Students, instructors, and Disability Services (DS) all have rights and responsibilities in the process of ensuring that students receive the reasonable accommodations necessary for their full participation in their academic program. For more information, see

Academic Support Services*

The Writing Center at Columbia is a valuable resource for developing your academic writing style, and more information may be found online at:

Columbia University Libraries boasts several locations and scores of knowledgeable subject librarians, who can help you locate resources relevant to your interests and your final research project.

[1] Asterisks (*) indicate elements of the syllabus required by the GSAS Teaching Scholars application process.