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Commissioning music for television: enhancing authentic student learning through a cross-disciplinary industry simulation exercise

Abstract:    This case study describes and evaluates a collaborative, cross-disciplinary pedagogic assessment between staff and students on BA (Hons) Television and BA (Hons) Popular Music awards at the Cardiff School of Creative & Cultural Industries, University of Glamorgan. It entails consideration of how in a newly constituted, multidisciplinary faculty of creative and cultural industries, pedagogic learning, teaching and assessment methods may be developed so as to enhance the authentic learning of diverse students. This exercise was based on an industry ‘commissioning’ model aimed at giving students a taste of the industry as currently constituted. TV and musical aesthetics, analysis, production techniques, pitching and commissioning, and evaluation value sharing were all examined. Assessments differed, reflecting the different experience of and demands on the two student cohorts. The project is ongoing and under constant review.

Author information:  Dr Ruth McElroy is Award Leader of BA (Hons) Media Communication and BA (Hons) Television, and Principal Lecturer in Communication, Cultural & Media Studies in the Division of Media, Culture and Journalism at the University of Glamorgan.

Rob Smith is Award Leader and Senior Lecturer in Popular Music, based in the Division of Music and Sound at the University of Glamorgan.

Date: September 2009

Download PDF: Commissioning music for television: enhancing authentic student learning through a cross-disciplinary industry simulation exercise


Context

In October 2007, the University of Glamorgan opened the Atrium, a city centre building housing the Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries. The faculty aims to bring like-minded individuals from a broad range of subject areas together so as to share expertise across the disciplines.

This project emerged from conversations between core staff on BA Popular Music and BA Television, which initially lead to guest lectures on a first year, yearlong module, Contemporary Popular Television. This is a core module for BA Television students and an option for many others across the faculty. The BA Television is a 50/50 theory/production course.

The first term of this module focuses upon the aesthetics of television responding in part to recent arguments within television studies (Geraghty 2003; Jacobs 2001) that more attention needs to be paid to informed, evaluative judgements of TV programmes. In delivering this material, the limits of television students’ understanding of how music operates in British TV became increasingly apparent. Few students possessed the aesthetic vocabulary to talk confidently about music in the context of television in a critical fashion (on the problem of music and judgement see Hesmondhalgh 2007). This was in striking contrast with their quite confident use of critical terms in analysing visual material. The relative lack of scholarly attention to music in the TV Studies literature compounds the difficulty of teaching this part of the curriculum. Joint sessions delivered on the module (totalling 6 hours contact time) proved valuable in developing students’ confidence in such aesthetic analysis.  However, we wanted to go further both to deepen TV students’ industrial as well as aesthetic understanding of music in the production process. We also saw this as an opportunity to enhance the authentic learning experience of popular music students studying music composition on a module called Compositional Processes. This module addresses the technological and theoretical state of play in contemporary composition (focussing primarily on commercial and popular music composition) and we wished to provide students with more real-life commissioning experience because this would reflect an industrial model commissioning process as opposed to a more abstract, academic assessment addressing music theory issues. We also felt that both groups of students would gain from acquaintance with each other’s creative and thinking processes.

Rationale

This interdisciplinary collaborative activity sought to enhance the learning experience of two groups of students by enabling them to:

  • gain team work skills by collaborating across disciplinary and theory/practice divides
  • work to a creative brief and a deadline and to negotiate constraints arising out of this
  • embed their theoretical learning in an industry-based simulation of a commissioning process
  • thereby increase their suitability for employment and increase their grasp of the factors affecting the commissioning process such as time, technical and creative constraints.

Whilst the project was structured and took place within the confines of the classroom in the broadest sense (i.e. no actual commission in the ‘real’ world was taking place), we were motivated to offer students a form of authentic learning. Whilst the notion and usage of ‘authentic learning’ as a concept is diverse, Rule (2006) posits 4 key aspects in its application. These are described as follows: ‘activity involves real-world problems that mimic the work of professionals in the discipline with presentation of findings to audiences beyond the classroom; 2) open-ended inquiry, thinking skills, and metacognition are addressed; 3) students engage in discourse and social learning in a community of learners; and 4) students are empowered through choice to direct their own learning in relevant project work.’ Though we did not establish audiences beyond the classroom, in effect the two student groups from different disciplines (television and popular music) were empowered to play the role of the other professional actors in such a commissioning process.

Whilst the learning and teaching of students was central, the activity was geared towards helping the lecturers involved to improve their teaching delivery through:

  • enabling cross-disciplinary collaboration across areas of expertise (television and music) that were under-developed in the existing modules
  • offering the space for critical self-reflection upon cross-disciplinary pedagogy within a new faculty
  • enabling staff development in terms of future projects on sound and music in contemporary British TV.

 

Description of activity

This activity consisted of inviting television students to create a commission for music composition students by asking them to pitch their ideas for the theme tune to an imagined, but as yet unmade piece of high quality television. The decision not to use existing TV footage was taken so as to avoid students reproducing existing music and to better reflect the fact that music is often composed without visuals to hand in the first instance. TV students were encouraged therefore to be as specific and descriptive as possible about their ideas and vision (even their visualisation) of the imagined series. Popular Music students were encouraged to be attentive to the nuances of their descriptions. Both sets of students were to be encouraged to learn each other’s language and reference points, with a view to developing a shared language and set of reference points.

Both TV and Popular Music students were separately placed in small groups of approximately four students in the two relevant modules. The television students were provided with sample commissions from the BBC Wales website. Subsequently they were briefed to produce a commission outline adhering roughly to the following structure: 

  • specify the programme genre,
  • describe the intended style, tone and feel of the programme (necessitating the discussion of aesthetic factors)
  • identify the anticipated target audience,
  • and state the specific brief. This may specify instrumentation, rhythm, music genre etc. and may include both positive and negative requests.

TV students constructed these commissioning briefs in the form of PowerPoint presentations and uploaded them to Blackboard in the Autumn Term, Week 6, thereby gaining some basic technological skills and making the material available before reading week to all relevant tutors, to other TV students groups on the module, and to the music students whom we enrolled on the module Blackboard page.

The music composition students then volunteered for their preferred projects (absentees were allocated) and went away to create the title sequence music in response to the commissions. Pieces were either fully recorded (where the human resources were small and therefore realisable such as in the case of rockband or computer generated performances) or, simulated by creating MIDI mock-ups of the final pieces (especially in the cases of orchestral or large-band compositions).

In the penultimate week of term (Week 11), both student cohorts were brought together in class (approx 45 students in total) for the pitch presentation and evaluation of the commissions. In turn, each TV group of commissioners reminded their peer audience of their commission brief, using their PowerPoint slides. Popular Music students then pitched to the commissioners, detailing what they had taken from the brief, how they had sought to interpret it, and reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the finished piece of music which they then played to the whole group. Finally, each TV commissioning group had to provide feedback on each composition and select the one to be commissioned.

For TV students, who were in their first year, this exercise was a formative assessment designed not only to develop their attention to musical detail in contemporary TV, but also to enhance teamwork and confidence in presenting to larger groups. For Popular Music students, who were more confident and established as second years, the final composition was a summative assessment. These composition students responded on the whole very enthusiastically to the assignment and the number of students failing to deliver at and attend the week 11 play through session was negligible. The ‘liveness’ of the commissioning process earned highly positive feedback from the Popular Music second year students, many listing it as their favourite, and most pressured and terrifying, assessment to date. Despite all the pressure involved, composition students found the stylistic and aesthetic territory under scrutiny to be interesting, recognisable and familiar.

Evaluation

Good

  • Students enjoyed the exercise and found its structure enabling. Many said it was fun and both tutors and students felt it endowed their work with a sense of occasion. Some asked to do more such work saying it was especially valuable in helping them apply their skills in practice.
  • The exercise succeeded  in making students work closely in groups and across cohorts who had very different approaches and who would not normally mix. In other words, it stretched both intellectual and social boundaries.
  • The seminar tutor on Contemporary Popular TV reflected that it was very worthwhile and should be developed as a good example of innovative teaching in the faculty
  • A modest but discernible improvement in the attention paid by TV students to music in the subsequent summative in-class screen test (though causality would be hard to prove absolutely).

 Bad/To learn from

  • Some TV students did not stay with it and do it all which is likely to be tied up with it not being a summative assessment
  • The fact that lectures on ‘Music in contemporary TV’ came after the creation of the commission was commented on negatively by TV students who would have welcomed having at least one of them in advance to help ground them in the theory
  • The clash of cultures of the two student groups. The popular music students responded to the pressure of presenting their individual work in front of students from another cohort by behaving with defensive bravado. The need further to develop students’ professional approach to presentation alongside a professional approach to the composition of the music itself is something to be addressed, and even assessed, in future.
  • A ‘good’ problem was the desire of one or two actually to go on and make the music and visuals i.e. the abrupt conclusion is artificial in an otherwise fairly authentic learning experience
  • Resources: the exercise proved to be very time-consuming for staff, especially in the set-up and monitoring of the exercise. Also, the relative lack of academic writing on TV music is both a gap in current scholarship and a potential opportunity for the future.
  • Some of the programme ideas presented by television students were based on existing series, even though we had instructed students that their ideas should be original.  Once this happened, composition students felt constrained by knowing that the programme they were writing for already existed. Writing for a potential programme is in many ways easier than writing for an existing show where the danger is that students tried to replace or imitate a well-known piece of music.

References

Geraghty, C. (2003) ‘Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 6 (1), 25-45

Jacobs, J. (2001) ‘Issues of judgement and value in television studies’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 4 (4), 427-447

Hesmondalgh, D. (2007) ‘Audiences and Everyday Aesthetics: Talking about good and bad music’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (4), 5-7-527

Rule, A.C. (2006) ‘The Components of Authentic Learning’, Journal of Authentic Learning 3 (1), 1-10.

 

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