I once again find myself in a world where writing about the things I write about seems completely futile. By the time this gets published things may die down, but as of right now protests, riots, and rebellions rage on throughout the world in response to the senseless murder of George Floyd and so many other Black people in this country. That work is infinitely more important than anything I can say here. So, first and foremost, go help the cause. And only come back if you’ve read everything else.
Despite the ongoing existential crisis, I’m still going to write a few words. They may not be helpful now, but a world exists on the other side of the pandemic and White Supremacy. So maybe this can be useful or meaningful then. If you want to learn about what’s happening now, listen to Black voices. Anything I will say to that will be, at best, a mediocre paraphrasing of their wisdom and I’ll inevitably miss the point in small and large ways.
Although I have no right to talk about what’s happening in the world right now, I can talk about noise and how it might provide a means towards the same empowerment those far superior thinkers talk about. With that in mind, here is why music educators should stop teaching kids to play recorders and start teaching kids how to build contact mics.
I think at this point, I’ve established that this column is going to be about noise and jokes. If the title didn’t give that away, the last four articles should have. What I haven’t talked a lot about is my other passion/area of expertise: education. I’ve been an educator for the entirety of my adult life, teaching in a wide range of contexts (formal spaces like high school math classes, informal spaces like DIY venues, etc.).
I think the world can become a better place through teaching and learning. Not the way we have been doing it. That makes it worse. But education could possibly make the world better if we figure this whole teaching thing out.
I also research the stuff. I try to figure out what people learn when they make things and also how they learn to make that stuff in the first place. And I do that because I believe people learn infinitely more about the world around them and themselves when they make things on their own. The “on their own” part is key here. You don’t make something on your own if you follow someone else’s directions. You make something on your own when you mess around with a pile of stuff until you make the thing you wanted to make.
The folks in the Agency by Design project have a term for what you learn about yourself and the world when you do this: maker empowerment. According to them, you develop “a sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking.” Ignoring the douchey tech bro undertones of words like hacking for a second (not to mention the massive issues with maker culture in general), this sentiment is powerful stuff. By making stuff and figuring things out on your own, you not only better understand how the objects you interact with on a regular basis were designed, but the systems (like, oh I don’t know, policing) that surround you. And the more kids understand that, the better.
Now let’s put that into a musical context. Music itself is a designed system. 99% of the instruments musicians play were designed to be played in a specific way. Not only that, but instrument builders constantly improve on those designs to reinforce exactly how they should be played. Frets on a guitar are a good example. On an instrument like a violin, you can hit an infinite number of frequencies between notes. But on a guitar, frets have been designed specifically to force you to play certain notes. Pretty fascist, imo.
Even more than that, notes themselves are a designed technology (in the broadest sense of the word here) that forces a certain interaction with music. According to Jean Bamberger, music notation (the music staff and the dots that represent notes and stuff) “succeeds in implicitly selecting for attention, and implicitly bounding by naming, particular elements and relations while ignoring others.” In other words, the way we write music by design forces us to interact with and understand music in a specific way.
Music, understood in these terms, acts as a system (or maybe a part of a bigger system) that predetermines how we interact with sound, art, and each other. But if making things can help kids understand and challenge that system (and others), then let’s figure out how to make stuff inside of music.
I want to suggest here that we need to go beyond just making music to get to the promises of making I listed above. Sure, writing and performing your own music can help you understand the designed dimensions of music-as-technology, but I want more than that. I want to challenge that system and others.
My proposal: we should teach kids how to build contact mics. They are a pretty simple piece of technology, incredibly cheap (parts will probably come out to less then a dollar), and easy to make (the only technical skill you need is soldering). Here’s a video on how to do it:
The technology behind contact mics is pretty simple: the metal disc (also known as a piezo) picks up vibrations in solid objects and turns it into an electrical signal. Plug it into an amp and it makes the sounds louder, plug it into a recording device and you can record that object without picking up any other sounds in that space. It can also do the reverse and turn an electrical signal into a vibration that makes sound. If you crack open a pair of cheap headphones or a fire alarm, you will find piezos in there and you can turn them into contact mics. Which makes the whole thing even cheaper.
In fact, I recommend breaking open stuff and re-purposing piezos when teaching kids to build these things. They might not be the highest quality contact mic, but it teaches you to assert your own agency over other people’s ideas of how you should interact with the world. And that’s far more valuable.
But building the contact mic isn’t the important part. That’s just following a set of directions. What is important is that fact that contact mics change how you interact with the world. Just like skateboarding makes you view the entire world as a skate park, contact mics make you view the entire world as an instrument. Every single object in the entire world makes sound if you whack it hard enough. To be fair, some objects make more interesting sounds than others, but a contact mic gives you permission to figure out which ones are the good ones.
This is where the important work starts. With a contact mic in hand, students can suddenly record and amplify the sounds of the world around them as they transform everyday objects into instruments. Which can turn into a new relationship with those other instruments that have been designed to be played a specific way (a guitar is supposed to be played one way, but you can find infinitely more interesting ways to get that object to make noise). Which then turns into a new relationship with music itself (music is supposed to be made of 12 notes, but a whole world of sounds challenges music based on that definition). Rather than making music on someone else’s terms with the instruments they provide, a contact mic opens a door to making music (however you want to define it) with your own invented tools.
Contact mics don’t help students learn about musical systems from within. They help students learn about the freedoms that exist outside of that system. Which, to me, is so much more important than learning how to shitty flute your way through Hot Cross Buns.
This is where the leap comes in. There’s a wide expanse between music and social systems like policing, but only in some ways. Both of these technologies come from the same cultural machine that shape our daily lives and interactions, so in that sense they are a lot more related than they may seem.
Whether or not that contextual shift is apparent or obscured, doing anything that helps people both recognize and challenge any system that shapes their world will help them ask the important questions about other system. Specifically, who was this designed for? What was it designed to do? And how can that system be used for better purposes or undermined and replaced with a better one?
Contact mics aren’t going to start a revolution. They won’t even really contribute to the revolution we’re living through right now. But they might help someone recognize why that revolution is important and push them to join the cause.
So fuck cops, build contact mics, and now let’s get back to the important work that’s happening right now.