Misty Jones, Middle Tennessee State University
Practical Production Analysis: Helping Students Produce Competitive Songs
Misty opens by describing her particular students as ‘in the box’ producers – that is to say, they create the entire sound recording in a Digital Audio Workstation. The problem she’s trying to solve is this: the students’ recordings are just not ready yet [for the commercial marketplace]. So today, she will be sharing her approach to helping students to make their song recordings competitive, in the genre they want to produce in.
The approach starts with the assumption that students ‘have their chops down’ – that is, they can write melodies & lyrics, understand harmony, and can program beats. With this out of the way, the students are asked to work on these four areas:

  • Form/Arrangement
  • Instrumentation
  • Texture Variation
  • Production Techniques

In electronic music alone, there are over 200 informal sub-genres – and a teacher can’t be expert in them all. Further, students in a class often have widely different skill levels. In Misty’s approach, the class approach is to study the greats – learn critical listening skills, and listen, and really listen, to the songs. How many drops does Skrillex use in a track? Where are they and how long are they? Students can learn these things by listening, and can then learn further by emulating (NOT copying) the approach in their own tracks.
So the teaching needed something that was [a] visual and practical and [b] would cover all four of these areas.
The tool Misty chose was, surprisingly, Microsoft Excel! –

An example of a track analysis from Misty’s production class, bar by bar

The analysis evolves into the student’s own production plan, which culminates in the students playing their own work, followed by the works they analyzed. We now hear a brief reel of students’ reference tracks, and the songs they created in response.
The benefits to the class are apparent; a wide variety of genres can be covered without the teacher having to be expert in them all, and the curriculum becomes tailored very directly to the students’ creative goals, which creates additional benefits in the form of motivation and opportunities for production depth. Misty is keen to stress that this is not a soundalike project; rather, the students use production emulation to create frameworks and analytical lenses for their own original work.
The challenges, as always for a music teacher working with original creative work, is grading, and Misty uses a variety of feedback methods, grading the work in relation to students’ own creative goals.
Misty asks a provocative question: can a student who lacks critical listening skills become a successful producer? She suggests that those in the class who produce the closest emulations often generally produce the best original work.
[JB comment – I really like Misty’s approach. It seems a very effective way of combining critical listening, analysis, popular musicology, and creative endeavour, in a single assignment. My reflection is that this musicology of production needs more of a formalized language to help students with the analysis and with peer learning across often disparate genres. There have some academic inroads into this field recently, but IMHO music teachers don’t yet have the right language to analyze music production consistently.]
[JB note #2 – Misty is a Berklee Valencia Masters alumna]