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About Berklee Online

Berklee Online brings the best of Berklee College of Music to students around the world. Study Berklee's curriculum, with Berklee's faculty, in a small and supportive online community.

About Online Degrees

Berklee Online has over 12 years of experience teaching music online. Our ...

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Ron Kadish

Digital Oasis: Berklee Online Instructor Loudon Stearns on the Creative Power of Programming and Technology

“This space feels like an oasis,” enthuses Berklee Online instructor, multi-instrumentalist, and multimedia artist Loudon Stearns. “What I see with my online students in my music production and composition courses reaffirms my faith in humanity. Seriously.”

The supportiveness of his students, Stearns says, and the on-going excitement of using serious analytical tools to dig into club music and digital production techniques make teaching online invigorating. “A lot of my online students are going back to something essential,” Stearns remarks. “They are compelled to make music, to please themselves. That’s a wonderful statement. It’s about making the process as full and beautiful as possible.”

The process, for Stearns, straddles the digital and the analog, the on- and offline musical worlds. As a composer and bassist, Stearns grew up on the cusp of digital domination, which gave him both old-school musical technique and a deep love of the power of computers.

His own music education unfolded via distance learning, and suggested to Stearns how computers might change the way people studied and analyzed music. Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, he found only one way to study music theory as a teen: correspondence course.

“I’d send my assignments to Nebraska. It would take forever, and they would come back covered in red ‘verbotens,’” recalls Stearns, referring to the German term for “forbidden.” “I had notated things wrong, and the teacher on the other end didn’t like it.” Not surprisingly, Stearns was unimpressed. He realized he had to take things into his own hands.

He did so on his computer. A passionate programmer, Stearns taught himself the basics of harmony by, among other things, sequencing Bach chorales and figuring out their elements. As an autodidact, he gained a strong sense of the building blocks of musical ideas, and began to explore how to represent them as programming tasks.

“My composition and production of electronic music classes are designed for students like me, who approach making music from a programming perspective,” Stearns explains. “I had tools, but no formal training. I don’t necessarily use music notation.” Instead, Stearns approaches instruction from a programming perspective: “I break tasks down into essential components and define a rule set, then add them together and create something complex enough to be beautiful,” he recounts. “It’s as if I’m asking, how would I teach a computer harmony? What are the essential components? That works into how I teach composition.”

As a student at Berklee, he was one of the first to use his early, clunky laptop to record everything from class projects to bass practices. “It was innovative at the time,” muses Stearns. “Now students get a Pro Tools course in their first semester.” From his personal integration of computers into his study, he moved to helping faculty and students, as laptops became de riguer.

Now, Stearns focuses on sharing his vision of technology’s creative potential with his students. In his Composing and Producing Electronic Music courses, Stearns sets up programmatic ways for students to think about different electronic genres and subgenres. After delving into the history of current club sounds’ parent genres (from house to dub), Stearns sends his students out to find representative songs online, “because that’s where all this music is happening.”

Then, the songs are submitted for detailed analysis. Berklee Online has an amazing back end that analyzes the results and generates bar graphs, based on analysis we’ve done over the course of several semesters,” he notes. “Students learn what questions to ask: Where does the snare fall? What reverb or compression is used? Are there vocals? Then we compose in those styles.”

Many aspiring producers meet Stearns via his MOOC (massive online open course) and decide to leap into more advanced study. An online course can pivot fast enough to embrace changes in both production technique and club music trends and tastes, and encourages committed students to come together, people from all walks of life from around the globe. “It’s amazingly diverse,” comments Stearns. In Stearns’s online courses, a female trance music composer from Saudi Arabia may trade ideas with a producer from urban Korea or provincial Russia.

Digital tools can offer unique inspiration, just as online interactions can build an esprit du corps in a course. In his own work, Stearns had dedicated the last year to composing a “space opera,” a musical piece whose theme grapples with time and that will unite performers at different geographical locations across the US and Europe via live stream. “I’m composing the music for laptops and small orchestra. The most exciting technological challenge is to make the connections stable and get the latency down. I am consciously composing the music to make delays acceptable, treating it as a medium with its own limitations and potential.”

Stearns’ other skill set, as a highly trained instrumentalist and composer, balances his tech-savvy approach to teaching and creating. “Something I find myself telling students regularly is that they need to turn off the computer sometimes to compose,” Stearns says. “The melody needs to be singable. You need time and space, sometimes, to find the right way to express your idea. There’s no substitute for taking that time and working your ideas out.”

Learn with Loudon Stearns:

Berklee Online offerings

Composing and Producing Electronic Music 1
Composing and Producing Electronic Music 2
Advanced Music Production with Ableton Live
Introduction to Music Production
(MOOC via coursera)

About Berklee Online

Berklee Online is the online continuing education division of Berklee College of Music, delivering access to Berklee’s acclaimed curriculum from anywhere in the world.  Berklee Online’s award-winning online courses, multi-course certificate programs, and degree programs are accredited and taught by the college’s world-renowned faculty, providing lifelong learning opportunities to people interested in music and working in the music industry.