Music as a product doesn't just mean the result of musicians playing on stage and at studios. Besides this primary source of music, there is a lot of complex and fast-evolving technology involved that doesn’t only help musicians improve their sound, but is used to create, study and catalogue music and sound itself. You probably listen to Spotify or Pandora or use Shazam to recognise a song: this technology doesn't come from nowhere. Educated people with skills both in music and engineering are researching at various places to develop new possibilities for musicians and all other people who need some sound for their business.

Photo: Ars Electronica (CC)
Reactable, a project by the Music Technology Group in Barcelona, was used by Bjork in one of her concert tours.

Uri Nieto, from Barcelona, is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University's music and audio research lab for Automatic Music Structure Recognition. E&M interviewed him to learn more about music technology.

E&M: Can you describe how you came to the idea of studying music technology?

I’ve always been fascinated by computers. When I was 12, I developed my first computer program, which was a simple text-based adventure game about a newborn turd that fell into the mystical depths of a school toilet and had to survive before it melted. But even though it should've been natural to me to start a bachelor's degree in computer science, it was actually a tough decision. My other big passion was music, and after playing the violin since I was 8, I formed my first rock band at the age of 14. Two years later I joined a new metal band in Barcelona called Sargon, and I ended up playing there for the next decade of my life.

Music made studying computer science more "digestible", since during the week I was studying/working pretty much all the time, but during the weekends I was either on tour, recording, or rehearsing. Once I finished my bachelor's, I heard about this new master's degree in Barcelona that merged computers and music altogether, so I felt remarkably confident about that being the field I really wanted to study. And for the past 4 years, that's what I have been doing in three different universities: Pompeu Fabra (M.S.), Stanford (M.A.), and New York University (Ph.D).

E&M: Where can music technology be studied? Are there any similar programs anywhere in Europe?

Many places! In Europe there are indeed many good research groups on music technology. As I mentioned before, I started at the Pompeu Fabra University, more specifically, in the Music Technology Group (MTG). They are one of the most well internationally established groups in the field, and it's big enough to accept a very great number of students each year. Besides the MTG, there is IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris, or the Centre for Digital Music at the Queen Mary University in London. In the US, the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford was one of the first departments on music technology in the world. Other departments are the CNMAT in UC Berkeley, the MediaLab at the MIT, or the MARL at NYU, among many others.

E&M: Can you describe the contents of the program? Is it all technical stuff or do you also study classical music things like harmonics and counterpoint?

These studies tend to be framed under the "arts" umbrella in American universities, and under the "engineering" tag in European universities. That is why in America, these programs tend to have a greater content of music theory classes, even though, in the end, it's the student who will shape their studies based on their personal goals and interests. Generally, this field is more oriented towards engineers who like music, than for musicians who like engineering techniques. However, I know people who started these studies with zero engineering background who ended up being the main software developers for some major music tech companies.

E&M: What skills are required to succeed in music technology?

In abstract terms: Passion, perseverance, and creativity. In concrete terms: Maths and music.

E&M: In your opinion: what skills will you specifically as a music engineer have that qualify you compared to differently trained people in the music business, like sound engineers?

I have the experience of playing and publishing music with my band for many years, while I still have the skills of a computer engineer who can develop applications that other musicians can use. As a musician, I know what are the things that would help me improve my compositions/performances, and as a computer scientist, I know how to develop software to create them.

E&M: What will your future job probably be like?  

Hopefully I will develop interesting applications that both musicians and music lovers will be able to use in their daily lives. Another option is to start my own music tech company, which is getting more and more common nowadays (e.g. The Echo Nest, SoundCloud, Ableton, Shazam, Smule, Khush, Wizdom Music, BMAT). I'd like my job to be of the creative type, so I can freely develop my ideas and publish them, and still people will find them useful and interesting. However, this varies depending on the person, since some prefer to end up being professional artists, others, doing academic research, while others would like to develop software for major companies.

E&M: Do you feel there will be good job opportunities when you will graduate? 

Certainly not in Spain! Seriously, I know that there are a lot of job opportunities in the States, unfortunately much more than in the south of Europe (I guess that's one of the reasons I live in NY). However, the music technology industry is getting bigger and bigger in countries like Germany or Sweden, and now, thanks to the MTG, even Barcelona is a good place to either join a spin-off from the MTG, or to start your own business. (I believe that these moments of crisis can be good for entrepreneurship.)

E&M: What would you say to our readers who might now consider studying music technology?

Sometimes people believe that music technology is just about being the sound engineer of a music show or an album recording. This is part of the production side of the music technology, but it’s only a small subset of what this program is all about.

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