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Ones and Zeroes, Notes and Tunes

Jeanne Bamberger saw the computer as a tool to revolutionize how music is taught.
courtesy of Nancy rubin

On an April Saturday in 1970, Jeanne Bamberger headed to 26-100 for a day-long seminar on the latest ideas for teaching children to think. Organizers Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, two mathematicians turned computer scientists and co-directors of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, had plenty of their own ideas and wanted to recruit collaborators.Papert had recently led the development of Logo, a programming language for kids. Designed to empower children to solve problems, Logo let them do things like control a turtle-like robot  by typing commands into a computer. But what really caught -Bamberger’s attention was Minsky’s mention of a digital music box he’d built. For Bamberger, the idea that such a box could be controlled by a computer would launch a decades-long career combining music, developmental psychology, education, and computers—and change how music was taught at MIT and beyond.

As a piano prodigy growing up in Minneapolis in the 1930s, Bamberger had puzzled over the limits of musical notation. Why did sheet music represent only some elements of the same music she heard played aloud? In the 1960s, while teaching music at the University of Chicago, she helped organize a Montessori school with other parents and found that music in that curriculum—which included using identical-looking bells that played different pitches—wasn’t just a teaching tool, but a medium through which teachers could see how their pupils were thinking.

By the time she arrived at MIT in 1970, to fill in for a music professor on leave, she’d had enough of traditional methods of teaching music. “I got tired of talking and putting the needle on the record … and then [having students] talk back to me,” says Bamberger. “I wanted them to become active participants.” After hearing about Minsky’s digital music box, she realized that with computers, that might be possible.

Klaus Liepmann, her boss and the founder of MIT’s music program, discouraged her from meeting with Minsky to talk about his work in the AI Lab. “[He said] music was in the music department, and that’s where it belonged, and none of these other people should be fooling around with it,” Bamberger recalled in an MIT oral history interview. “But I went anyhow.”

When Bamberger’s temporary appointment ended, Papert hired her at the AI Lab to adapt Logo as a tool for making music. It was a whole new world for Bamberger. “I had no idea what it really even meant to program a computer,” she says.

Bamberger, Hal Abelson, PhD ’73, and Terry Winograd, PhD ’70, created MusicLogo, whose commands controlled a sound-emitting box, allowing a tune to be written in code and then immediately played aloud. Since the children didn’t need to focus on mastering musical notation or performance, Bamberger wrote in a 1976 research report, they could spend more time making tunes and reflecting on the process with their teachers.

In 1985, Bamberger launched a pilot program in a local public school, calling it the Laboratory for Making Things. The project, sponsored by Ford and Apple among others, brought Legos, toys, and computers equipped with MusicLogo into schools, and trained teachers to help students use them. “The underlying goal of these activities,” she wrote, “is for us all to gain a better understanding of the relations between constructing things … and describing what we construct—by using symbol systems of various kinds.” More than 250 children from six to 14 would pass through the lab in four years.

Bamberger, who became an associate professor in MIT’s humanities department in 1981, met with resistance when she pushed for MusicLogo and computers to be incorporated into the undergraduate music curriculum. In July 1987, she led four colleagues in a five-day workshop on how to use the program, an effort she describes as “a disaster.”

“I’m sure that to them [MusicLogo] looked like arithmetic and engineering and all the things the music department faculty were trying to work against,” she says. At the time, she says, they wanted to stay away from what students were doing the rest of the day. But she thought they should know more about what students were doing, in order to build on it.

Bamberger pushed on. Syllabi from her music classes in the 1980s and 1990s included instructions for using MusicLogo. Later, she developed an easier-to-use language called Impromptu. “The trouble [with MusicLogo] was that people didn’t want to program,” she says. “I wanted to make something that would be more immediately accessible.”

From the 1970 seminar until her retirement as a professor emerita in 2002, Bamberger found ways to use computers to engage students and help them learn. And, in the process, she made a whole lot of music.

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