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Biophilia: technology that transforms music education

In today’s society, technology is fundamentally embedded in the everyday learning environments of children. The development of educative interactive apps is constantly increasing, and this is undoubtedly true for apps designed to facilitate musical development. So much so that computer-based technology has become an integral part of children’s musical lives, with music apps as present in their musical development as pencils and paper. One artist who not only intimately understands this evolution, but also knows how to harness its potential, is Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk.

In 2011, Björk released a concept album entitled Biophilia, presented as the first ‘app album’ ever to be released. It has subsequently made its way into the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as the museum’s first downloadable app in its permanent collection. Four years in the making, Biophilia explores the intersection between music, nature, and technology, with each of the ten songs on the album connected to its accompanying app, linking the song’s theme to a particular musicological concept. In an attempt to redefine how music is made in the 21st century, the ultimate aim of the Biophilia project was to develop a way of making music that is more intuitive and accessible than traditional academic approaches to music education.

Björk performing at Cirque en Chantier. Photo by Rlef89. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Björk performing at Cirque en Chantier. Photo by Rlef89. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Biophilia project became the subject of a 2013 documentary entitled When Björk Met Attenborough, originally produced for and aired on Channel 4. During this interview, Björk explains that her quest to transform the way we understand music originated in her own childhood struggles with her classical music training:

“When I was in music school, when I was a kid, there were a lot of things that rubbed me the wrong way. It was hard for me to connect with, being in Iceland, and we were basically getting curriculums from Europe, based on 17th century German classical music. As much as I adore that, but at that time I wanted to connect more with Iceland. And also just how it had become really academic, and was removed from the physical.”

Björk argues that an overly academic approach to music education can be an obstacle to the intuitive act of music-making, particularly among children. This sentiment is echoed during the documentary by the celebrated neurologist, Oliver Sacks: “With the music we have now, there’s something intimidating…if there was some way of drawing anyone into acting with music or creating their own music, I think that would be extraordinary.” To counterbalance the historical approach, Björk harnessed 21st century technology to invent a new means of visualizing sound, providing children with novel resources to explore the ways in which music works.

The apps contained in Biophilia take our intuitive understanding of natural phenomena as a foundation, on which new and novel explanations of musical principles are constructed. They can be categorized as functioning either like conventional video games, or musical instruments. “Mutual Core” is a video game that sets out to explore the theory of chords, by allowing the user to arrange geological layers that can then be played, much like a piano accordion. Chordal tension is illustrated through the differing strata, while the user tries to unite two detached hemispheres, driven apart by energy.

mutual core
Screenshot from a tutorial of the Mutual Core app, via Bjork on Youtube.com

“Thunderbolt” works more like an instrument, where tapping on the screen generates electrical sparks, and using two or more fingers at the same time produces arpeggios. These arpeggios can be played as backup to Björk’s same-titled song, or independently. The idea behind this app was to depict arpeggios to children in the simplest of manners.

Bjork app
Screenshot from a tutorial of the Thunderbolt app, via Bjork on Youtube.com

Björk and her team of computer programmers set out to modify the visual representation of music, with the hope of revolutionizing the way children think about and create music. Biophilia is now a standard part of Iceland’s music curriculum, and several successful music workshops for children have been held around the world. Ultimately, what is incontestable is that children must be encouraged to create their own music–that through experimentation and exploration they can form their own aesthetic judgments. In this respect, music apps like those showcased in the Biophilia project must be applauded and adopted as essential tools in a child’s musical education.

Featured image: Music Class USA. Photo by 인호 조 (Sungmin Yun). CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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