MuSNet, mark II

If the profession in which you spent the past dozen years or so never resulted in you getting a continuing full-time job (or any job at present), would you try to develop something that would almost certainly end up useful to only a few hundred others in that field? Of course, you wouldn’t! So, I’m going to stop trying to do that right now, in favour of developing a music history & culture educational website that will potentially become part of an existing, large-scale, foundation-supported initiative and thus matter to a vastly larger number (millions) of people. My small business advisor and self employment coordinator are probably not going to like my change in focus, but this renewed approach is seriously the only way I will be able to move forward.

A Digital End-Run around Musicology

I’ve been struggling for quite some time as to how to proceed with a combination of music scholarship and information technology. I have a Ph.D. and work experience in musicology (including research and courses taught on popular music and film & TV music), but I also have a Certificate and work experience in software development (including a web database project for the American Musicological Society).

My first attempt at a Digital Public Music History & Culture, the Music Discussion Network (MDN), would have resulted in a member-based community open to the public to post links to pieces of music, fill in relevant information fields, and participate in discussions about that music. It would have been paid for through annual fees of $40 per member (a cart mechanism was incorporated into the site), and I also experimented with on-site ad placements (i.e., about music, but it never worked very well). The first incarnation of MDN, however, never made it past its beta-testing stage in the summer of 2011.

My second attempt, the Music Discussion Network mark II (MDN2, now at, was inspired by the Khan Academy (instructional materials for high-school students in math, science, etc., at and its humanities sub-site Smarthistory (an art history web-book mostly used by university students, at The Khan Academy is free, public, and funded by multi-million-dollar educational-foundation support from the Gates Foundation, Google, and so on. It has delivered 225 million lessons to people all over the world (including discussions, etc.), and even Smarthistory (which was originally developed at other institutions) has had 5 million visits. For MDN2, in late 2011 and early 2012 I made eleven music instructional videos of about 10-15 minutes, but each of those took about 20-25 hours create. Without institutional affiliation (i.e., unemployed), it seemed extremely unlikely that I would be able to (1) build a full system without getting other scholars to collaborate on it with me or (2) monetize my efforts, such as by making its materials available for purchase by students enrolled in specific courses at colleges and universities.

My third attempt, the Music Scholars Network (MuSNet,, tried to combine MDN and MDN2, but according to a member-contributed subscription model geared specifically towards music academics, including adjunct instructors and graduate students. The site thus included job postings, calls for papers, teaching materials (such as my instructional videos from MDN2), conference information, research activities, and so on, and discussions possible for all posted items. MuSNet had a substantial portion of its materials available to the public, but only its members would be allowed to add or discuss things. It offered a 1-2 month free trial, then a modest membership fee of $30 per year (incorporated via PayPal). A web survey suggested that some music scholars would be willing to pay a small amount for such a thing, but it was never clear that this could become a viable business that would grow beyond more than a few hundred members. Very few music scholars have the time or energy to participate in such a thing and it is also not how they expect to do things, so it actually makes much more sense to focus instead on building something useful for interested members from within the vastly larger public of music aficionados.

MuSNet2 will focus once again on instructional materials, but it will be free, public, and with discussion capabilities available to any registered member. It will retain the name “Music Scholars Network,” but with the significant change in emphasis that anyone who studies music is a “music scholar.” The site will initially be built by me, including at least a few new instructional videos each month, but it will also be “collaborative” in the sense of including links to many existing music instructional videos already made publicly available by others but also fully researched and tested by me. I will thus endeavour to have the site become similar in scope to the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory web-book within about six months and with a large-scale, public, promotional undertaking through YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. This renewed focus would potentially reach hundred of thousands (or even millions) of people, as opposed to a few hundred music academics. The site would then become part of—and paid for through—an existing system of educational materials, such as the Khan Academy (free and public) or a college or university that offers online arts and humanities courses for money (increasingly the case in the UK) or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, which are free and typically have thousands of students for each course). Once MuSNet2 is part of a larger system, it could then also begin to include contributions by specialists covering additional areas of music history & culture. That is what Smarthistory was able to do to expand its art-history offerings once it became part of the Khan Academy.

Proposed Website Update of the American Musicological Society

According to its August 2012 newsletter, the American Musicological Society (AMS) wants to update and “bifurcate” its website ( to have:

  1. a members-only part, with much of the site’s current content, but possibly also a new, wiki-like, member-contributed database of primary and secondary sources
  2. a non-specialist part, which supposedly might include:
  • a digest of user-friendly articles on topics of general interest (one on Sousa marches apparently being the best example the society has)
  • commentaries on current topics related to music (e.g., film scores)
  • strategically-planned short videos about individuals
  • info on potential speakers
  • links to writings intended for a general audience
  • lectures on great composers/themes in music history

It sounds way too patronizing and predetermined to me. Who’s to say which things should definitely be “members only,” who’s a “non-specialist,” what’s “user-friendly” or of “general interest,” which current topics get to have public “commentaries” and are merely “related to music” (presumably as opposed to “being” music), which members get to release video profiles and/or potential-speaker status, which things are obviously intended to be for a “general audience,” and which composers and themes get to count as “great.” It’s quite the potential train wreck, and why should the issues for the AMS website be any different from what would be considered by the proposed AMS Standing Committee on Internet Technology and/or from what would be accomplished by the idea of having a new tagline and logo for the society?

Too little. Too late. Not nearly good enough.

See instead:

The best way for musicology to engage with the public is just to:

  1. put things up 
  2. let individual members decide if something is public vs. private (and let them change their minds later)
  3. let anyone use the public items (but giving proper credit)
  4. let members discuss every type of content

The content types include:

  1. research
  2. teaching materials
  3. pieces of music
  4. interviews
  5. film/TV/media items
  6. job postings
  7. paper calls
  8. events 
  9. general discussion

    Public Musicology – How to Get There

    Yale University has a public humanities initiative. As one of its American Studies professors puts it: “Students have to invent their own jobs.” Similarly, a Yale historian says: “Historians have to get out and reach the broader public…the ultimate audience. … If academic historians don’t get involved, we have no right to complain about what we see at public historical sites.” A professor at another institution says: “I’m alarmed that there aren’t more people with strong history backgrounds actually doing public history.”

    In a related vein, George Mason University has the Center for History and New Media, which has a Ph.D. program in digital history, dozens of IT professionals and developers, a number of original software tools, and over one hundred web-based projects with more than 16 million users annually.

    “Public history” should certainly be expanded to include “public musicology” (public music history & culture, etc.). However, musicology presently exists almost exclusively within music departments, as one of a number of music sub-disciplines that focus mainly on “specialized knowledge” about classical music performance, music theory, and so on. Musicology thus almost never participates in such humanities’ contexts as Yale’s or even in what is arguably the ultimate public forum: the internet. However, it absolutely can and should!

    The American Musicological Society’s brand-new professional development guide (188 pages) spends only two pages (i.e., that aren’t document samples) on the non-academic world, yet it exclusively seems to mean by that such contexts as museums. In addition, the document does not update the sample documents from the Harvard Arts & Sciences publication that it borrowed for this purpose. Those resumes and cover letter do not have anything to do with music or music graduate degrees, and they are also all nearly twenty years old.