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How did the Harmonia music theory app start?

By Rick Taube - August 17, 2017

The idea for Harmonia came to me in 1997, just two years after I joined the composition/theory faculty at the University of Illinois. At UIUC all composers teach theory, and as the newest faculty member I was assigned to teach first-semester theory and aural skills. While I had taught similar courses in the past, during the preceding decade I had actually been working outside academia, as a computer researcher, first at the Price-Waterhouse Technology Centre in Menlo Park, CA and then for five years at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany. What struck me most about teaching theory again was that — though the content I was teaching had changed very little — the circumstances in which I was teaching was very different than anything I had previously experienced.

I firmly believe that the best way to learn music theory concepts is to study how they are used in real compositions and to compose music that demonstrates those concepts. To do this, it is important that a student receives fast instructional “feedback” from teachers to complete a learning cycle. I was taught harmony and voice leading by Prof. Herbert Nanney, organist at Stanford University, who lectured to his (small) class sitting at the piano, where he would play, improvise and work with us “in real time” to improve our exercises. My Music 101, in comparison, took place in a large classroom and had about 90 students with widely varying degrees of theory knowledge and skills. I had eager TAs, but their theory experiences were also quite varied. In my class, I found it was simply not possible to provide each individual student enough "learning cycles" to really master concepts and remediate problems. Since hiring more teachers or limiting student enrollment was not an option, I realized that the best way to address these issues was to adopt a technology that could provide unlimited access to practicing analysis and composition with instructional feedback, thus breaking the linkage between class sizes and the amount of learning cycles that can take place. Moreover, unlimited guided practice would help every student learn, regardless of class size. Since I have strong programming skills I began working on developing music software that could analyze real music and relate the issues it discovers back to a user in detail. Progress was steady but also slow as research grants for faculty in the fine arts were hard to come by and did not involve large sums of money. The game changer came for us in 2015, when the National Science Foundation awarded Illiac Software a $264,000 STTR "proof of concept" grant. With that grant we were able to complete a prototype, embed it in an actual course and prove that computer analytics can indeed be used to improve students learning outcomes over the status quo. It also facilitated a number of other beneficial features such as integrated multimedia and cloud-based course delivery! Our NSF grant took us through the end of 2016, and we started officially commercializing in January 2017. Our primary goal as a company is to improve theory education for all students at a fraction of the cost of what what would otherwise be possible. While we are really just at the start of this journey, I am excited and heartened by the feedback we have had from professors and students alike, and we have many plans and ideas to improve our application and course management system as we move forward.