Free software for music students

My department, as most music departments, have been teaching software in a computer lab with a bunch of commercial (expensive) software:

  • Notation: Finale, Sibelius
  • Sound editing, mixing: Logic, Digital Performer, Pro Tools
  • Sound programming: Max
  • Writing: MS Word
  • Spreadsheet: MS Excel
  • Analysis: Matlab, SPSS

The free software community has developed rapidly in the last years, and I now see that there are good, free and cross-platform software covering a lot of the functionality of the above-mentioned programs:

On top of that comes some great free analysis software that don’t have commercial competition:

For advanced courses, I still think it makes sense to use some of the industry standards. Many of them are more advanced than their free software counterparts, and they are often better documented. But for introduction courses I think it would make sense to use free software. This would have many benefits:

  • Students can install on their own computers, and will not be locked to working only in the computer lab.
  • Students will not be locked to a specific operating system, since the above mentioned programs run on all platforms (OSX, Windows, Linux, and some even iPhone!).
  • The computer lab will not be overcrowded around assignments and exams.
  • We can focus on content, method and theory rather than on corporate peculiarities and the latest new features. This will hopefully also show students that the basics of sound theory, recording, editing, mixing, programming, composing, etc. are actually quite generic (and technology-independent).
  • The department saves money on licenses and computer maintenance.
  • The money can instead be used for running higher quality labs with more advanced (expensive) hardware and software.
  • Statistically, most of our students end up as teachers at various levels. Most schools can’t afford the commercial software packages, so the teachers will end up using free software at some point anyway.

More general arguments for the use of free software in education can be found in this article by Stallman.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.

6 thoughts on “Free software for music students”

  1. I very much agree, even though I’m sinning a bit against this myself by using Max instead of PD. Frankly I find it harder and harder to go back to PD the more I learn in Max.

    I think it is important to make the stuents aware of the open software possibilities, and that the universities have a special responsibility to do this. Students have the possibility to spend time on working their time around the downsides of open software (and they might actually learn even more from doning that). And secondly – people have a tendency to stick what they learned first (that’s precisely the reaon why I never got into PD), so teaching more students about open software will benefit the open source community.

    It’s the teachers who must do lead this initiative. I promise to do my part if I get back into first level teaching.

  2. There are certain things I really miss in PD (e.g. broken patch cords and preset functionality), and other things I think are great (e.g. built-in send/receive, linear/log switching, portability, price).

    I agree that free software is not the solution to everything. But especially in education, where budgets are typically low, I think free software is becoming more and more interesting to use. And then they can move on to more full-fledged applications later on.

  3. I’d recommend adding Lilypond to the list of free notation software for the speed of entering music, the power of expression, the speed of music input and the strong support on the user mailing list.

  4. Yes, it looks interesting. But there are two main problems that I can see for our needs: (1) it is not cross-platform (only Windows) (2) it is not open source, although there is a free version to start with. But I will look out for how the development progresses.

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