8 November 02004

Learning songcraft via the web

The Edutainment field has, deservedly, got itself a bad name for not delivering on its promises. Often the premise has been that people see learning as boring or stodgy, so it has to be smuggled in, Trojan-horse-style, under the guise of a game or a celebrity-driven story. The Radio 2 Sold on Song web site shows this need not always be the case.

This is a resource that people can either dip into for snippets and details about personal favourite songs or use as an extended, and fairly rich, introduction to songcraft, its leading exponents, and how to go about it. Here's an account of how and why I think this site works.


The site consists of accounts and analysis of 127 songs, eight genres, and six stages of songwriting, plus a glossary. There are also some pages dedicated to recent competitions and forthcoming radio programme features.

Programme support

Sold on Song offers the potential of very effective and efficient programme support for Radio 2's broadcast output. Effective because it's such a substantial resource, rather than the handful of pages that are the ration for many radio programmes. Efficient because it breaks out of narrow programming straitjackets and can be linked to a much wider range of programmes than more specific web pages that support only a few hours of broadcast. There's scope for the site to grow beyond its current catalogue of 127 songs (at the moment the 'Top 100' is particularly spurious, leaving aside the more or less arbitrary order, as it excludes just 20% of the songs). So far the site has been running for a little over a year — I don't know what the plans are for its future.

General design for learning

The structure of Sold on Song does not have a beginning and an end. In terms of hypertext design for 'informal' learning it works well because it allows users to skim at first and probe for more detail in the areas that most interest them. For many of the songs you can get an overview and an in-depth analysis supported by historical interviews and quotes.

Similarly, there are brief bullet-point 'top tips' for getting started on songwriting, and then experts' accounts and more detailed 'how to' guidance with cross-references to songs that demonstrate key principles.

What's great about this approach is that it keeps the user in control of how deep they go into each part of the material. In some e-learning and knowledge management circles there seems to be renewed interest in 'adapative' user interfaces, wherein the presentation of information is personalised to meet the needs of the user. That's fine in principle, but in practice the technology can try and be too clever in predicting user needs, and in so doing remove the option for users to determine exactly what they see and how they see it. Sold on Song, with its modest scale, provides a very uncomplicated way of letting users personalise their own experience, without needing 'clever' technology.

Another thing I like about the Sold on Song approach is that it doesn't feel the need to add lots of 'fun' elements — notwithstanding the few quizzes (which didn't seem to be working when I tried them). It relies on the intrinsic interest of the material to draw users in. Possibly this is because it's aimed at an older Radio 2 audience that is assumed not to be impressed by such things, but doesn't everyone find it a little patronising when learning materials include 'playful' asides and games of the kind that you usually come across when reading dog-eared 'celebrity' magazines while waiting to see the dentist?

Like many programme-related sites, Sold on Song allows users to contribute their own comments. But rather than leave this to a unstructured free-for-all where people start discussions on all aspect of songs and songwriting in the same place, Sold on Song links contributions to very specific topics. This makes it easier for any user to find contributions relevant to their interests, and can also serve to keep people 'on-topic': see for example the contributons on practitioners' experiences of collaborating on songwriting and Willie Nelson's Crazy.

Interface design

I know lots of people will disagree with me and argue that the Sold on Song could be made smarter, swisher and more 'interactive' (in the loose sense of having more mouseover effects etc) if it were made using Macromedia's Flash. But there are several reasons why I think the current, simple HTML-based design does the job well.

Principally, using HTML gives users the scope to use all the features of their browsers as they were intended. These include the facilities to use the 'Back' button, and the 'History' feature, as well as being able to open pages in a new browser window or 'tile'. Why is this important? Some Flash-based learning resources include what are sometimes called 'breadcrumbs' to let you see your location within a set of pages, but these tend to be based on working linearly through a hierarchical structure. Sold on Song allows — even encourages — more hopping about between different parts of the resources, so it's important that the Back button takes you to the page you came from, which probably won't be the previous page in any notional sequence. And it's important that the History list on your browser shows the actual route you've taken, not some idealised linear route (sidenote: this would be even better if the page titles on the site were written, say, 'Getting Started - Songwriting Guides - Sold on Song - BBC Radio 2' rather than 'BBC Radio 2 - Sold on Song - Songwriting Guides- Getting Started', since that would make it easier to distinguish individual pages in the History list).

Using normal HTML web pages also allows users to do things that the designers may not have anticipated. For example, someone might want to compare the pages for two different songs, side by side. With standard HTML pages you can do this with just a little window resizing and right-(or control-)clicking. With Flash content, it's much more difficult, or impossible.

Finally, the learning design and interface design in Sold on Song come together in the way that the audio and video elements are included very much as optional elaboration of points made in the text of the site. Again some people will argue that, as broadband becomes more ubiquitous, it would be better to embed the audio and video into the materials so that you can assume everyone will hear or see each clip.

But keeping them as optional and un-embedded has several advantages. As described above, it keeps the user in control of how deep they go into the material: they can view all the multimedia clips for songs they love, or just browse one or two for those they're less interested in. There may be times when audio or video is distracting — many people surf the web with their stereo on in the background — or impractical — for example when using a small mobile device to browse. In these circumstances, it's useful to be able to come back to the multimedia at a more convenient time.

If the video and audio clips were embedded in the material, they would probably have to be edited down, thus losing some of their depth — like the talking-head clips you see ad nauseam on those 'Top 50 one-hit wonder videos from the eighties' programmes where there will often be an edit before the C-list interviewee completes their sentence. The Sold on Song clips include many well-informed experts going into the nuts and bolts of what makes songs work, and this web-based presentation works in a way that you couldn't replicate on either TV or radio.


For other web-based music support resources, see my review of BBC 6 Music for learning purposes. The Channel 4 UK Music Hall of Fame site, provides a more basic programme support function: the profiles provide short overviews but relatively little detail apart from a few video interview clips (also presented as optional extras). The forum is much more of a free-for-all and the decade-based quizzes are only tangentially related to the music on the programmes.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) BBC, E-learning, Reviews on 8 November 02004 | TrackBack
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