Hack Days as a Model for Innovation in Schools of Music

This past weekMusic Ed Hack 2013end saw the first Music Education Hack event hosted by the Spotify streaming music service and the NYC Department of Education’s iZone/InnovateNYC program. I’ve been to several music-themed Hack Days in the past, but this was the first event focusing specifically on hacking new technologies in service to music education.

This post is the first of several reflecting on the Music Ed Hack experience. Since the concept of a Hack Day may be foreign to many of my readers, I will start this post off with a description of what a Hack Day actually is, and put forward a vision of how collegiate schools of music (and even K-12 schools) could adopt this model as a way of building community among their students and reinforcing that music is a living, creative art. I’d love to hear what you think about that.

What is a Hack Day?

Hack Days and Hackathons are now common events within large technology companies like Google, technology startups, and in major technology innovation hubs like New York City, Austin, Boston, and Silicon Valley. The purpose of these events is to spawn innovation by giving coder/programmers 24 hours to a couple days to work as teams to create a new product, or technology, often around a specific theme or problem. These events are often sponsored by a single host company or a group of companies. The structure of these events are pretty similar in that interested coders assemble at a particular time and are introduced to the theme/challenge of the hack. The coders then often listen to short presentations/demos from sponsor companies around their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Most of the “hacking” that happens at these events is in the web-based and online realms, rather than hardware space. However, every Hack Day I’ve attended around music has always had some people playing with hardware such as Arduino boards, Microsoft Kinect controllers, & most recently Leap Motion, for building new physical interfaces.

After the API presentations finish, there is often an “open call” for collaboration where attendees can get up in front of the group and float the idea they have in hopes of soliciting other interested attendees in joining their team. Once that’s finished, the newly formed teams have approximately 24 hours to create their “hack.” Many teams work through the night, are well fed, and also have opportunities to meet with developers and technical experts from the sponsor companies to get advice on how to build their designs.

These events are not only for pure coders and developers. Graphic and website developers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and other interested people often show up and join teams to lend their expertise in User Experience, marketing spin, or knowledge of the application context. After about 24 hours of hacking, the deadline comes to pass and teams submit their “hacks” and present them as live demonstrations in front of the audience of programmers and other interested people. The demo sessions are often also open to the general public for those interested parties who don’t want to pull an all-nighter with the programming teams. There is palpable excitement during these demo sessions (and throughout the whole Hack Day, really). The audience gets to see brand new, emerging technologies, and the teams finally get a release of energy in sharing their ideas with the crowd.

The sponsors of the Hack Day, along with companies that provide API support for the event often give out prizes to the Hack teams that create the best hack or make the best use of their APIs. These prizes can range from nice cash sums of  upwards of $10,000 to iPad minis, to web credits, to concert tickets. Yes, there is a corporate/competitive context that surrounds these Hack Days, but as a participant in a few of them, I can also say that there is a strong intrinsic reward for creating something new that solves a challenge or puts forward a new idea. Aside from the prizes, most hacks never directly turn into a marketable product or service. However, they do influence future product design and a few do make it to the startup phase.

Hack Days as a Model for Innovation in Schools of Music?

I often wonder what a parallel event might look like in the formal music school space. Would it be a 24 hour challenge to bring together composers, producers, and performers to create/improvise/produce new chamber works? What could be gained from such an approach as an alternative to traditional band/choir/orchestra/chamber music festivals and competitions in high schools and in schools of music? I think it would be very cool to structure a new music festival hack day in every collegiate school of music as a way of building community and reinforcing music as a living, creative art. Students enrolled in the school across all music majors could compete for scholarships, or even sponsored prizes from publishers, instrument manufacturers, digital equipment companies, and music services – or participate just for the intrinsic fun of the event. Students would have 24 hours to form teams, create, rehearse, and refine their pieces. The demo sessions would be in the form of a concert of the newly created pieces.  As happens at a technology-based Hack Day, some demos fail to come together and others blow the audience away. “Failure” is seen as a necessary, positive learning experience within the tech/startup world. In order to have big rewards, big risks need to be taken and these Hack Days are a small, semi-controlled safe settings for those failures to occur. Sure, not every piece created would be a masterpiece, but isn’t that ok? Isn’t there a lot to be learned through trying and putting your ideas out there? Will the “musical academy” allow for this kind of disruptive innovation within their walls? Can they afford not to?


  • […] the creation of 44 hacks created by around 200 participants throughout the event. As explained in my first post about Hack Days, not every hack (or presentation of the hack!) is successful. However, there is never a shortage of […]

  • Alex, great post to a successful Hack Day. These ideas have charged me to sponsor a Music Hackathon in my school district. Creating a space for musicians to innovate and experiment supports the idea of viewing mistakes as opportunities. The culture in these spaces holds this as a norm. I now need to aquire more arduino boards. Thank you for what you do Alex.

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