Active Listening

Accessibility, eLearning

Visualizing Musical Patterns

Problem to Solve

For many years, our editorial team contracted with freelance developers to build interactive guides for college level music appreciation courses. The process of preparing and reviewing content for the guides was frustrating and time consuming for all involved. Authors of the music textbooks were rightly focused on publication deadlines and had little time to spare reviewing materials beyond their text. Subject matter experts were hired to interpret the author’s intention, and prepared the detailed, time-coded charts that deconstructed the musical selections. These charts were passed on to the developer, who coded the time-based commentary to synch with the music.

For many months, corrections were sent back and forth to adjust the timing of the cues. Endless versions of CDs with the Director player were burned and shipped, only to await more feedback. Then tragedy struck: the developer of the software plugin that we needed to synch the music to the media was diagnosed with cancer and stopped supporting the plugin just as new versions of operating systems were released.

Our team had 3 music textbooks publishing within a few months, and the interactive guides were critical to our success in the market. Without them, we’d most certainly loose adoptions or our texts. We needed a streamlined way to collaboratively build the guides, while also taking advantage of a brand new licensing agreement with Sony for online streaming.


With only a few months from concept to market, I hired an interactive firm to partner with us. We needed to move away from Director as a development platform, and respect Sony’s legal requirements around the distribution of online content.


We began by interviewing instructors who actively used the current listening guides in their teaching. We observed the context of the classroom and the dynamics at play. We created research panels of students who have studied music appreciation and tested some concepts with them. The visual of the wave form “resonated” with students and professors. Color-coding the wave form aided in recognizing the patterns and sequences of the music, and they became a navigational device to move to different sections of the music. Captions were added to explain what the student was hearing, as they were hearing it. Lastly, the captions were made more accessible to new learners by defining keywords in context to the audio.

Here’s a video capture of a listening guide playing:

Perhaps most importantly, the production workflow was drastically improved. We designed and built an online application for authoring the listening guides, storing the time-codes in an editable database. Our entire team contributed to the data entry and uploading of mp3s, and the results could be instantly reviewed in a dynamically generated interface. Subject matter experts could then review interactive content and make adjustments themselves in real time.


The best part was that students became engaged. They could see the structure of the music, navigate the piece like they do a web site, and were kept abreast of what they should be paying attention to each step of the way. We also learned through our research that not all music classrooms have dependable internet connections. Thus, it became important to provide a downloadable version of the application in addition to the streaming content.

The distributed collaboration across our team and contractors was highly successful, as we were quickly able to author hundreds of active listening guides for multiple textbooks with accuracy. The content was deployed to learning management systems, interactive ebooks and companion sites with ease.

Developer: Coevolution, LLC
Managing Media Editor: Wendy Constantine
Developmental Editor: Sue Gleason
Assistant Editor: Nell Pepper