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What’s the value of Harmonia?

by: Rick Taube

“What’s the value of Harmonia?” Or, quite literally: what commitments and investments did we have to secure along the way to move an initial idea about how to improve teach music theory using technology into a functioning company? The first thing I should say is that it was a very long path (almost 20 years!) and much of journey was not easy. The first two years I worked completely on my own developing the analysis algorithms in a language called Lisp that I had learned at Stanford when I worked at CCRMA. It was a complete leap of faith -- i was putting in lots of hours trying to get a program to analyze harmony quickly and accurately, and to "communicate" its results back to a user. The time I spent doing this work meant I was composing less and working less on my public-domain composition software, Common Music. I don't think I even listed this research work on my faculty reports because I had no concrete results to talk about yet. But once I had a functioning analysis program, I quickly learned how hard it is to convince people about a new idea unless it is something they can actually visualize. I showed my program to an academic dean, and while he was nice about it, he didn't really understand the issue or what he could do to help me. He sent me to a music software publisher he knew and the same thing happened, only that he understand my idea even less than the dean. I talked with the Grants and Licensing office at my university and they decided the app wasn't worth anything and gave me complete rights to the software. Realizing some of the hurdles I would have to overcome, I continued to work on the software, adding a PDF back-end so the programs markup became visible and the program's explanatory text was colorized according to they type or severity of the analytical issue. Seeing the results in a semi-intuitive way had a real positive effect on viewers, and I decided to write an article about it for the Computer Music Journal. CMJ is a top-tier publication in my area and when they accepted the article it gave me some credibility. The article gave an clear overview of the software and also included images (see below), which also helped people understand what it was doing.
xanadu.png
The 1999 article predicts the Harmonia cloud, realized 13 years later.


My first nibble for actual support came from McGraw Hill. I showed it to a theory textbook representative and he "got it" instantly! He was also part of the on-line component for the company and understood the possible value it had in that new industry. I signed a contract, but in the mean time McGraw Hill was finalizing its sale to a larger publishing company. This new owner wasn't interested in on-line learning as much and all pending, unfinalized contracts, including mine, were cancelled. At that point I thought I was at the end of it, and I went back to writing music and also a textbook. I hadn't really given up, but I just wasn't sure what I could do to move the ball forward. The next real change happened a few years later when a graduate student, Andrew Burnson, an outstanding programmer with experience with music notation, entered our composition program here at UIUC. (UIUC has a long history in computer music and we've be fortunate to attract a number of composers/programmers like Andrew over the years. Other composers join our program and find out that their ability to think abstractly about music processes and systems and to notate these abstractions in symbols, often makes them "naturally" good programmers. I pitched an idea to completely rewrite the software in C++ app with multi-media features and Andrew was immediately interested in the idea. I was able to secure a $6,700 Creative Research Grant from FAA, and with Andrew on board we came up with the initial design and creation of an app called Chorale Composer. Meanwhile Rachel Mitchell starting teaching music theory at the UIUC and she got excited about the pedagogy that the app could potentially support, and agreed to start developing content for the app and using it in her classroom. Over the next few years we collectively applied and received several more grants -- two from PITA (Provost’s Initiative on Teaching Advancement) and one from the Campus Research Board (which won the Arnold O. Beckman Research Award for projects of special distinction) totalling about $26,000. Along the way we "retired" Chorale Composer, and then Halim Beere joined our team and we started working on Harmonia, which was a generalized version of Choral Composer that could send and received course data from a server. Meanwhile I began talking with the Office Of Technology (OTM) and they sent me over to EnterpriseWorks, a very successful startup incubator at my university. I made a pitch and they took us on at a 90% funding level. This was a pivotal moment for us because it allowed Halim and I join the iCorp (Illinois NSF Innovation Corps) which is basically a boot-camp for startups that provides very intense training and leads project leaders through the process of "customer discovery" and building a business canvas see if the idea is actually marketable. That same year we receive a Proof Of Concept Grant for Harmonia from UIUC's Office of Technology Management for a total of $15,607 to complete the work on the Harmonia prototype. All this momentum, plus the support by EnterpiseWorks, got us into the company formation phase, in which we developed a strategic plan, secured intellectual property protection (trademark and patent) and ultimately led to our application for an $225,000 NSF Phase I grant, which we received in 2015. That grant allowed us to hire David Psenika and Ming-Ching Chiu, and all of us worked together to complete the network prototype in Fall 2015, then test it in a real course (Music Theory I (MUS 101) at UIUC) for a semester. From that experiment we were able to verify the application worked and gave better results than the status quo for teaching music theory. The rest, as they say, is history!