NAU professor creates musical link between 18th and 21st centuries

Music connecting generations

Joel Rieck grew up playing with role-playing games on his computer. Now a master’s degree student in music at NAU, he’s learning music theory from a sophisticated web site developed by music professor Timothy Smith.

Smith is the creator of interactive online materials for J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This cutting-edge, online series is one of the web’s most popular interactive learning sites for classical music.

The Well-Tempered Clavier series is a popular collection of solo keyboard music that Bach wrote expressly for the use of learning.

The Well-Tempered Clavier web site currently averages nearly 6,000 page hits per week. It features a series of movies that present Bach’s fugues in a cross-discipline integration of performance practice, music theory, aesthetics, philosophy, theology and history.

Each movie illustrates the musical score while simultaneously playing world-class recordings by concert pianist David Korevaar from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“It’s nice to be able to see music selections as you’re hearing them,” Rieck said. “This web site is a lot better than using a book to learn music theory.”

Students from the fourth grade through college can utilize the web site. There is a playable keyboard and various multi-media activities are employed to illustrate how a fugue, a musical composition in which one or two themes are developed, is like DNA, a flock of geese, and a fractal. Smith also uses fugues to remember the Holocaust, admire architecture and understand philosophy.

“I’ve been integrating musical scores with sound for 20 years,” Smith said. “It’s a pedagogical problem—many students can’t hear the score in their head while reading it or vice versa.” He created this web site to bring the two elements together.

Smith’s current project is funded by a $74,000 grant from The Hal Hinkle Charitable Foundation, established in 2004 to promote environmental and music education. This online tool, called B.A.C.H. (BinAural Collaborative Hypertext) will help users program the integration of musical scores with sound and commentary.

The new interactive tool will be demonstrated in a commissioned recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that David Korevaar will produce in the spring of 2007.

Smith and Hinkle, a retired Wall Street executive, believe that learning tools such as these will enhance music education and create new audiences for classical music. “Classical music offers something very important to our age,” Smith said. “Students frequently comment that the animation brings the music alive and is well-suited to visual learners.”

View the Well-Tempered Clavier web site at