Faculty Profile: Michael Cuthbert

portrait of Michael Cuthbert

How a self-described “Navy brat” and “geek” grew up to become a renowned and innovative music historian.

By MIT OpenCourseWare

Michael Cuthbert, MIT Associate Professor of Music, already has a long list of academic honors to his name, but his talent for creatively combining his two greatest interests—music and computers—may be his most impressive accomplishment. “As a child, my two instruments were a clarinet and a Commodore 64 computer,” he says. “The geek in me has always been on the lookout for new ways to connect them.”

He’s managed to bring both together with remarkable results through his groundbreaking research into 14th- and 15th-century European music, powered by an open-source software package that he designed, called music21. This program—freely available and used by thousands—allows him to analyze the inner mechanics of music and spot historically important trends with an unprecedented depth, breadth, and speed. By allowing any musical historian to spot patterns across musical works that may span hundreds of years and millions of notes, Cuthbert’s music21 has made a substantial contribution to the field of quantitative musical research, which he simply calls “listening faster.”

Each summer over the past few years, Cuthbert has pored through various archives in Italy and Germany—like a high-tech musical sleuth—searching centuries-old documents for fragments of musical pieces. Whatever he finds on these old parchments are often half-erased or badly damaged, but even the smallest musical fragment becomes useful once transcribed into his database. “I might find only fourteen notes, but I can take that phrase, and compare it to all the other similar pieces from the same time period.”

Through his research, Cuthbert has discovered a number of common harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic patterns, and succeeded in shifting the historical perspective on what was formerly viewed as a fragmented musical period. “Often when you find a new sheet or piece of music, there’s usually something that’s somehow different about it. Without a computer database and an ability to compare this music to many others, you tend to see these pieces as somewhat of an exception. But with a computer you can see the larger connections. Something that you thought was new and unique was simply a new condition, a slightly different way of doing the same music.”

As he describes his musical research, Cuthbert conveys such enthusiasm that it’s hard to imagine he might have considered working in any other domain. That he’s an accomplished composer whose works have been performed by notable ensembles, as well as a talented musician, further underscores the point. Yet, surprisingly, Cuthbert grew up with a fairly modest level of musical exposure as a child. In fact, his entire academic career in music was something of a happy accident.

From Marching Band to Musicology

Cuthbert was raised as a self-described “Navy brat” just outside San Diego. His parents had a small record collection with mainly country music, and a single classical album of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Cuthbert picked up clarinet in elementary school and practiced it through his teen years, with a brief switch to tenor drums for a year in high school so he could hear himself above the din of the high school marching band. As he approached his senior year of high school, however, he realized that he wasn’t suited for becoming a professional clarinet performer. “I saw that there were people out there who were far better than me,” he explains, “I’ve managed to find lots of ways to use computers to make my work easier, but there are no shortcuts when it comes to performance. Spending 6 or 7 hours in the practice room every day wasn’t how I wanted to spend the next 10 years of my life. ”

Cuthbert also composed music during his high school years. “One of my music teachers was handing out a worksheet. She realized that the copier had cut off the bottom of the page, so that the last few lines of music were missing. She offhandedly said that we could finish the piece if we wanted—and I ended up handing in a few pages worth of music—far more than necessary,” he remembers, “But it just felt so magical to be able to create music on the page.”

After being accepted at Harvard University as an undergraduate, Cuthbert resolved to pursue what he considered practical studies. He considered economics, physics, or electrical engineering, but after a difficult first year whose only bright spot was a course in 19th-century chamber music, he decided that he’d rather flunk out studying something he loved than muddle through school feeling uninspired. Not surprisingly, once he immersed himself in musical studies, his grades bounced right back, and Cuthbert eventually graduated summa cum laude. “What I have always loved about studying music was knowing how open-ended it was,” he reflects on those years, “In most exams in any given science, you always knew there was a perfect score you could get. What I loved in music was that you could always do better. There were no real boundaries. If you want to learn more, you learn more.”

“What I have always loved about studying music was knowing how open-ended it was. In most exams in any given science, you always knew there was a perfect score you could get. What I loved in music was that you could always do better. There were no real boundaries. If you want to learn more, you learn more.”

Although pursuing his passion wherever it led him has defined Cuthbert’s success as an adult, he admits that he may have frustrated some of his teachers as a young student. “I always managed to get good grades, but I’m sure that I infuriated a few teachers along the way,” he muses, “I would sometimes get caught up in a specific topic instead of following the lesson plan. If we spent a single class learning how to find the area of polygons, I would spend the next week obsessed with calculating the area of every possible shape—hexagons, octagons, decagons—and so on.”

Making Use of OCW

Lucky for him that he’s got OpenCourseWare to help feed his roving curiosity these days. “I think OCW is amazing. One of the reasons I really love it so much is that, because I studied art, there were a lot of topics that I missed in the sciences,” he says, “So OCW allows me to really brush up on those topics that interest me.”

Cuthbert goes on to explain how OCW has also served him professionally. “OCW is obviously great for self-learning. But what I think is sometimes overlooked is how valuable OCW can be for faculty who are creating their own courses,” he says, “It allows anyone get an inside look at how other professors are organizing and teaching their classes, in a way they might never have seen. That kind of exposure is invaluable.”

Having published some of his own MIT courses on OCW (21M.269 Studies in Western Music History: Quantitative and Computational Approaches to Music History21M.262 Modern Music: 1900-1960, and 21M.220 Early Music), Cuthbert openly solicits feedback from both students and professors. “I hope that people find my course useful—but I also hope they’ll tell me what they don’t like about it. At places like MIT—all over the world, really—there are people who are trying to actually change and evolve knowledge, not just report what’s already known. Disagreements and feedback are what creates diversity and new discoveries. That’s what really interests me most.”

Faculty Profile: Hal Abelson

portrait of Harold Abelson

This MIT professor is renowned for his contributions to computer science, but he views himself as a teacher first and foremost.

By MIT OpenCourseWare

Like many other universities in the late sixties, MIT was a hotbed of political activism. Rising tensions around the Vietnam War, coupled with controversial Defense Department research, culminated in hundreds of students occupying MIT’s Office of the President in January 1970. While that historic moment led to MIT’s eventual divestment from weapons research, it played an equally pivotal role in the career of a young mathematics student named Harold (“Hal”) Abelson: “I was a new graduate student, and figured that I’d never get another chance to go sit in the president’s office, so I wandered over, and there were a whole bunch of people from Students for a Democratic Society sitting around on the floor. One of them was somebody I’d gone to high school with. When I told him I was looking for a job, he suggested the Artificial Intelligence Lab.”

It would be hard to invent a more apt setting for the start of Professor Hal Abelson’s career in computer science. That one random bit of advice, delivered from the epicenter of a student occupation, not only anchored Abelson’s future in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab—it offers a fitting (if serendipitous) backdrop for his longstanding engagement with some of the most important issues at the crossroads of computing and society.

A Legendary Teaching Career

Abelson first picked up programming as a high school student during a summer job at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. He coded in FORTRAN on an IBM 709 computer that ran on paper punch cards. As a mathematics undergrad at Princeton he continued to dabble in programming—jockeying with astrophysicists for valuable time on the mainframe—but ended up taking just one computer science course. It was only while earning his Ph.D. in Algebraic Topology from MIT that he began to seriously study computer science, using applied mathematics to explore new ways of modeling distributed computing. He fell in with a variety of early computing initiatives at MIT, which eventually led to a teaching appointment in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department.

Today, Abelson’s teaching career is legendary. Together with Gerald Sussmann, he created Course 6.001, which would introduce several generations of MIT graduates to computer science and become the gold standard for its instruction. Over the more than thirty years since its publication, the course’s accompanying textbook Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs has initiated tens of thousands of students into what Abelson earnestly calls the “magic” of programming.

Professor Abelson’s approach to teaching computer science was revolutionary at the time. He wanted to promote deeper thinking about the essence of programming—far beyond code, syntax, and computers. Because beneath all the technology, Abelson insists, computer programming is really an emerging form of “imperative knowledge”—a formal and systematic way of thinking about how to do things. We’re still on the cusp, Abelson asserts, of a much deeper evolution in how we organize thought. In his introductory lecture to 6.001, he compares our current understanding of computer science to the humble origins of pure geometry, born from ancient Egyptians’ efforts to scientifically survey and manage the annual flooding of the Nile. What if all our computational thinking to date, Abelson asks, is just the most rudimentary form of far deeper principles?

Influential Innovations

Even aside from his having set the standard for teaching introductory computer science, Abelson’s contributions to the field are an embarrassment of riches. His academic work charts the furthest edges of computer science, through game-changing concepts like amorphous computing, while his pedagogical work keeps the field wide open to anyone interested. On the latter front, he directed the first implementation of Apple’s Logo, a computer language for children released in the early eighties. He co-authored the book Turtle Geometry: The Computer as a Medium for Learning Mathematics, which has been hailed as “the first step in a revolutionary change in the entire teaching/learning process.” One of his most recent projects, in collaboration with Google, is the creation of MIT App Inventor, a web-based development system that makes it easy for anyone to create a mobile app. Describing his motivations for the project, Abelson notes that “there just isn’t the thought that we can empower kids in this world of mobility in the same way that…we talked about empowering them in the world of personal computing. It’s actually a little bit scary to me, because what it’s saying is that the next generation gets introduced to this technology purely as a consumer product. There just isn’t the idea that my cell phone is something I might want to program.”

Shining through all of Abelson’s work is a constant concern with how technology should advance openness and empowerment. He is a vocal proponent of “computing values”—the philosophical ethics that get embedded within programming—and pushes his students to maintain the same level of social awareness and engagement when they design their own technology projects. “You need to know what’s worth making,” he says, “and that requires understanding about people, an understanding about society, and understanding about the context in which the program is going to be used. That’s what I try to teach when I teach programming.”

You need to know what’s worth making, and that requires understanding about people.”

Principled Advocacy for Openness

Abelson’s principled advocacy has led to his founding both Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, and playing a key role in the committee that launched MIT’s OpenCourseWare. He offers a thought-provoking perspective on its creation: “OpenCourseWare is a perfect example of how things can evolve in unexpected ways that sometimes surpass their original goals. It was born in the midst of the dot-com bubble, when everyone wanted to monetize educational content. But after months of MIT analysis and consulting engagements, we realized that there were lots of negatives in trying to commercialize courses. We ended up with a very thick, very impressive binder—I didn’t know that binders that thick even existed—but it contained some fairly uninspiring conclusions. So as a last-minute appendix, we included a relatively un-researched notion of just ‘giving it away,’ and ironically, that’s the idea that eventually took root.”

“OpenCourseWare is a perfect example of how things can evolve in unexpected ways that sometimes surpass their original goals.”

Despite all his impressive credentials and a long list of awards, Abelson remains a warm, highly approachable person. His deep commitment to teaching earned him the prestigious MacVicar Faculty Fellow appointment in 1992. “When people ask me what I do,” he revealed in a recent interview celebrating MIT’s 150th anniversary, “I say that I’m a teacher. I think of myself this way as opposed to a computer scientist. It’s about putting across those ideas. The stuff we’re teaching right now is very precious and important. I want to instill in students some of that importance.”

Perhaps the simple fact that any of us can benefit from Professor Abelson’s teaching by calling up one of his online courses through OpenCourseWare is the most elegant proof of the power and reach of his ideas.

OCW Courses Taught by Professor Abelson


Insights for Remote Teaching and Learning

Professor holding a lap top that shows the words Never Stop Learning

How to keep education happening when students and instructors can’t meet in person

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

These days, university professors worldwide are scrambling to begin teaching their classes online rather than in person. At the most basic level, some courses can be taught online using just streaming video (whether live or pre-recorded) and familiar, readily available technology such as email and group chat apps. But if you’re looking to step up your online teaching, you may find inspiration in reading about what tools MIT’s faculty have been adopting in recent years.

For an extensive list of OCW Instructor Insights pages in which instructors discuss their implementation of online teaching technology, simply visit the Educator Portal on the OCW website. Click on the “Instructor Insights” tab, and then scroll down the “Topics” menu to find and click on the topic “Teaching with Technology.” Here’s a sampling of the dozens of Instructor Insights pages you’ll find in that list:

Offering a Small Private Online Course

Professor Olivier de Weck taught 16.842 Fundamentals of Systems Engineering as a SPOC (that is, a small private online course), rather than a MOOC (a massive open online course). In his Instructor Insights video, he discusses how he collaborated with a university in Europe to overcome the challenge of hosting discussions among students located in widely different time zones.

Online Tutoring

Professor Dennis Freeman describes how he and his colleagues used an online tutoring environment in 6.01 Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I to promote student self-assessment. He describes the tool they developed to help students make sure the code they were writing was performing as intended, and he explains how that tool could be generalized to serve other online tutoring functions in other courses.

Web-Based Problem Sets

Professors Wolfgang Ketterle muses on the advantages and challenges of using web-based problem sets in teaching 8.421 Atomic and Optical Physics I. Though he still sees value in traditional on-paper homework problems, he recognizes that for instructors who are tasked with teaching completely online, it’s “extremely encouraging to know that even very complicated questions can be transformed into web-based problems.”

Collaborative Text Annotation

Dr. Kurt Fendt and his teaching assistant Andrew Kelleher Stuhl use a tool called  Annotation Studio with students in CMS.633 Digital Humanities. Annotation Studio enables groups to annotate a text collaboratively, to highlight and comment on passages in the text, and to respond to one another’s comments. The tool, developed by Dr. Fendt’s digital humanities lab, was still in development at the time the course was first taught; the students were thus able to offer feedback that helped shape the evolution of the software.

Automated Answer Checking

Dr. Jeremy Orloff and Dr. Jonathan Bloom, the instructors for 18.05 Introduction to Probability and Statistics, believe that the best time for students to be made aware of their mistakes is when they’re still working on the assigned problems, rather than after the fact. In their Instructor Insights, they explain their decision to provide their students with an online tool that allows them to check their answers to problem sets before submitting them.

Onward and Upward with OCW Educator

We hope that the insights discussed above will inspire you to experiment with new tools and techniques in your own online teaching–and that you’ll return to the OCW Educator Portal in the future for insights on other aspects of teaching, whether that teaching is happening online or in a traditional classroom!

Courses from MIT’s 2020 MacVicar Fellows

Four faculty portrait photos.

The 2020 MacVicar Faculty Fellows are (clockwise from top left):
Polina Anikeeva, Jacob White, William Tisdale, and Mary Fuller.
Photo credits (clockwise from top left):
Lillie Paquette, Sampson Wilcox, Webb Chappell, Jon Sachs

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

For the past 28 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has honored several MIT professors each year who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring.

This year’s awardees are Professors Polina Anikeeva (materials science and engineering), Mary Fuller (literature), William Tisdale (chemical engineering), and Jacob White (electrical engineering and computer science).

OCW is honored to share courses from three of this year’s Fellows:

Polina Anikeeva

Mary Fuller

Jacob White

Interested in Instructor Insights from past MacVicar Fellows? Visit our OCW Educator portal to search for Insights from MIT Teaching Award Recipients. Delve into the minds of Arthur Bahr, Wit Busza, Catherine Drennan, Lorna Gibson, and many other MIT professors advancing teaching and learning in their fields.

Faculty Profile: Gilbert Strang

“My life is in teaching,” says one of MIT’s most revered professors. “To have a chance to do that with a world audience is just wonderful.”

By MIT OpenCourseWare

Portrait of Gilbert Strang

MIT mathematics professor Gilbert Strang was among the first MIT faculty members to publish a course on OpenCourseWare. He has continued to contribute content through the years: to date, his contributions have included six full courses, two video resources, and an online textbook on the OCW website.

He has also shared his knowledge and passion for mathematics in person, traveling extensively around the world. Open thinking has played a major role in his professional career. “A big part of my life is to open mathematics to students everywhere,” says Strang. “I’m very supportive of the whole idea of making these courses available to people around the world. Everyone has the capacity to learn mathematics, and if you can offer a little bit of guidance, the process of discovery is so valuable.”

Linear Algebra

The concepts in Strang’s foundational Linear Algebra course are useful in physics, economics and social sciences, natural sciences, computer sciences, and engineering. Due to its broad range of applications, it has long been one of the most popular courses on OCW. The 18.06 site has received more than 10 million visits since its first publication in 2002. Professor Strang has a website dedicated to his linear algebra teaching.

A new version was released in 2011, in the innovative OCW Scholar format designed for independent learners. The OCW Scholar version of Linear Algebra includes 35 lecture videos and 36 short (and highly-praised) problem-solving help videos by teaching assistants.

Matrix Methods in Data Analysis, Signal Processing, and Machine Learning

In 2017, Professor Strang launched a new undergraduate course at MIT: Matrix Methods in Data Analysis, Signal Processing, and Machine Learning. Published on the OCW site in 2019, the course uses linear algebra concepts for understanding and creating machine learning algorithms, especially as applied to deep learning and neural networks. This course reviews linear algebra with applications to probability and statistics and optimization—and above all a full explanation of deep learning.

MIT News Article: Gil Strang is Still Going Strong, Online and in Print


Professor Strang has also published a collection of other materials on the OCW site including his Calculus textbook. First released in 1991 and still in print from Wellesley-Cambridge Press, the book is a useful resource for educators and independent learners alike. It is well organized, covers single variable and multivariable calculus in depth, and is rich with applications. The book has an online instructor’s manual and a student study guide.

When OCW approached Professor Strang about contributing to Highlights for High School, he offered his support immediately. “I’ve always wanted to contribute to K-12. I think high school students taking Algebra or Calculus would find some of the study materials useful.”

The result is Highlights of Calculus—a series of short videos that introduces the basics of calculus—how it works and why it is important. The intended audience is high school students, college students, or anyone who might need help understanding the subject.

The videos are garnering praise and thanks from viewers around the world. To quote one OCW user, “This series is fabulous! It summarizes the important points of calculus and gives me confidence to learn calculus without being so fearful about it.”

Differential Equations and Linear Algebra Textbook & Videos

Professor Strang has continued to offer new insights into key mathematics subjects. In 2014, he published Differential Equations and Linear Algebra. In 2016, that textbook was developed into a series of 55 short videos supported by MathWorks—with parallel videos about numerical solutions by Dr. Cleve Moler, the creator of MATLAB®. The textbook and video lectures help students in a basic Ordinary Differential Equations (ODE) course. This new series, Learn Differential Equations: Up Close with Gilbert Strang and Cleve Moler, is also available on the MathWorks website.

Higher-Level Mathematics

Computational Science and Engineering

Professor Strang also teaches two graduate-level courses on Computational Science and Engineering, a discipline that deals with the development and application of computational models and simulations. Both courses are on OCW and have full sets of lecture videos:

Wavelets, Filter Banks, and Applications

Another graduate-level course that Professor Strang has published on OCW is Wavelets, Filter Banks, and Applications, a subject with broad applications, including audio and image compression, digital communication, medical imaging, and scientific visualization.

OCW Publications by Prof. Gilbert Strang

All of Professor Strang’s books are available through Wellesley-Cambridge Press.

Professor Strang on Chalk Radio

Interested in learning about Professor Strang’s approach to teaching at MIT? Click to listen to his conversation with Dr. Sarah Hansen on Chalk Radio, the new podcast from OCW’s Educator initiative.


A Day in the Life with MIT OpenCourseWare

Photo of Cathleen

Cathleen Nalezyty (‘16), OCW digital publication specialist, provides insight into the OCW Team

For OCW, there is joy in helping people achieve their learning goals
By Yvonne Ng | MIT Open Learning

Every day at OCW, the team looks forward to creating, collaborating, and above all, learning. Each team member recognizes the importance of their role in helping to publish the free MIT courses so many learners around the world use and enjoy.

For Cathleen Nalezyty (‘16), a digital publication specialist, OCW is an expression of the Institute’s commitment to advancing knowledge to serve the world. She shared some of her thoughts about what it’s like to work at OCW every day.

What is a typical day like for you? What are some of the highlights?

It’s hard to say what a “typical” day is like—it varies so much depending on what courses I’m working on. One day I might be writing a list of edits for course videos and another I might be making PDFs accessible and adding metadata. Other days I may be reaching out to instructors of classes I’d like to see on OCW or contacting guest lecturers outside of MIT to get permission to use their work in the course.

Something that always makes my week (and often my month!) is when one of my larger courses goes live on OCW. There’s a lot of work and time invested in these courses. This is especially true for video courses, where the process takes months, since we start working with the professors before the class even starts, throughout the course, and only get to start building the course after that! I love getting to send out emails to our faculty letting them know that their course is published and open to the public.

Photo of Professor Strang leacturing in class

The OCW Video Team works to capture MIT professors sharing their knowledge. Here is Professor Strang lecturing in class.

What do you like about working with MIT faculty or fellow team members?

Working with MIT faculty is always inspiring as they’re the best in their field and yet, they’re also wonderfully human. (Some of my best conversations with faculty are completely incidental—like spending a few minutes at the end of a meeting talking about Tolkien because you happened to notice a particularly nice edition of The Lord of the Rings on their shelf…) They’re also very passionate about teaching and are excited to be able to share their knowledge with the world!

What about the OCW mission inspires you?

It’s really inspiring to know that the work you’re doing can help so many other people. OCW has a huge reach and that’s because it’s part of our mission: we want anyone to be able to access our content from anywhere. It’s incredible to work with a team who wants to share this knowledge, not just with MIT students, but everyone—from lifelong learners to other educators to curious high school students.

Is there anything else you want learners to know?

We love getting to hear your stories and your kind comments! We even have a little board right now that’s decorated with your quotes.

OCW spotlights learner feedback

OCW has a wall dedicated to wonderful feedback from learners.

Every day Cathleen and the OCW team work to meet the needs of learners eager to enhance their knowledge, lift up their communities, and change the world for the benefit of everyone. If OCW has been a valuable resource to you, please consider supporting our work with a gift on March 12, 2020 during the MIT 24-Hour Challenge. Visit us online to learn more or to support OCW on March 12. 

Chalk Radio Is Here!

Professor Gilbert Strang and Dr. Sarah Hansen, sitting in chais in front of a blackboard

Professor Gilbert Strang in conversation with Chalk Radio host, Dr. Sarah Hansen.

MIT OpenCourseWare is proud to announce the premiere of a new podcast series.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Chalk Radio is a podcast about inspired teaching at MIT, hosted by Dr. Sarah Hansen. The show takes listeners behind the scenes of some of the most interesting courses on campus to talk with the professors who make those courses possible. The guests on Chalk Radio open up to us about the passions that drive their cutting-edge research and innovative teaching, sharing stories that are candid, funny, serious, personal, and full of insights. Listening in on these conversations is like being present in person under the MIT dome, talking with your favorite professors.

About the Guests

In the first episodes, we talk with a nuclear science professor who finds surprisingly entertaining educational uses for MIT’s fission reactor, and with an African studies professor who asks her students to attend theatrical performances out in the “real world.” In subsequent episodes, we meet a math professor who champions the value of getting stuck, the instructors of a popular three-day intensive course on piloting small planes, and a literature professor who wants to teach students to love the movies. And that’s just the first half of the first season!

About the Host

Professor M. Amah Edoh and Dr. Sarah Hansen, sitting in front of microphones in a recording studio

Professor M. Amah Edoh and Dr. Sarah Hansen recording the second episode of Chalk Radio.

Sarah Hansen connects educators around the world to openly licensed MIT teaching materials and approaches through the MIT OpenCourseWare Educator Initiative. Before working at MIT, she was a faculty member in the Education Department at St. Catherine University, and before that she was an elementary school teacher. She holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Minnesota, where her scholarship focused on equity issues in education.

How to Listen

Chalk Radio album artA new episode of Chalk Radio will appear every other Wednesday, starting February 19, 2020. All episodes will be accessible through the podcast’s website, which also includes links to Apple Podcasts and other popular platforms where you can find the latest episodes or subscribe to the whole series.