image of Professor Mark Engebretson with student

After a century of excellence in classical music and jazz, the UNCG School of Music is adding a new degree concentration in Popular Music and Technology or “PopTech” as the students call it.

Composition Professor Mark Engebretson, who is also a member of the band The Difficulties, says the time was right:

“The School of Music is a hundred years old. This will really diversify our program by welcoming students who are accomplished musicians in areas we haven’t been able to bring to the School in the past because we didn’t offer what they needed. I hope that it reaches out to populations that have been underserved and underrepresented. As part of our mission to be a school for the whole state of North Carolina, it’s an important step.”

These musicians are a versatile group with a wide array of interests and talents. They are singer-songwriters, producing engineers, laptop performers, music producers for videos and gaming. One of those is Cady Fleet, a sophomore who spent her first year at UNCG as undecided about her major. That was until the School of Music announced the PopTech concentration:

image of a Nord Lead synthesizer
Cady Fleet ’25 works on a piece on the studio’s Nord Lead synthesizer

“It includes so many genres, and I love how broad it is. I’ve always had a passion for song-writing and making music. And I really want to learn more about how to produce music. It’s just the perfect degree for me!”

Students like Fleet began applying and submitting portfolios as soon as the PopTech concentration had been approved as a new concentration in the Bachelor of Music performance major. Almost immediately the first cohort was full with over 20 students, which Dr. Engebretson says points to the demand:

“There’s a real market for this type of program. About half of the students we’ve enrolled are new to UNCG. Others were already in the School of Music. We were able to create space for those students who were thinking of leaving us, so from a recruiting and retention perspective, it’s a timely addition.”

Fleet says she can’t imagine having entered a music program without PopTech:

“This is the direction that music is going. Everything involves technology. Whether or not you like classical or write your own songs or you are into jazz—everything is recorded for some purpose or involves technology in some way. You’ll have an advantage as a musician if you know how to do those things.”

The curriculum includes a broad range of courses including five semesters of lessons on an instrument or voice to help students expand beyond what they already play or sing. They take creativity classes, which include topics such as composition skills, singer-songwriting, jazz arranging, and improvisation. There are technology courses such as Making Music with Computers, Audio Recording, and Digital Composition. In addition to a music theory and music history component, there are some courses in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Media Studies Department covering media law, ethics, and the history of electronic media.

image of students in the new Pop Tech program
The first year of the Pop Tech program is full, with a wide array of musicians

“It’s not a cookie cutter program,” says Fleet. “You have the option to learn different instruments and participate in different ensembles and really hone in on your individual skills. I’m excited to learn and get better at other instruments. I play keyboard and French horn, so I signed up for beginning guitar. I’m really looking forward to the classes where we’ll learn how to make music with computers and how to produce music online. I love that I can shape this degree to be what I need.”

Dr. Engebretson says that in addition to outstanding faculty and coursework, the School of Music offers first-rate spaces and equipment for its PopTech students:

image of the Electronic Music Studio
The Electronic Music Studio is outfitted with a workstation that includes (L to R): Behringer X32 mixer, Dave Smith Tempest Drum Machine, Ableton Push (top level), MacBook Pro (with Ableton Live software), Akai APC 40.

“A wonderful infrastructure exists and we’re adding to it. We have two rooms in our electronic music studio where students can work on projects. It’s a focused environment for mixing and compositions and some recording as well. Our 24-seat computer lab has a fairly substantial array of audio creation software. All of the various performance spaces—Tew Recital Hall, the Organ Recital Hall, and Collins Lecture Hall—as well as our large rehearsal spaces are available for PopTech bands.”

The School of Music has also teamed up with the University Libraries to build a new recording room in the Music Building, which will be a space that students can use for recording. The new space will have lines running to the electronic music studio which can be used as a control room for professional level recording. 

Unlike other music majors who might just need one instrument, PopTech students require different types of equipment.

“The gear is here,” says Dr. Engebretson. “We have a large cabinet of microphones, a good collection of keyboards, several control surfaces, a combination of digital and analog mixers, speakers, looping pedals, and guitar pedals and amps. We really want to keep our equipment up-to-date so that students are working with equipment they’ll encounter in the industry.”

Image of aVintage 1970's era Moog Modular Synthesizer, with Korg Analog Sequencer
In addition to the newest technology, Engebretson’s students also get to experiment on a Vintage 1970’s era Moog Modular Synthesizer, with Korg Analog Sequencer

And what is waiting for graduates in the real world? Cady Fleet hopes to perform and be a recording musician. She believes her degree will give her everything she needs to achieve that. Dr. Engebretson agrees:

“The options available to a student coming out of this kind of program are vast. They’re going to be gigging performers. They’re going to be music creators. They’re going to be recording artists. They’re going to be audio/visual experts. Essentially they’ll be able to do anything.”

Read more and apply for the Popular Music and Technology Program

Read more about composer Mark Engebretson 

Listen to Engebretson’s band “The Difficulties”

Story by Terri W. Relos

Photo credit:  Mike Micchiche

Video provided by Mark Engebretson