Audio Editing Software Screenshot

By the time our students reach the upper grades most schools see dwindling interest and enrollment in music education classes. Even in schools with strong music programs it is not uncommon to see 20% or less of the student body enrolled in music classes of any kind.  As has been discussed in previous technology articles here in Teaching Music, many teachers are trying to counteract that trend by offering classes that appeal to our student’s intrinsic need to create and perform through the use of technological tools.  Software programs such as Sequel, GarageBand, Pro Tools, MixCraft, Abelton Live, and many others are being used in a wide variety of these new classroom offerings, breaking down the psychological and educational barriers that had once closed this majority of students out of secondary school music programs entirely.


Music in and out of our schools has been taught the same basic way for hundreds of years with the teacher being the center of the process.  General ed classrooms are already moving away from this focus and many would say that it is high time our music classrooms do so as well.  The changes we are seeing in music education are almost entirely due to the exploding usage of music software and other related technologies. Even the national standards for music education are being rewritten to place a larger emphasis on creativity, performance, and a student’s individual response to music.  



Using Composition Software To Help Meet The New Standards


For twenty years now the music education community has focused its efforts around NAfME’s nine standards for music education.  Soon however these old standards will be replaced with the New Standards For Music Education which are much more open ended, and easily applied to a wide variety of musical activities.  The new standards have a broad emphasis on the areas of creativity, performance, and response to music with each area having several more specific anchor standards.  For teaching musical creativity and encouraging individual performance many modern music software products are ideally suited to the task.  Another significant reason to consider incorporating these tools into your classroom is that with the appropriate software tools all students, regardless of their current musical knowledge, can succeed and become active creators and consumers of music.  


There are many examples of these tools being used successfully in existing ensemble and classroom based music classes but Dr. David Brian Williams, Professor Emeritus of Music and Arts Technology at Illinois State University believes that music software can be ideally suited to meet the needs of what he has coined as the “other 80%” of students in our schools.  “In kindergarten everyone gets to play and do something musical but as they get older our classes get more and more selective, until by high school music participation is down to 20% on average nationally.  To balance out the music curriculum we need to expand what we mean by general music at the junior high and high school levels. There are many examples where a teacher started a class started as an after school activity but it became a regular offer in the middle or high school program.”  Through the website he and Dr. Rick Dammers (Rowan University) maintain at, they have collected profiles of dozens of examples of innovative classes and teaching techniques that have used software and technology based music instruction to fill a need and expand the curricular offerings of their schools, many of which can easily be adapted to almost any classroom across the country.


Williams firmly believes that music software, used properly, can open many doors to students who have retreated from organized music education classes.  He says that we know have the ability to “liberate a person’s musical creativity by using software like Garageband and Mixcraft that allow people to create.  Before these programs the major barrier for many people was making them first learn to read music, perform on traditional instruments, and learn music theory.  Putting the emphasis on students expressing themselves creatively through technology tools is very much in keeping with the revised national music standards."


Breaking The Notation Barrier


Using software technology in this way is very much about differentiating our instructional offerings to meet the needs of individual students.  Jay Dorfman, Assistant Professor of Music Education at Boston University and President of the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) says “We all know that not every student is aiming to be a symphony performer so we have to facilitate creative opportunities for kids that don’t have that as their goal.”  When one looks at the many highly successful technology enriched classes you quickly see that in essence they have turned the progression of knowledge upside down starting with composition and performance and then working backward to understanding.


Until the advent of music creation software students were required to learn to read and write music, understand basic musical concepts, and at the same time learn to play a potentially complicated musical instrument.  In most traditional music classes all of these things have to occur before a student can begin to really create music of their own much less perform it in public.  Now that software technology has advanced to include simple, easy to use music creation tools a student can create and perform from day one, removing this difficult traditional progression and opening a gateway to allow a child to get involved with music.


Software tools like Reason, Garageband, and other looping music sequencers completely remove this barrier, allowing them to get involved in music and learn those core skills along the way rather than burdening them with having to learn them all up front.  The knowledge of music theory, terms, notation, and other concepts are still taught, but students learn them because they begin to see the value in learning them.  


This change in teaching methods from being a sage on the stage to a guide on the side is at the core of fundamental changes in pedagogy currently taking place in general education classrooms across the country.  Although many music teachers don’t often think of our classrooms as being appropriate for these project centered instructional strategies these techniques can work even more powerfully in a music classroom. Tom Dean, Choral Director and Audio Engineering Teacher at Mt. Pleasant High School in Wilmington, DE points out that in his classes students who never bothered learning to play an instrument or read a note of music suddenly begin to actively seek out new knowledge.  Says Dean, “At first they may not have the skills they need to do what they want so they starting playing with it and start to figure it out. Eventually they begin to realize that they need to be able to read the music in order to understand the shared language so we incorporate that into the class as well.”


Composition and Arranging Software In The Classroom


The Musical Hooks Project

One such example of using composition and arranging software to allow music students to meet the creativity and performance standards is Ken Greene’s Original Hooks Project.  Ken is the Creative and Performing Arts Coordinator at Overton High School in Memphis, TN and the Educational Technology Chair for the Tennessee Music Educators Association.  The Musical Hooks project took place over an entire semester.  Students began by learning about what musicians call the “hook” in a piece of music, the  chorus or other part of a song that catches the listener's attention and makes the song memorable.  Starting with programs like Garageband and Sequel the students began to freely create their own short musical “hook.”  That musical motif is then used as the basis for an entirely unique composition.  Says Greene, “they first had to perform the hook on instruments and then try to write some verses around that hook.  Once these things were in place they moved the piece into GarageBand and built the song using the included loops and tools.”  The project went far beyond simple composition by allowing the students to learn about other musical concepts such as form and dynamics.  “If they were not able to recreate their ideas in Garageband we would record the parts using a pocket audio recorder and import it into the program.  By the end of the project students had composed a complete piece of music which they performed live.  They even created their own CD cover art.”  A full detailed explanation of this project including examples of the music the students created is available on his website.


Film Scoring Projects

A similar idea that is being used in many classrooms all over the country is to allow students to write accompaniments for existing pieces of performance art.  Jay Dorfman believes that an excellent example of this is to have students use music creation software to create soundtracks for film scores.  “Film scoring can be a really engaging project because while it is essentially open ended composition it still gives the students a place to start.  The movie suggests a tone, tempo, or instrumentation so they don’t feel so overwhelmed with possibilities.”   In this kind of project a teacher might choose to have students use short segments from existing Hollywood films (under fair-use rules) or for the ultimate in creativity have the students write and film their own short movie and then score the soundtrack to it.  “It’s a great creative outlet and uses a medium that students tend to be comfortable with.  It allows students to achieve something impressive and fulfill their creative needs at the same time.”


Teaching Audio Engineering Through Musical Composition

For Tom Dean, even teaching the basics of audio recording and engineering has a creativity component to it.  “We do a joint project every year between the choir and the audio engineering students where we produce and record the music for the upcoming concert in February.  First they go out and find music to fit the theme and then put together a group of musicians from other ensemble classes to accompany the final performance.  Once the group has rehearsed they record the performances followed by editing and mastering of the final product.  The engineering class has to work together with many other people to put the whole track together just like in real life.  The final performance is a part of the class.”  


Dean finds that even students who start out as what we would think of as non-musicians eventually learn most of the concepts and skills that are taught in more traditional music classes. “My audio engineering class is all students from outside the ensemble classes that have a desire to create music. From the first day they are all engaged in making some kind of music so the first step in the audio engineering process is to get them to listen to music in a totally different way.  We have them pull a piece of music apart and figure out what instruments are being used, as well as other important audio concepts such as to determine what panning and other settings are being used by the audio engineer?  What kind of room are they performing in?”   


His class curriculum includes a strong amount of both creation and performance components, even if the student’s skills on an instrument precludes them from performing a specific part of their overall vision for the piece.  Dean continues, “in one of their projects they can do whatever they want to musically but there is a requirement that some part of it has to be recorded.  If they can’t perform on an instrument they sometimes bring in a friend and have them play it instead.   This allows students to get engaged in music at the level they are right now. ”  At the same time Dean provides opportunities to spark interest in playing real instruments as a part of the student’s work.  “We have a bunch of guitars, keyboards,  and other instruments sitting in the room that are available for them to plunk around on.   At the beginning [of the class] they can’t play very well or converse musically, but later on they can read chords on the keyboard and create basic melodies on their own.”


Dean considers the class to be an engineering class that winds up creating musicians in the process.  “We live a lot more in the creating part than in the performing part.   Students think of themselves more as musicians than engineers even though it is an engineering class.”  Over time the students begin to think musically about the recordings they are attempting to make.  “They understand that they can’t have feedback or use the wrong mic because that would in essence be like hitting a wrong note.”  The final result of these opportunities is a group of students that can be active music learners rather than just someone sitting in a chair listening to a song on the radio.


Let The Kids Do The Tech While You Do The Music!

Many music teachers are afraid of using technology because they don't feel confident enough to use it in front of their students but this does not have to be a roadblock to incorporating these kinds of activities into a class.  Williams says, “my mantra to teachers when doing workshops is ‘kids do tech, you do music.’  The students are very adept at using the hardware and software.  What they need from music teachers is their deep experience and guidance with music: models for chord changes in various genres, formal structure, rhythm and scale relationships, and more.”


As you consider adding software based music creation tools to your classrooms keep in mind that no one product is a perfect fit for every teacher or every group of students.  There are no one size fits all solutions that can be applied to every situation.  As Jay Dorfman points out, “software alone cannot directly meet the new standards.  A teacher can use these tools to address particular areas but it is up to him or her to adapt the tools to meet the needs of individual students.  Music creativity and composition software programs are just a means to an end.”


This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Teaching Music Magazine and is published here by the original author under agreement from NAfME. For reprint and other usage permissions please contact NAfME directly.

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