Technology strikes a chord in music education

From elementary schools to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, a revolution is quietly taking place in music education. With the help of electronic music software, students who don’t even play an instrument now can compose songs or even an entire symphony–learning more about music theory in the process than ever before possible.

Electronic music software allows teachers to take music education to a whole new level of interactivity. Using programs such as GarageBand, which comes pre-installed on all Apple computers, and Reason, by the Swedish software company Propellerhead, students at all levels of instruction are laying down tracks that can be turned into full-fledged musical productions in just a few hours.

Today’s music software gives users access to thousands of prerecorded loops of various instruments and sounds, which can be manipulated and arranged into electronic music creations of all types and genres.

“It’s incredibly empowering to children, because they can express themselves in ways that you or I weren’t able to traditionally,” said Lee Whitmore, director of marketing for SoundTree Inc., which sells and installs learning systems for music education that integrate electronic music instruments, computers, and software.

These tools have transformed music education classes by individualizing instruction to a great degree, Whitmore said.

He said the labs SoundTree typically installs have multiple stations where students are working on computers with headsets, aided by music software.

“Instead of just giving lectures, teachers can teach a concept and students can illustrate that concept with their own stuff. The minute [students] put their headphones on, they’re working at their own pace,” Whitmore said.

Besides selling and installing electronic music composition tools, SoundTree also offers free lesson plans, projects, and training for teachers from elementary school all the way up to college.

Whitmore described one training session that incorporated a genre called Jongo, which is a West African style of creating music used for drum circles. Teachers at an elementary school used this compositional style to create music that came from another culture in Africa.

“We talked about and listened to a traditional drum circle recording and then turned on their stations, put the headphones on, and composed music using technology, but still using the same style and techniques,” Whitmore said. “So you sort of connect with other cultures [through] music history. Without technology, students wouldn’t have been able to experience that in real time and extend what they learn. A teacher can present a concept, and then a student can go farther with it.”

Music software titles run the gamut from inexpensive–Apple’s GarageBand is part of the iLife suite of software that comes pre-installed on new Macintosh computers–to high-end programs such as Finale or Logic, another Apple program.

Whitmore recommended Harmonic Vision’s Music Ace Maestro, a product targeted primarily toward elementary and middle-school students that covers the musical staff, ear training, pitch recognition, scales, tempo, and harmony. Each lesson contains games to reinforce what has just been learned.

“Music Ace Maestro includes a full breadth of the curriculum and is very good for teaching the fundamentals of music,” Whitmore said. “You can do a little composing, and it is good across a fairly large age spread. It’s interactive, and it has an application to help with assessment information so that, as a teacher, you can look into what each of your students is doing in the way of progress.”

Teaching the basics

Patricia Foy, chair of music and pedagogy at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., has been a Music Ace user since the mid-1990s.

After learning about Music Ace at a national conference, Foy enlisted a number of the music majors at her school to evaluate the software. Their reviews came back thumbs-up, and since that time, she has incorporated Music Ace into a number of instructional programs at Converse College.

One way she uses the software is to help music majors in sharpening their basic music theory skills. “Many of the voice majors that entered our music programs needed some assistance in honing their theory skills,” said Foy. “Music Ace allowed them to do that in a focused, yet entertaining way.”

She also uses Music Ace to provide self-paced music theory to general education majors. This is a diverse group of students, she said–some with extensive music backgrounds, some with very little–so the need for something that accounts for varying degrees of knowledge is important.

“In this environment, we’re able to let students progress at their own pace through the music theory component of the curriculum, relying heavily on the games at the end of each lesson as a key assessment tool,” Foy said. “Before Music Ace, students would express a negative reaction to the structured class format, in which everyone worked at the same pace. Music Ace has been a boon for these students.”

Foy also uses a notation program from Sibelius Software that allows users to input music and print out a full sheet of music. Users can compose full symphonies with the professional version, but Foy said the student version would be useful for elementary teachers.

As founder and director of the Converse Music Technology Institute, Foy has received grants of more than $214,000 from the South Carolina Department of Education and the South Carolina Arts in Basic Curriculum Project to train South Carolina music teachers in the use of music technology. She also organizes and conducts music technology workshops for her state’s education department.

Teachers accepted into these workshops are awarded a computer, MIDI keyboard, and software. “These workshops are a great

way to expose educators to the benefits of using technology to help teach music,” she said.

More than 5,000 school systems across North America use Music Ace to teach the basics of music theory, while motivating and entertaining students at the same time, said Harmonic Vision spokeswoman Michelle Moody. In many schools, Moody said, the software is used to teach students the basics needed to play an instrument.

“Beginning students frequntly give up because music theory can be difficult,” she said. “Harmonic Vision developed its curriculum to make the hard stuff fun, and to take students to the point of enjoying playing an instrument.”

Inspiring students

For Debra Barbre, music education specialist for Roland Corp., which is best known for making electric keyboards and percussion instruments, the enjoyment students get from making music electronically has a very important side benefit.

“It’s all about getting kids into your music program,” said Barbre, noting that budget cuts have forced many schools to cut their music education programs in recent years. “If you have tons of kids in a music program, and if you have a waiting list and you need to turn students away each year, that program isn’t going to get cut. Music technology is a way for [these programs] to survive.”

Roland helps schools through a step-by-step process that begins with equipment installation and includes teacher training and curriculum development.

“We try to take the fear out of it for the teachers,” Barbre said. “We’re there to help that process.” As teachers become more comfortable using technology routinely, there is less fear and less resistance to using it, she added.

“In this instance, it’s all right when your kids come into the classroom knowing more than you do,” she said. “It’s a new way to teach. You’re facilitating the kids as they learn on their own. It’s the coolest thing, and you’re just watching as the kids create their own magic.”

Besides its keyboards, guitar synthesizers, and V-Drums, Roland also makes a line of computer peripheral interface products for recording and editing audio and MIDI data, including controllers and speakers. Last month, the company paid to bus 1,200 Southern California high school music students to a musical performance and product demonstrations at a local music technology show. As part of that experience, students learned what skills are necessary to be a musician in today’s world.

“We want kids to keep playing music, and if we leave them excited about being a musician, then we’ve done our job,” Barbre said.

From abstract to ‘very real’

David Mash, vice president of information technology at the Berklee College of Music, says his school has been using technology to teach music since the 1980s.

Three years ago, Berklee school officials decided technology was so essential to the learning and music-making process that each student should have his or her own computer and software.

“All 4,000 of our students have an Apple Powerbook, and they come pre-loaded with the Apple iLife suite, which includes GarageBand, and they also get Logic Express, Finale, Reason from Propellerhead, and other software,” he said.

“Students also get a small MIDI keyboard so they have something they can carry around in a small carrying case that is, in effect, a full music production studio,” Mash said. “Every entering freshman has an introduction to music technology course where they learn to use those tools–so from that point on, they can write music, create CDs, post MP3 files, and so on.”

He explained, “The professional music world has changed drastically over the years, and there’s a huge change in how people get their music. Our college’s mission is to prepare our students for successful careers in the music industry, and without these technology tools, you can’t be successful in the current world.”

Music technology benefits learning, Mash said, in various ways.

“Twenty years ago, I might be teaching students in a harmony class, and we might be learning about core progressions and cadences. I might ask my students to go home and write an eight-bar example using the techniques we learned in class. Those students, very mechanically, would create the exercise and bring it into class the next day. When I’d play it on the piano, nine out of 10 students wouldn’t recognize what they’d written, because they hadn’t heard it before. This was a theoretical exercise that was disconnected from sound, and music exists in sound. With the old tools, you had to express sound in a code–music notation–that the general public doesn’t understand. It’s a set of directions for musicians to turn into sound,” he said.

“Now, with technology, we have that same class, and the students write the same eight-bar example, but as they write it, they play it back, and they hear it; and by hearing it, they’re making musical decisions. They’re learning much more effectively about that harmonic progression, and they recognize their work and everyone gets to hear it the way they intended it to sound, because the students produced it themselves, rather than the teacher playing it at the piano,” Mash said.

“It goes from abstract to very real,” he concluded. “It helps the teacher be more effective and coach better, and things are more musical … when you’re actually hearing everything all the time.”

Mash compared the evolution of music composition and instruction to the progression from a typewriter to word-processing software.

“With a typewriter, you had to be careful and retype if you made an error, but with a word processor you can write as you go and read everything at once,” he said. “The whole editing and revision process has a direct correlation to the music world. With a music processor, you get to experience the music as you’re writing it in sound. Instead of moving sentences, you can move musical passages.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

See these related links:

Converse College

Berklee College of Music

Technology resources for music educators is a free web site from Morton Subotnick, a pioneer in electronic music composition. The site gives children an opportunity to play with creating music–they learn, but still have fun.

GarageBand is part of the iLife suite of software from Apple Computer. The program lets users record, create, and perform their own music. It’s a good starting point for students, and GarageBand files will open and translate into Apple’s Logic Express and Logic Pro software. GarageBand has multi-track recording and displays notation in real time.

Harmonic Vision is a developer and publisher of music education software for the home, school, and studio. The company’s software products, which include Music Ace Maestro and Music Ace, introduce beginning and intermediate students of all ages to the joys of music, the company says.

The National Association for Music Education (MENC) sponsors an annual contest in electronic music composition; for information about the contest and to meet this year’s winners, see the video clip titled “Electronic Music Maestros” at

Roland Corp. is a leading manufacturer and distributor of electronic musical instruments, including keyboards and synthesizers, guitar products, electronic percussion kits, digital recording equipment, amplifiers, and audio processing devices.

Sibelius Software offers music education software for students of all ages and abilities, from beginning to professional-level products. The company’s latest release is Groovy Music, a series of three programs for elementary and middle school students that teaches the basics of sound, rhythm, pitch, and composition using captivating graphics and animation.

SoundTree sells and installs learning systems for music education that integrate electronic music instruments, computers, and software. The company also offers staff training, advice and planning, and free lesson plans for teachers from elementary school through college.

The Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) is a nonprofit organization that offers resources and professional development in using music technology for teachers. TI:ME develops course materials for using technology in music instruction and offers workshops on topics such as advanced notation, electronic instruments, and integrating technology into the music curriculum.

Laura Ascione

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at