Let's Make Some More Music

Dr. Andy Pierson
This article first appeared in MAPE Magazine Spring 1998

We derive a great deal of pleasure from listening to music. Much of our social life revolves around listening to and responding to music in some way, by dancing to it for example. Music has the power to release our emotions and to direct our thoughts and this facet of music is used to effect in many ways such as the musical accompaniment to a film for example or to focus attention on a particular advert. As an art form it provides us with a universal language with which to communicate moods, feelings, ideas and even the intricacies of whole cultures. Music can also contribute to the teaching of the curriculum as a whole.

Given the importance of music, it is disappointing when it is found low down in the list of priorities for education in schools.

Music is too difficult

One of the problems associated with music in the classroom is the idea that participation in music is too difficult. Having listened to the stunning performance of an orchestra playing our favourite symphony we feel very inadequate for the task. The perception of professional musical performance is one of highly technical skills with the requirement of a working knowledge of an instrument and of some form of musical notation. The idea that active participation in music might be taking place in our own classroom is therefore out of the question. The support provided in different schools and authorities is vastly different. You may or may not have a music specialist in your school. If you do they may be encouraged to provide music for the whole school rather than encourage music to happen in each individual classroom. Any instrumental activity that does go on may well rely on private funding and will therefore tend to be for the minority who have an interest in instrumental skills.

Music is for everyone

There is no reason why music should not happen as a natural part of classroom activities with every teacher and pupil involved at some level. There are many techniques, ideas and guided schemes that enable even the most musically nervous person to be involved. However, even with the most supportive of schemes the fear of live performance using voice or instrument can leave us reluctant to get involved. Technology can play a key role here.

Access to music using the computer

We can use technology to build a supportive environment where both teacher and pupil can be given the freedom to experiment with music. The opportunity to succeed at manipulating musical sounds and structures can replace some of the perceptions of failure that may have occurred with the use of traditional instruments and notation. There are two key factors that are employed here:

These factors play an important role for music education generally. By using technology in this way the pupils are able to concentrate on listening to musical sounds and structures and to make judgements and decisions based on what they hear. By changing the emphasis from performance of an instrument to listening and manipulating, pupils are able to explore composition techniques that might otherwise have been out of their reach. Musical structures can be played that would require years of training to reproduce on a traditional instrument. Instrument sounds can be used that would otherwise be out of reach of the normal primary classroom.

An orchestra at our fingertips

We have come a long way since the early days of computer generated music. As the technology has grown we have seen a big improvement in sound quality with electronically generated sounds. We can have access to realistic instrumental sounds such as a trumpet, violin, sitar or steel drum. We can also make our own sounds from recordings or by manipulating synthesizer controls. The possible range of sounds is endless. Using these resources we can explore the effect of different sounds to conjure up moods and styles. For example, we can write a piece of music and play it using a brass sound. Then we can try using a string sound and decide which best suits the composition. We might also experiment with a new sound, perhaps drawn from a recording of our own voice, as a contrasting instrument sound.

A world of styles and sounds

As well as exploring sounds we can use the technology to help explore style and structure. With the access to a full drum kit in a synthesizer we can produce exciting and stimulating rhythm patterns from presets on a keyboard or from phrases in a computer sequencer. Pupils find that they have access to the type of sounds and rhythms that they hear in the pop world. This same principle can be applied to the exploration of a wide range of styles from all parts of the world and periods of history. Using technology we can provide pupils with the opportunity to explore styles and sounds that they are not familiar with.

The effect on traditional music

What is really important here is not to see the technology as the only musical activity taking place, far from it. The technology needs to be used as one musical resource amongst many, as a stimulus for musical ideas that may be developed with or without the technology. Far from damaging traditional musical activities, our experience with using technology in the music classroom is that it encourages traditional musical activities. Having used technology to explore ideas and to learn musical skills of judgement and style, pupils are more confident in using traditional instruments with all the different excitement of acoustic sounds and live performance. Having experimented with the sounds and styles of a certain type of music such as Jazz or Blues using the supportive environment of the computer, the pupils are more able to use the understanding they have gained to reproduce those styles using other instruments and, of course, their voices.

IT equipment

There is a wide range of equipment that can be used to provide opportunities for sound and sound exploration.
A simple tape recorder can be used very effectively to gather sounds from the environment which can then be played back in the classroom as starting points for composition.
Musical keyboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They will have different quality and ranges of sounds as well as other effects and controls. Some keyboards have auto accompaniment facilities which can help to explore styles and form a basis for improvisation. Others will have opportunities to make your own patterns and even you own instruments.
It may be possible to connect your computer to a musical keyboard, synthesizer or sound box. Many of these devices use a system called MIDI. This is a standard means of connecting electronic musical devices to computers and is used to transmit musical information between the two. To use this you will generally need a MIDI interface in your computer and a MIDI connector in the musical keyboard, synthesizer or sound box. However, some sound boxes can now be connected to the computer using the built in serial port in the computer. A MIDI interface can take many shapes and forms. If it is only a MIDI interface then it will have at least a MIDI In and a MIDI Out connector which need to be connected to the MIDI Out and MIDI In of the musical keyboard. Some MIDI Interfaces are also multimedia Sound Cards and can also provide some Synthesizer facilities of their own. If your computer can produce sounds generally then you may be able to expand the sounds produced by the computer with a MIDI Synthesizer that runs in software. This is often a cheaper option than adding or connecting MIDI hardware.

Software

Music software also covers a wide range. There are many programs that offer opportunities to write music using traditional staff notation. Notes can often be entered using a musical keyboard connected to the computer using a MIDI interface. They can also be entered using a mouse and easily changed both in pitch and tempo. The complexity of the notation offered varies with some programs designed to provide easy access to notation for Key Stages 1 and 2 and others which provide professional systems for producing high quality printing of notation as a teacher resource. There are also many other ways of handling musical data using the computer which have been developed into computer software, some of which use various forms of grid notation others which use graphical or textual representations for patterns and phrases. Another category of music software is training and teaching software. All music programs will be used to support learning about and information relating to music. However, some programs are specifically designed to teach about a particular area of the music curriculum. Alongside these we also have multimedia CD-ROMs which provide additional musical resources.

Criteria for choosing music IT resources

It is important when selecting the resources for implementing IT and Music to focus on three key criteria.
Firstly that the resources support the implementation of the National Curriculum for the target Key Stage.
Secondly, that the resources are well targeted at the age range that you want to use them with.
Thirdly, that music technology should make music more accessible and act as a support to a wide range of musical activities. It should not become a technical burden that distracts from the musical activity itself otherwise it is in danger of adding to the complexity of live performance with something even more complex.

[top of page]