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Tune In to Technology

Originally Published: Music Educators Journal

Music technology is a growing part of the information and multimedia revolution that is being fueled by computer technology. Electronic keyboards, music software, and computers are tools that can greatly aid students in performing, improvising, composing, reading, and notating music. The newer keyboards have at least one hundred different timbres and sound effects.

(Pictured left: Students demonstrated improvisation at a music education conference in Hartford, CT)

Students can learn how to connect the computer with the keyboard and then use these sounds to lay down musical parts (tracks) for instruments, such as a trumpet, piano, or drum. Students can use the computer with the musical keyboard to record each part of their original composition (a “sequence”) and then play back all the parts simultaneously. Then they can learn how to vary their arrangements and original compositions by using the computer skills of cutting, pasting, copying, and editing for changes in the tempo, volume, key, and timbre. Throughout this process, musical elements can be taught, both aurally and analytically, and then assessed through musical compositions and performances.

A new world is often opened up for students when they learn to improvise “freely,” improvise and compose within strict parameters, and learn standard notation in a hands-on learning environment. Learning to express oneself while composing and improvising and then sharing one’s recorded work with other students can be a great motivator. These kinds of activities provide a foundation that can prepare students for many types of music study and experience. At the same time, the students learn how to obtain information, accomplish tasks, and solve problems using higher-order thinking skills, which expand their capacity to consider differing viewpoints and make judgments. Music technology use can also help students develop social skills when they combine in teams to produce group compositions. It can be a bridge to math and science by introducing students to computers and their capabilities. The following suggestions and activities are designed for students in elementary or middle school, but they can also be adjusted for students in higher grades.

Software for Teaching

There are many ways that a teacher can incorporate music technology into his or her teaching. One of the most useful tools for the general music or choral teacher is accompaniment software. With software such as Band-in-a-Box, Jammer Songmaker, or MiBAC Jazz, teachers can make their own arrangements or accompaniments for various classroom activities. The advantage of using this software is that teachers can tailor the key, tempo, instrumentation, and number of repetitions to suit their needs. Students often identify with “contemporary” percussion sounds and are delighted to sing with instrumental accompaniments that incorporate them. Folk melodies, such as “This Old Man,” “Going to Kentucky,” and “Bingo,” accompanied by these arrangements are particularly attractive to students.

Many times, it is helpful if a teacher records an arrangement on a tape recorder to use in class, particularly if the teacher goes from room to room. For example, a teacher may record a simple blues chord progression, including a percussion part from software such as Band-in-a-Box, and then use it with his or her third- and fourth-grade students while they practice a chord progression on battery-powered two-and-one-half octave keyboards. Teachers without a permanent music classroom can transport thirty small keyboards, such as the Bon Tempi Concertino 32, Yamaha PSR series, and Casio CTK series, to a central room or auditorium at each school. The keyboards can also be transported on a cart to classrooms. Tape-recorded arrangements allow the teacher to watch the class at all times and evaluate student participation.

With accompaniment software, teachers can create an accompaniment sequence for students in choral or instrumental ensembles. Since each part of the choral or instrumental arrangement is on a different track and can be muted, a student can practice with his or her particular part and then practice with another part or the complete arrangement. Arrangements in different styles and tempos, such as the blues, provide a complete musical context for solo practice for both performing and improvising by students at all levels.

With notation software, such as Finale, Encore, or MusicTime, teachers can create their own theory and composition exercises. Notated rhythms, pitch and melody exercises, and melodies (used as models for composition) can be tailored for specific classes. The notated music can be copied into another software program, such as Hypercard, where explanatory text or graphics can be added. Notation software can save a teacher’s time and energy in a classroom.

Objectives and Class Structure

A music technology class is particularly effective if it motivates students to learn the basic elements of music through creative activities and, at the same time, accommodates the various levels of beginning students, most of whom have never played an instrument. Although it is important to produce acceptable results, the primary focus needs to be on the learning process. In other words, the focus should be on whether each student is mastering the basic concepts, thinking through each problem, and coming up with his or her own interpretation and solution to each musical challenge.

The ideal music technology class allows students to:

  • explore properties of musical sound, such as low and high, short and long, soft and loud, as well as different families of instruments

  • improvise as an ensemble within specified guidelines using one or more basic elements of music to create contrasts in individual musical patterns and group textures (for example, students playing in a lower pitch range can improvise with longer note values; students playing in the middle pitch range can improvise with chords or melody in quarter note rhythms; and students playing in the higher pitch range can improvise with faster, contrasting melodies)

  • create and record original “sound pieces” that accompany short stories, poems, or science projects

  • perform melodies after notating them

  • compose and notate short melodies based on models

  • arrange composed melodies with chords, bass, and percussion

  • work with one or two other students to write and evaluate their compositions.

A music technology class period can be organized in the following way. During the first five minutes of each class, students can explore the keyboard (using headphones) and create their own pieces, alone or with a partner. During the next five minutes, students can improvise a particular element of music together, such as a scale, chord, or interval. For about ten minutes, students can practice finger exercises, chords, or scales, as well as play and sing short melodies that are notated.

During the bulk of the period, students can focus on a particular project that may take anywhere from one to several weeks to complete. For example, students may be given an assignment to compose a short melody with particular parameters. For this kind of project, students’ initial goal may be to play a particular melody in class. The next goal may be to compose, notate, and perform an original melody that is modeled on the first melody they have learned to play. (Also see the Sample Projects for Grades K-4 and 5-8 sidebar for examples of various projects and the National Standards that they meet.)

During the final few minutes of each class, students can be allowed to explore the keyboard (using headphones) as they did at the beginning of class.

For All Grades

A teacher can prepare younger students in grades 1-4 for work with software programs by giving them keyboard lessons. For example, I have developed a curriculum for six to eight lessons per year for each music class.1 The four handbooks for this program equally emphasize theory, creativity, and performance. Lower elementary students explore high and low pitches, volume, length, and timbre; play three scales (C major, A minor, and black key pentatonic); and improvise musical patterns to accompany a story. Upper elementary students continue to improvise with the three scales they learned in earlier grades and also learn to play three melodies in a three-note range: one melody by rote, one melody from notation, and one melody composed using the core melody as a model. The CDE Handbook focuses on the properties of sound, scales, the C major chord, melodies using the notes C, D, and E, and whole, half, and quarter notes. The FGA Handbook covers the dotted half note; the F major chord; and melodies using the notes F, G, and A. The GAB Handbook covers eighth notes, the G major chord, and melodies using the notes G, A, and B. The fourth handbook is a review of rhythms and chords, as well as more melodies in the three positions. The students are also given workbooks containing related written exercises and songbooks that contain additional melodies that use a particular rhythm or group of pitches.

In the fourth and fifth grades, students are ready to explore software capabilities. They learn to access the hundred or more sounds (timbres) on their keyboards and record, evaluate, and edit their improvisations, performances, arrangements, and compositions. They learn to play in ensembles using different sounds. For example, students can practice keeping a steady beat and improvise with quarter and eight notes using the percussion sounds. They can improvise whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes on the black key pentatonic scale using other contrasting sounds. White key fifths or chords, using simple skips to describe chord structure, can be improvised using contrasting sounds and rhythms. The blues can be played using different sounds (timbres) for chords, bass, melodic improvisation, and percussion accompaniment. Keeping the melodies short (in a three- to five-note range) allows students more time to participate in ensemble exercises and record their improvisations and compositions. Fourth and fifth graders also compose and record short melodies within parameters, such as only using the pitches C, D, and E for a four-beat melodic phrase, which is repeated three times and ends on a D (like a question) and then repeats and ends on a C (like an answer).

For interdisciplinary projects, students can create background music for an original story, poem, or other project by using the C major, A minor, or the black-key pentatonic scales. For example, they can show contrast, repetition, and imitation while improvising low, middle, and high musical patterns together, either in a large group or with three students at one keyboard.

The addition of computer software such as A Little Kidmusic, Sound Toys, Musicshop, Band-in-a-Box, Rock Rap ‘n Roll, Making Music, Music Ace, Finale, MiBAC Music Lessons, and Music Lab extends and challenges the students’ ability to understand, perform, and compose music.

Music technology can be incorporated in grades six through eight in much the same way as in grades four and five. Students continue to record, evaluate, and edit their improvisations, compositions, arrangements, and performances, using more advanced musical elements. For example, they can perform longer five-note range melodies and more complex rhythmic patterns, scales intervals, and chords. They can compose longer contrasting ostinatos and melodies with accompaniment, as well as musical examples showing variation or rondo forms. Finally, with the development of musical skills in performing and creating, students can compose more interesting backgrounds for projects in other subjects.

Advocacy Tool

A music technology class can be a wonderful advocacy tool. For example, students taking music technology classes in my elementary and middle schools have presented nine programs during the past three years, including one for the New Haven Board of Education. For these programs, the students performed their improvisations and computer compositions.

(Pictured left: Middle school and elementary school MIDI keyboard and computer workstation)

Recently, three of my eighth-grade students made a presentation entitled “Music in the 21st Century: Venturing into Math, Science, and Music” at the 6th Annual Conference of the Connecticut Alliance for Arts Education. They were the only “live” exhibit oh the “capitol concourse.” For three hours, they demonstrated lessons from their music technology course and played their computer compositions.

The demonstrations on the keyboard included (1) keeping a steady beat with quarter and eighth notes using percussion sounds, followed by a free improvisation; (2) playing a whole, half, and quarter note improvisation with a pentatonic scale; (3) playing improvisations illustrating contrasts between the bass, chordal, and melodic parts with the C major, A minor, and F-sharp pentatonic scales; (4) playing overtones and improvisations with the white-key fifths; and (5) playing C, F, and G7 chords in a blues improvisation with bass and melody parts.

More complex demonstrations included (1) a composition with quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes using the percussion sounds in a rhythm and blues style; (2) an improvisation in A minor; (3) a composition using the interval of a fifth as a basis for a Haiku poem, as well as an accompaniment of a melody in 6/8 time; (4) four original melodies using three to five pitches, eight to sixteen measures in length, in a question and answer form, using two to four tracks for accompaniments; (5) an original melody performed in the keys of C, F, and G major; and (6) a composition entitled “Contrasts,” containing four original ostinatos, play first alone and then together, illustrating contrasts in pitch, rhythm and timbre.

Other Considerations

There can be obstacles to developing a music technology program, including the cost of equipment, available time, and appropriate space. I started slowly by introducing an after-school program with a handful of students and small keyboards. To get financing for music technology, I wrote letters to several local businesses and banks, explaining the need for computers for a music technology program. To my surprise, five computers were promptly donated. Teachers can try writing to local businesses and banks in their own communities. Even simpler and older computers are satisfactory for as beginning program. I have used part of my annual school budget each year to acquire keyboards and other equipment, and I have also applied for grants to obtain equipment. Recently, I received funding for two music keyboards at one school from a grant given by the Innovative Schools Program, an instructional program that focuses on literacy.2

It is very important to join a local music technology organization. For example, I belong to the Music Educators’ Technologists Association (META) of Connecticut. During the meetings, members describe their use of technology in the classroom, thus providing a forum for discussion. An important aspect of this organization is that each member is respected and supported for his or her way of using technology in the classroom.3

If teachers are just starting to build a music technology program in their schools and aren’t quite sure how to begin, they can start by learning how to use various software programs. Then they can try introducing a computer software program to just a few students. After teachers feel comfortable with a few students, they can introduce the program to a whole class. Finally, teachers can use several computers with a larger group or class. As the students progress, the technology program will develop and gain importance in the school. When the students start to demonstrate their composition and improvisation skills in even simple programs, parents and administrators become informed about what can be accomplished using music technology. The demonstration programs can generate a great deal of excitement and joy, which, in turn, often makes it easier for teachers to obtain more and better equipment for their music technology programs.


1. For a description of how the program was first introduced, see Patricia M. Bissell, “Keyboards Launch Students into Music,” Music Educators Journal 82, no. 1 (1995): 29-31

2. See Kirk Kassner, “Funding Music Technology,” Music Educators Journal 84, no. 6 (1998): 30-35, for a list of sources for funding music technology. An additional source is Electronic Data Systems at EDS Community Affairs, 13600 EDS Drive, Mail Stop A65-C39, Herndon, VA 20171

3. Another resource is the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TIME), 305 Maple Avenue, Wyncote, PA 19095;

Originally Published: Music Educators Journal, September 1998, Page 36

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