the Virtual Music Classroom

Music Activities and Resources for Kids and Teachers



An Article first published in the Kodály Society of Canada's journal- Alla Breve
by Kit Eakle

This is a short survey of methods for using computers in elementary school classrooms. I believe that computers can be used in elementary classes, both by music and classroom teachers, making music more accessible to all. However computer music can never replace real, personal music experiences. In the current climate of program and budget cutbacks, it is becoming increasingly rare for classroom music to be taught by specialists. While we can never give in to this trend, perhaps computers can help less experienced teachers address their students' needs a little more effectively, bringing a new tool to help us achieve our goal of providing music literacy for all. In most jurisdictions music curriculum at the elementary level is intended for ALL teachers, specialists and non-specialists. With this in mind, any tools that classroom teachers can use to expose students to music literacy, must be welcomed. Computers, as we shall see, are quite capable of providing this exposure.

Before discussing how technology can be used in this situation, however, it is important to make very clear what computers can NOT do. The foremost of these is that the computer can NEVER replace the child's physical involvement with music. The students' most important early experiences with music must include singing and moving to music. Computers must never inhibit these important experiences. Secondly, a computer can NOT replace a good music teacher. While computers can support and supplement music teaching, computers can NOT replace the understanding and personal contact of a good music teacher in our school music programs.
Finally, computers cannot replace the student's learning. Computers can easily fool inexperienced teachers into thinking they are providing music learning for their students, when no real student learning is actually taking place. Teachers must be aware of the computers capabilities and how to focus their assessments on what students are learning while using them.

Having made these disclaimers, how can a computer in the classroom help with music learning? I like to sort the ways computers can help teachers into five categories:

1. Teacher resource
Computers can be a teacher resource, helping the teacher with things they may find difficult to do on their own.

2. Traditional Computer Aided Instruction (CAI)
Perhaps the best program to teach note identification, ear training, etc. at the Grade 6-12 levels is called "Practica Musica." There is also an interesting 'shareware' program, available free on the internet, called "Ear Training," which gives simple musical dictation. However, this is not my own favourite use of computers, especially in the elementary classroom.

3. Teaching and performing support
Various programs help teachers create accompaniments for class ensembles, and give teachers support for classroom instruction, scoring, arranging, transposition, etc.

4. Student research
Computers are becoming a more effective research tool with many informative applications, especially on CD ROM and the World Wide Web.

5. A creative tool for student learning, composition and musical "play."
Let's look at some particular examples of what students and teachers can accomplish with computers.

The most common use of computers in the music class is for notation . The programs used for this purpose fall into four broad categories:
1. notation programs only [e.g., "Note Writer" - no longer available]

2. notation programs which use the limited built-in sound capabilities of the computer 'play' their notes [e.g., "Deluxe Music Construction Kit" (no longer available) and "Concert Ware"]

3. notation programs that require a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) instrument to play their sounds. (MIDI is the language that allows a computer to 'speak' with a synthesizer.) [These programs are numerous - examples include "Encore," "Overture," "Performer," "Finale" and "Nightingale,"]

4. programs which take input directly from a MIDI instrument (synthesizer) and notate it for you! (These programs also will play back the notated files described in 3. above)

The only truly pure notation program I have used is called "NoteWriter" from Passport music software. If you are only interested in creating print quality music, adaptable to any need (including sol-fa notation with no staff and hearts for time signatures!) this is a good, reasonably inexpensive program. Teachers may find "Note Writer" helpful in creating worksheets, making new copies of sheet music, and any other application where high quality music notation is required. The notation can be enlarged to any size, and can be printed as you wish. NoteWriter files can be saved and placed in standard word processor documents as well. However, NoteWriter files can NOT be imported into other music programs which are capable of playing the music.
At least two notation programs are available that will play music for you with no added goodies to your Macintosh or sound-card-aided PC: "Deluxe Music Construction Kit" and "ConcertWare." Both of these programs have four or more pre-programmed sounds that will play back the music you or your students write. With these programs you can not only display the music as your class sings it, but the computer will actually play along with you! While the sounds are not as life-like as a real piano or symphony orchestra, they may help your children keep on pitch as they sing, especially if the teacher is not sure of his/her own pitch!
The fancier versions of these programs will play a number of different sounds at once, allowing you to make a score with several voices. This can be useful in teaching children rounds, ostinati, and other multi-voice settings by letting students sing with the computer until they can sing their parts confidently. You can also add dimensions to your classroom music games by creating an ostinato pattern to sing over or a simple bass line.

Using such a program, of course, you can also have the children start to experiment with their own music writing. This begins to exploit the true strength of computers in the elementary music class. Students can begin composing their own music! "Deluxe Music Construction Kit" and "Concert Ware." also let you use the computer keyboard as a piano keyboard.
There are many MIDI notation programs. "Music Time" by Passport and "Musicshop" by Opcode are good and reasonibly priced programs for elementary classroom use. With these programs the possibilities become almost limitless if you also have a MIDI instrument or keyboard and a MIDI interface.

While a keyboard can be a costly item, there are simple, small keyboards that will work well for this purpose for under $200. The interface (a small box and three cables, one into the computer and two for the "in" and "out" signals to the keyboard) is available for something in the neighborhood of $60. Very good keyboards are available for much less than a classroom piano and are often more useful to an imaginative teacher. For the price of a quality acoustic piano, you can get a MIDI instrument with several very realistic piano sounds, and a full complement of orchestral and other sounds as well, and electronic keyboard always stays in tune!

At any rate a MIDI keyboard can open a whole world of music to your class. By setting it up in conjunction with a computer, you have a work station where students can play and record their favourite tunes or compose their own music. With a MIDI instrument and a MIDI notation program, students can write out or copy melodies and arrangements and play them back automatically, or they can play on the keyboard and have the notation program write out what they play.

There are also "MIDI files" available of existing compositions. Many of these are available on the Internet. How to access them is explained below. The notation programs mentioned, and many others as well, will write these files out in music notation, so that your class can follow the score of actual listening examples as they play. Most of these instruments also have percussion sounds, allowing students to compose ostinati or rhythm accompaniments to melodies they know. These newly composed accompaniments can be played as the class sings the song.

Students can also alter known songs, changing notes, tempo, experimenting with instrumentation, cutting and pasting sections of music to play with form, etc.

Three things I have tried include:
1. Give short melodic phrases of known songs that can be recombined in various forms to create new melodies and ask kids to
· recreate the original melody
· create new melodies in a given form (e.g. ABA, ABAC, ABBA, etc.)
· combine melodies to create rounds, countermelodies, etc.

2. Give a set rhythm (perhaps dictated by a poem or verse) and a tone set (e.g., pentatonic) and ask students to create a melody for the class to learn.

3. Give students the complete score of a known classical work and ask them to reassign instruments to create a new "orchestration" of the work.

Given these kinds of tools, teachers can even have students undertake these tasks without being musicians themselves, because the computer music is already available. The only hard part is to get appropriate MIDI files for the activity, although these are becoming more and more available. If you have difficulty locating MIDI files, you can often find them on the Internet. If you still can't find them, LOOK HERE! I have many files of simple primary songs that can be used this way. The use of MIDI notation programs opens a vast world of creative possibilities for the music specialist and classroom generalist.

There are two programs that don't fit easily in the "notation" category, but which should be mentioned here. One of them gets my vote as the single cheapest, most useful program I know: "Band-in-a-Box" (PG Music) devised by Victoria's Peter Gannon. Costing around $60, this little program is much as the name implies, a "band in a box!" If you are familiar with chords and chord accompaniment to songs, you can have hours of fun with this program. The idea is to type in the chord progression you want, and the program plays back an amazingly sophisticated arrangement, never the same way twice, but using 'style' information to make the accompaniment a rock group, a Scubertian arpeggiated pattern, a jazz band, or any of 20–p;30 other different styles programmed into the "box." You can easily create a rock version of "Charley Over The Ocean," or any other singing game to pep up your Grade 5 class.

You can also have your students write in the melody of the song and show it as the program plays it back with the accompaniment. Each playback can be different, because "Band-in-a-Box" will harmonize the melody in a different style and instrumentation, as you direct it. If your kids are a motivated to do so, they can learn how to program their own styles, or record their own improvisations over a melody. A click of the mouse changes the style a song accompaniment uses.

Any accompaniment it plays can also be "exported" as a MIDI file to a notation program and written out for analysis.

A second program by PG Music (in the $40 range) is great for classroom listening activities: "The Pianist" uses recordings of performances "by world-class concert pianists" [none of whom, unfortunately were named in the copy I reviewed, except for a sticker on the front of the box saying "featuring Valerie Tryon, Juno award winner 1994." It is not clear if she is the only performer] There are 200 piano works in this set, some short chestnuts, other more serious, extended works, including Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata,the complete Children's Corner by Debussy, and Mozart's Sonata in C, K. 525. Short biographies of all the composers (from Albinoni to Poulenc) are included, as well as quizzes about the composers and their music. These works are all recorded as MIDI files, which can be imported into notation programs, reorchestrated, and otherwise altered by you or your students. "Band In A Box" and "The Pianist" could actually form the basis of a music program from Grade 3 on up.

There are, however, many other ways to use computers in school music. Two programs I have viewed are based on actual vocal input from users through a microphone connected to your computer. (Even the simple mics included with earlier Macintosh computers will suffice.) "Claire" (by Opcode) will take input from a single voice or unison choir. It shows or plays sight-singing exercises, which students sing back into the microphone. The computer (whose sensitivity can be adjusted from plus or minus 12 to 50 cents) gives feedback on the accuracy of the singer's pitch! It seems quite accurate, especially in treble ranges. It also uses movable doh for Kodály teachers.
"Autoscore " (from Wildcat Canyon Software in California) can be used in conjunction with other notation programs. When you sing into the microphone, the program will actually record your voice as input in the notation program, and write out the notes you sing! This means that any child who can sing can begin with a short melody and then manipulate or change the notes, instruments that play them back, etc., to create their own music. With this sort of innovation becoming more and more available, it will not be long before students can begin writing their own music as easily as they can produce art with paints.

Speaking of composition for young folks, the hit of my demonstrations at the Kodály Conference was a CD ROM, available from Voyager, called "Making Music." Voyager is a well known CD ROM group who have made CD ROMs of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Schubert's Trout Quintet, Mozart's Dissonant Quartet, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, among other classical music titles. This little "Making Music" CD is written by the contemporary American composer, Morton Sobotnick. It is meant for very young children with "no reading required," either musical or otherwise.

The metaphors of paintbrush, palette, and easel are used to give students complete comfort in 'painting' their own melodies. The "paint" creates horizontal lines, much like player piano roll notes. "Colours" indicate one of 12–p;15 instrumental sounds. The "palette" also includes choosing major, minor, pentatonic, whole tone, and chromatic scale settings, or kids can arrange their own "scales" by modifying the step arrangements in a menu. Once a tune is in place, simple menu items "stretch," (augment) "shrink" (diminish), invert or retrograde selected phrases, giving kids a real visual sense of a composer's tools. This CD retails under $50 US. See a demo here.

The last demonstration at the Kodály Conference was a demonstration of the Internet and the World Wide Web. To open that can of worms, a demonstration is needed. Suffice it to say that the Internet has an incredible array of information for all music teachers. As the new Kodály Society of Canada Board can now attest, this resource is only a click or two away, if you can get to a computer with enough memory and access. This is of course, always the frustrating part of computers. Their promise always seems to be just a little beyond reach. But that last step is getting closer all the time, and it is already worth a much closer look if you haven't taken that step yet.

For a starting place on the Internet, get a friend who has access to the internet to show you how dial up the new KSC Homepage at This new homepage "points" to a vast labyrinth of information for music teachers and student music research.

With computers, the important thing (and the hard part) is not letting the jargon scare you! Just jump in, join in the inevitable fun (and, I admit, frustration), along with the kids, and learn a lot more than you ever dreamed possible about making music on your computer!

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DOWNLOAD needs and NET INFO for using this page:
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