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Music to Our Ears

by Tara Higgins

Curriculum Center

In the past, because written music requires basic music literacy, the songs that children created on the spur of the moment were difficult to record, replicate, or edit. Technology has solved that problem by providing a number of inexpensive ways in which children can write and record their own music. Discover how fifth graders at California's Village School composed original rondos and created their own CD. Included: Audio files of two original student compositions PLUS an opportunity to write about your favorite classroom project and read about it on Education World.

Mozart might have been considered a prodigy when he composed his first concerto at the age of five, but that was long before the advent of the modern computer. Today, the tunes young musicians carry in their heads can be brought to life much more easily -- through the "magic" of technology. Our fifth-grade students at Village School in Los Angeles, California, recently made use of the most current technological advances to write and produce their own music compositions.

In search of a way to inspire our students' enthusiasm for music, Michael Apodaca, the school's music teacher, and I decided to give our fifth graders an opportunity to write original musical pieces. We began by looking for a simple software program that the students could use to create their compositions.

About the Author

Tara Higgins, previously a grade-four classroom teacher, currently is director of academic technology at Village School, a transitional kindergarten to sixth grade private school in Los Angeles, California. Higgins, who has a master's degree in educational technology, also works with master's degree students at Pepperdine University, helping them learn how to integrate technology into their own classrooms.
We looked first at Finale, a professional music composition program published by Coda Music Technologies. That program, which allows users to choose instruments, write parts, print full scores, and save files for publication, costs about $300. Coda also makes three other music composition programs, however, and we discovered that the simplest one, Finale Notepad, is free. Notepad, available for download at the Coda Web site, allows users to choose from a wide variety of musical instruments and then input notes, rests, and articulations with the click of a mouse. The files created can be saved in Coda as audio files or printed as a written score. Editing is fairly easy, and the quality of playback on the computer is excellent. We decided that the free program fit our needs very well.

Next, Michael and I provided our students with a list of guidelines to help them get started. The students already had done a little background work; they had a general idea of how to read music and some basic knowledge about note values and the concept of a rest. I'm not sure how much of the lessons taught in the music room sank in, however, until the students actually had to use that knowledge to compose their own music. As the project progressed, students learned a great deal about such concepts as musical themes, note values, and the placement of notes on a staff; they learned it, though, through informal discussion rather than direct instruction.

Students composed their own themes and critiqued their classmates' compositions.
Students began the project by choosing three instruments and writing a theme -- called the "A" theme. (Editors Note: In music, a theme is "the principal melodic phrase in a composition, especially a melody forming the basis of a set of variations." -- The guidelines suggested that the theme be approximately eight measures long and include a variety of note values, rests, and patterns. Students also were asked to use a pentatonic (five-note) scale, avoiding F's and B's, in order to eliminate as much dissonance as possible. Of course, because we also wanted to provide our students with as much creative freedom as possible, we ended up making many exceptions to the guidelines!

Next, students wrote a "B" theme, following the same guidelines but creating a different sound. They copied the "B" theme directly after the "A" theme, then added a "C" theme. Eventually, the compositions became rondos -- a musical form in which a repetitive main theme is interspersed with contrasting themes -- in an ABACA format.

Click to hear Rex's composition.

The students' excitement about the project was evident. Each week, when they entered the lab, students quickly put on their headphones, opened their files, and began working diligently on their themes. They also listened to a few of their classmates' developing compositions each week and critiqued them. The students were more than willing to spend time playing their pieces for their classmates -- and for anyone else who walked into the classroom. They were obviously very proud of their songs and clearly loved the project, from start to finish.

When the compositions were completed, we opened them in our music teacher's copy of Finale and used that program to convert the Notepad files to midi files that could be played on any computer. Next, I purchased a $15 program called Midi2Wav Converter and used it to convert the files from midis to .wav files that also could be played on ordinary stereos. Finally, after weeks of hard work, the compositions were completed, converted, and burned onto CDs.

The project took about ten weeks to complete, mostly because our fifth graders visit the technology lab only once a week. Almost any teacher with a little bit of musical background and a willingness to experiment with the computer could complete this project with his or her students, however; in terms of technical skills, the hardest part was figuring out how to transfer the songs onto the CD.

For me, the best part of the project was that each student got to take home a CD, "It's Music to Our Ears," containing all the student compositions. Just today, the parent of a fifth grader came in to thank me -- and to "complain" that her son plays the CD so much she's getting tired of hearing it. Apparently, the student plays it both in the car and at home and, even though his song is on track 18, he listens to all the songs every time!

Recently, the entire Village School community got to listen to several selections from the finished CD, when they were played at a school assembly. All the parents, teachers, and students were suitably impressed by the musical talents demonstrated by our fifth graders.

Click to hear Marissa's composition.

Children today have many opportunities -- both inside and outside the classroom -- to learn about music. They listen to different types of music, sing in school concerts, and create spontaneous melodies on a variety of instruments. In the past, because written music requires basic music literacy, the songs that children created on the spur of the moment were difficult to record, replicate, or edit. Luckily, technology has solved that problem by providing a number of inexpensive ways in which children can write and record their own music. That new creative capability offers an excellent example of curriculum driving technology, rather than the other way around. Today's technology can enhance and expand students' music literacy skills and provide easy access to the power of publication for all students.

Watch out, Mozart, here we come!

You Be the Author!

Do you have a favorite classroom project, inter-curricular unit, or whole-school activity that you'd like to share with teachers and administrators across the country and around the world? Are you a competent writer who can describe the special activities taking place in your classroom and school in a clear and interesting way? Would you like to see the article you write posted at Education World under your byline? If so, e-mail [email protected] and tell me about the activity or project you want to write about.