Music Technology

How Music Teachers Got Their Groove Back: Music Instruction Goes Digital

Faced with meager enrollment in band, orchestra, and choir programs, schools are using digital technology to excite students about creating music on today’s terms

Carol Broos is on a mission. She is determined to appeal to the estimated 80 percent of students who do not enroll in traditional school music programs--band, orchestra, and choir. "I want to change the way that music courses are taught," says Broos, who teaches music to students in grades 4 through 8 at Sunset Ridge School in Northfield, IL, about 20 miles north of Chicago. "I want to change music education from a performing art to a creating art."

The only way to do that, Broos recognizes, is by doing nothing short of reinventing her profession, which means acknowledging and incorporating the way students interact with music today--digitally.

"Music educators need to reexamine themselves," she says. "Why are we not engaging kids? Why are we not reaching 80 to 90 percent of the student population? Students are listening to more music, creating more music, and playing more music, but we are not involved. It's happening at home, on their home computers."

Fortunately, hers is not a solo mission. Consider the work of Bill Evans, a music teacher at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, MD, who also serves as his district's digital music consultant. Evans is bringing digital music to middle and high school students through a popular sequence of courses called "Music and Its Technology." And then there's Barbara Freedman, a music teacher at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, CT, who has spent her 10 years there updating, expanding, and fine-tuning the electronic music program introduced at the school in 1969--the first of its kind in the country.

"Technology allows us the opportunity to teach students with very little musical background by having them create music and compose music," Freedman says. "It allows us to take them through the process of understanding music and what goes into creating music--things that students would typically learn in a performance class--like harmony, melody, and rhythm. It's applied learning. They apply themselves to the practice by actually composing."

Traditionally, that 80 percent of middle and high school students who don't jump into band, orchestra, or choir satisfy their music requirements by taking courses such as General Music or Music Appreciation. "Those classes are really more like history classes--learning about music, listening to music, and understanding music in its historical context," Freedman says. "They're music taught in a classroom setting."

As Broos describes, music education is stuck in the old educational model. It's traditionally a group undertaking in which students may perform but the teacher is clearly at the helm. "Talk about 'sage on the stage,'" she says. "Music teachers don't just put themselves in front of the group of students, they stand behind a podium."

The practical limitations of the conventional music classroom rule out individual expression, because, as Broos explains, "you can't make too much noise. You all end up learning and playing one song as a group, and the teacher decides what the song is."

Resources for Music instructors

Technology Institute for Music Educators ( A nonprofit organization that provides professional development and technology certification to music educators. Members have access to more than 1,000 lesson plans designed to aid in the application of music technology, grant writing advice, an online discussion group, and more.

Music Educators Professional Learning Network ( A free online social networking environment that offers peer support and information on integrating technology into music education.

National Association for Music Education ( A professional organization that provides support in all areas of music education, including the integration of technology in the music classroom.

A digital music lab gets far away from music textbooks and the sage-on-the-stage archetype. "How do we get students who've never participated in band, orchestra, and chorus--who don't want to be in band, orchestra, and chorus--to learn about music by creating music?" Freedman asks. "That's the opportunity that the electronic music class affords."

By making music via computer, students have their own space in which to compose their assignments, and the ability to listen to their work on headsets without being distracted by their peers' compositions draws out their creative potential. "With the headsets, class becomes a little vacation for them," Broos says. "We have 13 compositions going on at the same time. They're totally in their own world while they're creating. They don't have to worry about anyone else. It's truly magical."

Going Techno
The majority of American schools have already laid the foundation for a digital music program--they just don't know it. "It's so inexpensive to turn the computer lab you already have in your school into a music technology lab," Freedman says, "even if it's just used for that purpose one period a day."

"Start small," Evans says. "You don't need a bunch of microphones or fancy audio equipment."

He recommends focusing on the key pieces of hardware and software that effectively turn each computer into a professional-level electronic music instrument: a digital audio interface device, a MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) keyboard, notation software, and digital audio workstation software. A MIDI keyboard looks like a piano but produces no sound. As it's played, it sends digital information containing the duration and pitch of each note through the digital audio interface device to the notation software installed on the computer. Notation software "writes" the musician's composition into sheet music as the notes are played, producing a real-time record of the work that can then be edited and revised. From there, the composition is exported to the instrumentation software, where the user can access a library of digital "instruments" to flesh out the composition, or even add more live instrumentation by connecting a guitar to the digital audio interface device.

In Evans' district, the computers in the middle school music labs are equipped with two notation software products from Avid Technology--Groovy Music and Sibelius; his high school students use Sibelius along with an audio production and instrumentation software package called Pro Tools, also from Avid. The Pro Tools software is included with the Mbox 2 Mini digital audio interface.

In Freedman's Introduction to Electronic Music course--the most requested class at her high school--students compose music using GarageBand, which comes installed on all Apple computers, including the iMacs found at each of the workstations in Freedman's classroom. Students in her more advanced classes employ Apple's Logic Pro, a program commonly used by music professionals.

Broos' lab is also Apple-based. Her classroom features 13 stations, each with a MIDI keyboard and an Internet- connected iMac. "At each station there are two headsets, so I can have 26 students working," she says. Her students use GarageBand for instrumentation and Sibelius for composing.

When shopping for MIDI keyboards and other digital audio peripherals, Evans says it's not necessary to pay top dollar to get top quality. "Avid has its M-Audio line, which is its lower-end line, but professionals use it. I use it at home. I paid under $100 for the M-Audio MIDI keyboard that I have at home. It's all I need to enter notes into Pro Tools and Sibelius through the Mbox Mini. I can create a complete symphony with that."

Composing a Curriculum
"I have a motto," Freedman says. "Teach music; the technology will follow." And her program adheres to it. Her introductory students are exposed to the basic ingredients of music and music composition, including rhythm, melody, melodic variations, and form. In the two courses that follow, students learn more advanced music and composition skills, such as scales and arpeggios, chords and progressions, different types of musical form, and audio recording and editing projects. At the fourth and final level of Freedman's program, students compose freely while working on projects with real-world applications, including commercial music, exploration of world music styles, and live audio recording.

There is no prerequisite musical ability attached to taking the Introduction to Electronic Music course, and Freedman finds that many of her students are initially drawn to it by the hope of achieving the same glory enjoyed by their hip-hop idols, like Sean "Diddy" Combs and Kanye West, who have limited musical backgrounds and little formal music education but have become enormous successes.

"They come to me saying that they want to make 'phat beats,'" Freedman says, "so I hook them in." Once she's got them in her classroom, she plies them with the fundamentals: "scales, chords, arpeggios, melodies, and all of the elements of composition that go into making more sophisticated music. And I'm going to tell you something, my students make pretty sophisticated music--much more sophisticated than some of the stuff we hear on the radio." Their accomplishments bear that out: Freedman's students have won regional and national awards for their compositions.

But even better, 65 percent of the seniors who completed Freedman's program in June went on to enter college this fall as music technology or music composition majors. "It was an exceptional year," she says. "We typically average around 30 or 35 percent, which is still higher than the band, orchestra, and chorus students combined."

Freedman attributes the numbers to her curriculum's emphasis on computer technology and audio production, which leads students on a career path that parents consider to be more viable than merely professional musician. "Parents understand that their kids can make a living as an audio engineer or as a music producer and get a business degree in music," Freedman says.

Evans adds that learning to use Pro Tools software can put students' professional prospects on especially good footing. Students in his district can become certified in the use of the technology through his program. "The Pro Tools certification is like a college diploma," he says. "With that certification, they can actually get hired in the music industry." Accordingly, Evans' curriculum incorporates instruction on the business side of making music, including copyright protection.

It took Evans three years, working with a team of fellow music educators, to put together the district's electronic music curriculum, which extends from beginning to advanced over three yearlong courses. "We teach units in history, rhythm, harmony, melody, form, meter, the business of music, vocal music, sounds of the world, and more," Evans says. He credits a fellow high school music teacher in the district, Wayne Chadwick, whose brainchild it was to teach technology through the elements of music.

For a unit on melody, students study the compositional techniques used to provide unity, variety, and tension. Evans explains that the technology allows lessons to be tailored to the grade or ability level of the students. "In the lower levels," he says, "we can give the students a scale pattern to work within Sibelius and show them how to lay out the melody within the framework of that scale pattern. They can then create a 16-measure melody that fits to a preset harmonic progression created by the teacher. The teacher can load that harmonic progression right into Sibelius so students can listen to the harmony on their headphones and then add the melody into the software using their MIDI keyboard. The students end up really understanding how the melody fits with the harmony."

The 'Other 80 Percent'

Precious little national data exists on the number of secondary school students who don't take music courses, but what there is of it settles on about 80 percent. On their Web site, "Music Creativity Through Technology" (, university music professors Rick Dammers and David Williams have dubbed this population "NTMs"--nontraditional music students--or the "Other 80 Percent."

The most recent statistics available come from a 2006 study by one of Williams' graduate students at Illinois State University, who looked at California, Texas, Ohio, and New York and found the average number of NTMs in grades 6 to 12 in those four states to be 82 percent. Dammers says the study is in line with prior academic examinations of data from a National Center for Education Statistics database called "High School and Beyond," which showed the rate of high school seniors' participation in music classes in 1982 and 2002 to be roughly 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

Dammers, an assistant professor of music education at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ, says the trend traces back much further. "This has been a concern since the late '60s," he says, citing the Tanglewood Symposium, a seminal conference for music educators held in Massachusetts in the summer of 1967, where data was presented that put the enrollment of high school students in music programs at 20 percent. "We haven't made a lot of progress," Dammers says. "That's a problem." Technology-based music classes may finally offer a means "to increase our market share," he says.

Dammers recently added fresh data to the topic at the Association for Technology in Music Instruction's annual conference in Minneapolis in September. He presented the results of a national survey he conducted early in the year. His study found that only 14 percent of US high schools now offer tech-based music courses. But there's some daylight to be seen inside the numbers. "The majority of these classes have been created recently; I would say it's safe to say within the last 10 years," Dammers says. "And 60 percent of principals who don't have these classes think it would be feasible to have them. So we have a sense of forward motion on this."

Evans finds that his music courses are generally filled with a mix of traditional music students--members of the band, orchestra, or choir--and students who, for various reasons, were not reached by the traditional programs.

"Many of my high school boys who have never sung in their lives take electronic music their sophomore and junior years," he says, "and suddenly they're signing up for choir or auditioning for the jazz band if they play bass or guitar or drums. There's a definite positive effect to having a music technology program. You're reaching out to nontraditional students who haven't been playing the clarinet since elementary school."

Broos tries to reach those nontraditional students before they exit middle school. "I'm working with those kids who have never taken private music lessons but listen to music constantly and want to create music themselves," she says.

Broos explains that she teaches music's relationship to story, which "makes sense" to the average student. In her first lesson with her fourth-graders, she has her students come up with five sentences, and then five complementary sound effects. The dog is walking, for example, would be paired with the sound of a barking dog. From there, the students begin working on musical compositions and sounds for more complex stories as they go up in grade level.

"They will write a story about being a cowboy and create some cowboy music in Sibelius and GarageBand to accompany it," Broos says. "When you teach music in this way, the students don't know that creating music is difficult. No one has told them that it's supposed to be difficult."

Broos has been fine-tuning her curriculum since her electronic music lab was installed in 2004. If students' enthusiasm is any indicator, she's doing something right. She says they even use the lab to create music for presentations in other subjects, so the room is enriching the whole school.

"I can't get them out of the lab. I have kids who come in at 7 in the morning and kids who stay after school. Once they learn how to create, once they see how easy it is to use this technology, all they want to do is make their own music."



Barbara Freedman's Web site:

Carol Broos's Web site:



This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of THE Journal.