Thursday, January 12, 2012

Technology in and For the Instrumental Music Classroom

Music education, in some form, goes back as far as education itself. While sometimes struggling for legitimacy, it nonetheless has had its champions. More recently, as technology has flourished within education, technological applications designed specifically for the teaching of music have been developed. While much of this technology is designed primarily for the classroom there are programs designed for the student to utilize in the home, albeit limited to those students with a home computer and internet access.

The teaching of music in the American educational setting dates back 1838 when Lowell Mason introduced singing classes to Boston grammar schools. Instrumental music appeared in fits and starts over the next fifty years but was never included during the school day; rather, it was relegated to the ranks of extracurricular activities. Around the turn of the century, instrumental music began to see some acceptance into the classroom, though often was taught by those untrained in the area of music education. Moreover, little if any standardization of the instrumentation or music literature existed. (Rhodes, 2007)

Near the conclusion of World War I the quality of school music began to increase. This was due primarily to veterans who, after having been musically trained in the various service branches, began to fill music teaching positions in the schools. Band, however, was still regarded as an extracurricular activity. (Ibid)

In 1907, the Music Supervisors National Conference or MSNC, (now known as the Music Educators National Conference or MENC) was organized to support school music. In 1912 a proposal was made to include, as accredited subjects, a number of music activities including choruses and general music. Band was included - but at a much lower priority. Later, however, at the Cleveland MSNC conference in 1923, Edgar B. Gordon stated,

"The high school band is no longer an incidental school enterprise prompted largely by the volunteer services of a high school teacher who happens to have had some band experience, but rather an undertaking which is assigned to a definite place in the school schedule with a daily class period under a trained instructor and with credit allowed for satisfactory work done." (Ibid)

In the same year, and likely due to the increase in both acceptance and importance, Carl Greenleaf (then head of C. G. Conn Ltd.) helped organize the first National Band Contest in Chicago. Later, in 1928, he directed the Conn company to contribute to the founding of the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan and later supported publications designed to support band directors. While these endeavors may have appeared somewhat self-serving in light of his position with Conn, they nonetheless helped establish school band as a significant part of school curriculum. (Banks, 1997)

Despite a gradual, while still limited, acceptance of instrumental music within the school curriculum, budget cuts have often curtailed or even eliminated these programs. Further, with the recent increased emphasis upon "teaching to the test" due to the pressures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and similar state requirements, support for the inclusion of music in schools has begun to wane. Michelle R. Davis, in "Education Week," stated "The federal No Child Left Behind Act is prompting many schools to cut back on subjects such as social studies, music, and art to make more time for reading and mathematics..." (Davis, 2006) This is most unfortunate considering that the study of music, especially instrumental music, has proved to be beneficial for all students - even increasing their ability to reason and problem-solve.

Many theorists have contributed to the elevation of music as central to education, or at the very least, demonstrated that limiting the school environment to the "Three R's" is short-sighted. Howard Gardner postulated his "Multiple Intelligences" theory with the understanding that children do not possess identical propensities for learning. Not only do they have differing capacities for learning but have differing capacities for learning in many areas. These areas, as he explained, are the varying intelligences of which he speaks. Originally describing seven intelligences (of which music is highlighted) he identified two specifically (linguistic and logical-mathematical) as "the ones that have typically been valued in school." (Gardner, 1999, p41) Obviously, Gardner recognized that the educational system was not reaching all students - only those that could "do school" well. Gardner did not limit his study, of course, to the mere existence of multiple intelligences but demonstrated that a given person can be strong in more than one, enabling those intelligences to interact one with the other. He explained that, "there are other ways in which different intelligences can affect each intelligence can mediate and constrain the others; one intelligence can compensate for another; and one intelligence can catalyze another." (Gardner 2, 2006, p219) He further extolled the advantages of a musical intelligence by explaining that "...a strong musical intelligence may lead a person engaged in a linguistic task to be more sensitive to the rhythmic properties of language as well as its meaning." (Ibid, p223)

While many may assume that music and the study thereof is associated primarily to that which is heard, it is also related quite closely to mathematics. Dahlhaus, reflecting Rameau stated that "music had its origins in the Pythagorean proportions; (i.e., music is a mathematics)." (Gargarian, 1996, p137, 138) Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the theory that music is mathematical in toto, there should be little dispute as to the relativity of music notation to mathematics. Indeed, introducing the coordinate, or Cartesian, plane appears to aid the new music student in understanding the horizontal (x), and vertical (y) axes of music notation. Simply stated, the horizontal (x) axis on the music staff relates to duration while the vertical (y) axis relates to pitch. This, of course is a reflection upon Gardner's aforementioned theory of intelligence interaction.

There is further evidence that instrumental music study is advantageous for the student. In 1995, Gottfried Schlaug, et al, published a study, "Increased Corpus Callosum Size in Musicians" wherein they described an increase in neural fibers across the Corpus Callosum (CC), contributing to its enlargement. They further were able to determine that this increase in fibers/CC size was attributable to instrumental music study. (Schlaug, et al, 1995) Obviously, the supposition can easily be made that, if there is greater cross-talk between the two hemispheres of the brain (specifically, the left - thought to be the analytical, and the right - thought to be the creative) the result would be a person with a greater, more creative, problem-solving ability.

Reflecting upon Gardner's theories, as well as those of Schlaug, et al, it should surprise no one that others have confirmed links between music and other skills. Bahr and Christiansen in their article "Inter-Domain Transfer Between Mathematical Skill and Musicianship" published findings demonstrating that students who had studied music demonstrated superior performance on mathematical tasks provided there was some structural overlap with music. (Bahr, Christiansen, 2000) This "structural overlap" could be nearly anything, including the relationship of dividing measures or notes into fractions, relating pitch to frequency, or, as aforementioned, establishing the link between the coordinate (Cartesian) plane and the music staff.

With this enhanced problem-solving ability; this increased awareness of mathematical concepts, it would not be a grand leap to assume that music students might perform well with classroom technology. Indeed, music students should be expected to do at least as well as other students with regard to technology. If that is true, then the next step would be to assume that they would do especially well with technology geared especially to them.

Somewhat recently, technologists, recognizing a dearth of technologically-based music applications began to develop computer programs for music education. Music theory websites began to appear, many having been produced by, and linked to, symphonic organizations. Others have been produced by teachers and graduate students either as part of coursework or perhaps for their own use (and anyone wishing to utilize the application). A quick search of the internet reveals that there are quite a number of available technological tools produced and published for the music student. There are interactive music games, in-class keyboard music theory applications, countless online pitch and rhythm websites, and, perhaps most powerful, applications known as "computer assisted instruction" (CAI)" specifically for the music classroom and student. In January 2005, Steven Estrella published the findings of a study demonstrating how music teachers in the U.S. used music technology. Among his findings, he discovered that approximately twenty percent of the survey participants used some form of CAI as part of their instruction. The survey further discovered that the predominant software application was "SmartMusic." (Estrella, 2005)

SmartMusic is a teacher/student interactive application allowing students to practice, at home, with a synthesized band or orchestral accompaniment. The program can also, with an included microphone, record the student's efforts and grade them using rhythm and pitch data. The student can immediately see their results and can retry if they wish. The recording and the accompanying grade are then emailed to the student's teacher/director and automatically entered into the teacher's database grade book. The program includes accompaniments for around thirty-thousand compositions including band and orchestra method book pieces. (Nagel, 2007) While early reviews of the program were mixed, the company that produces SmartMusic, "MakeMusic," was apparently responsive to teacher/consumer complaints and suggestions. The program requires that the home version be installed on the students own computer and, in earlier versions, installation, setup, and microphone placement were problematic. In the latest version, SmartMusic 11, many of these issues were addressed either by simplifying the process or with enhanced user guides. (Whaley, 2008)

For the classroom, SmartMusic holds a wealth of applications. The most basic functions of the program include a displayed tuner and metronome. (A music classroom with an interactive whiteboard can make excellent use of SmartMusic's utilities.) The teacher can then play a pre-recorded version of a piece to be studied and, while the students are playing along, can instantly record them independent of the pre-recording for later playback. The program also includes fingering charts for all instruments so a quick check for the students perhaps needing additional instruction is easily accomplished. Keys and tempi can be changed easily, if necessary, and if a single performer wishes to play with a pre-recorded accompaniment, that accompaniment, "listening" to the performer via a microphone, can follow the performer's changes in tempo - not unlike what the conductor of a symphony orchestra would do in a live performance.

As important and powerful as SmartMusic is in the classroom, its most powerful application - and the primary purpose for which it was intended - is that of a home practice and assessment tool. There are literally thousands of accompaniments and scales included in the software as well as thousands of music titles. Once the students have subscribed, downloaded (or installed from a CD), and set up the home version of the program, the teacher can design playing assignments which the student then accesses at home on their own computer.

Playing through a microphone to the program's accompaniment gives an instant visual and aural response; while the recording of the student's performance is played, their correct notes are displayed in green while mistakes are displayed in red. The student can decide upon and set their own tempo, then practice with the computer-generated accompaniment as many times as they wish prior to recording for a grade. In short, the student is in control while at home. Students having access to broadband internet and a reasonably up-to-date computer can fully realize the potential of the program - as well as their own. (Rudolph, 2006)

But what of those students not fortunate enough to have a computer at home - let alone internet access?

Obviously, the power of SmartMusic would be largely lost on those students without a home computer or internet access. The cost of the home version is small, and some districts have even provided the subscription free of charge for their students. (Nagel, 2007) However, can districts provide a workable computer and internet access or all of its students?

David Thomas stated that schools have made great progress in the introduction of computer and internet access. However, that access, for disadvantaged students, remains at school. (Thomas, 2003) Thomas further quoted then U. S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige:

"We need to address the limited access to technology that many students have outside of school. There is much more we can do. Closing the digital divide will also help close the achievement gap that exists within our schools." (Thomas, 2003)

A 2007 study in New York revealed that between seventy and eighty percent of students have computers at home. (Traber, 2007) One might suggest that the real numbers cross-country are actually much lower.

There are many music students dependant upon school-provided instruments, method books, and even instrument supplies such as reeds and valve oil (usually provided out the teacher's own pocket). These students are already behind their more affluent counterparts and cannot afford private lessons, let alone a workable computer and internet access. These are the students who could benefit most from a program such SmartMusic. However, as useful and powerful as SmartMusic is, it cannot by itself bridge this "digital divide" that still exists.

Educational technology holds great promise for the student musician but until a method for equitable access is discovered, disproportionate achievement will persist.


Bahr, N. & Christensen C.A. (2000). Inter-Domain Transfer Between Mathematical Skill and Musicianship. In Journal of Structural Learning & Intelligent systems (Vol. 14(3), 2000, pp. 187 - 197). US: Gordon & Breach Science Publishers

Banks, Margaret Downie (1997). A Brief History of the Conn Company (1874-present). The National Music Museum.

Davis, Michelle R. (2006, April). Study: NCLB Leads to Cuts for Some Subjects. Education Week.

Estrella, Steven (2005). Survey of Music Educators and Music Technology. Shearspire.

Gardner, Howard (1999). Intelligence Reframed, Multiple Intelligences for the Twenty First Century. Basic Books/Perseus Books Group: New York

Gardner, Howard (2006). Multiple Intelligences - New Horizons. Basic Books/Perseus Books Group: New York

Gargarian, Gregory (1996). The Art of Design. In Kafai, Y., & Resnick, M. (Eds.). Constructionism in practice: designing, thinking, and learning in a digital world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Nagel, Dave (2007, August). Tucson USD Gives SmartMusic Subscriptions to Students, THE Journal.

Rhodes, Stephen L. (2007). A History of the Wind Band - The American School Band Movement. Lipscomb University.

Rudolph, Tom (2006, February). The Wide World of SmartMusic. Music Education Technology.

Schlaug, Gottfried; Lutz, Jäncke; Huang, Yanxiong; Staiger, Jochen F., Steinmetz, Helmuth, (1995). Increased Corpus Callosum Size in Musicians. Neuropsychologia, Vol. 33, No. 8, pp. 1047-1055, Retrieved June 19, 2008 from

Thomas, David (2003). Internet Access Soars in Schools, But "Digital Divide" Still Exists at Home for Minority and Poor Students. U. S. Department of Education.

Traber, Chris (2007, September). Poor Students Struggle In Class. News.

Whaley, Roger (2008, September 10). SmartMusic 11! - MakeMusic has released SmartMusic 11!. The Band Ed Tool Shed (Weblog).

Thomas (Tom) Crawford is a Middle School Instrumental Music Director in Tucson, Arizona - currently finishing a graduate degree in Education Technology.

He can be reached via email:


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