Teaching music through computing science

The BEd Music at RCS is a 4-year vocational programme for musicians who want to teach music in schools (either Secondary or Primary).  Students are introduced to a range of digital tools and techniques for music-making across the programme. This includes the 1st year module “Digital Making” which focuses on how Scratch programming can be used in the music classroom. In this post I’ll discuss some of the ways the module incorporates skills in Theme 3 (Computing Science) of the  National Framework for Digital Literacies in ITE.

It might not seem like a natural fit to combine music and Computing Science – and many of the students are nervous about it at first.  However we point out that they are already very familiar with a programming language: sheet music is simply a program executed by musicians to produce a result, whether that’s a song or a symphony. We also emphasise the idea that programming is a tool that can be used to allow the students, or their pupils, to create and share musical projects.   

Aspect 1: Understanding tools and languages (e.g. being able to read and debug simple programs in blocks-based language and understanding how digital systems work)

The tool we use most on the course is the block-based programming language Scratch.   It’s designed as a teaching language for 8-16 year olds and incorporates the same basic elements of all programming languages – variables, loops and branching.  

The students learn how to use Scratch both by making following instructions to produce their own versions or modifying “Remixing” existing programs to create a different look, sound or functionality.     Remixing is an important feature of Scratch as it’s necessary to work out how the original version works in order to make it do something different.

Short video of the starting game for the students to remix, see the code here

One of the earlier activities in the module explored is gamification of learning. The process of developing the ability to recognise various musical features by listening is known as ear-training. e.g. recognising which notes are higher or lower, recognising the gap (or interval) between notes, recognising different styles of music. These skills are important, but can be tedious for pupils to practice, or they may be put off by the fear of “getting it wrong”.  As with other basic skills, turning it into a game can improve this; an example is the popular SumDog game which gamifies maths skills.

Aspect 2: Understanding the world through computational thinking (e.g. being able to spot where information processing is used in everyday life)

Computational thinking is the process of looking at a problem and producing a solution that can be executed by a computer. It has several elements, one of which is abstraction – discarding all but the essential details of the problem. Abstraction can be used to create models of a system or item, enabling us to study and better understand the real thing.

Another activity on the Digital Making module is asking the students to create their own version of a Scratch program that models a band – the starting version is the  Beatles.  The program allows the user to listen to each of the parts played by John, Paul, George and Ringo, individually or in whichever combination they choose.   

Clip of the Beatles “Build a Band” Scratch program. Musicians only play when moved to the “stage” areas. See the code here.

This is something that it’s difficult to explore in real life classrooms as it’s unlikely that many pupils will have the skills to play conventional instruments well enough – and in younger age groups probably none will.  Using an existing example like this allows pupils to hear how different musicians contribute to the overall sound of the band. Modifying the program to model their favourite band allows them to explore how that band works and take ownership of their learning. 

Aspect 3: Designing, building and testing digital solutions. (e.g. coding in a block-based programming language) 

Once the students have gained a basic understanding of how to use Scratch over the course of several sessions, they’re introduced to another tool – the  Makey Makey. This is a small gadget that allows users to connect everyday objects to computer programs.  It works by using the ability of the human body and objects like fruit, metal, and play doh to conduct electricity – tiny amounts in this case.  When a connected object is touched it sends a signal to the computer, triggering a Scratch program to play a sound.  

The students work in a group to discuss:

  • what they want the instrument to look like
  • what it should be made of 
  • how it should be operated – hands, feet, implements
  • who it’s for, e.g. children, disabled people, anyone

They then have to work together to create both the code and the physical instrument, test them and find and fix any bugs. Over the course course of the past three years instruments have included:

  • A musical dance mat, whose tinfoil-covered “keys” are played with bare feet
  • A play-doh fruit piano
  • Origami flowers with tinfoil stamens
  • A midi-harp ukulele
  • An instrument made of graphite pencils
  • Stacking blocks that form chords
  • A modified flute with integral farmyard noises for playing “Old MacDonald had a Farm”

You can see some tweets featuring the instruments and their creations here.