Make sure your compositions are rubbish, says Tim Brooks, they can make you understand sound in a whole new way.
"Found sounds" make a good basis for a school project because they encourage pupils to explore and listen in new ways, and to exploit what they learn through recording and digital manipulation.
In response to a whole-school topic on recycling, a special project evolved. The pupils collected recycled rubbish and then "played" it, recording the sounds using a condenser microphone and Audacity, free downloadable recording and editing software.
This links directly to the QCA Year 5 and 6 unit Journey Into Space: Exploring Sound Sources, which encompasses listening, performing and composing as well as "using ICT to capture, change and combine sounds".
The technology was then used to manipulate and further recycle the already recycled sounds to produce a "rubbish" sound collage.
Suitable materials for this could include newspapers, paper cups, empty plastic bottles, Tupperware boxes containing dried rice (for crunching footsteps) and bubble wrap.
Crumpling paper can, for example, make a good bonfire effect. I've even employed lengths of copper pipe normally used for lagging - they're flexible and you can blow down them or strike them.
A good way to start might be to pre-record a few items before the lesson and then digitally alter the sounds using Audacity. Then in the lesson, play these sounds and get the pupils to describe firstly what they are like - bells, wind, fire, etc - and then try and guess what the original source might be.
You could then discuss the ways in which the sounds have been altered. For example, use of reverb (one long echo, as in a church), delay (repeated echo, like from a hillside), pitch shift (which can give a voice a "chipmunk" kind of sound if the pitch is raised) and even reverse.
Next, reveal the "rubbish" sound sources and perhaps conduct an exploration into how one sound - say, a teacup - can be altered via these kinds of sound effects.
This is a good way to get pupils thinking creatively about obtaining sounds and predicting the result of effects.
For the main activity, divide the class into groups of about five, giving each a pile of rubbish and time to explore the sounds.
Each group should then put the sounds into soundbites, short sequences of about 20 seconds. When ready, the groups perform and record their soundbites.
The five group recordings can then be made into a whole-class soundscape by sequencing, overlaying, cutting, pasting and adding a range of digital effects.
The finished soundscape can be used as an effective soundtrack for photographic slideshows created with Photostory. This is free downloadable software on to which you can add narration, effects or background sounds. How about continuing with the theme of recycling? You can acquire jpeg images of all kinds of rubbish, either by searching on Google Images or maybe linking this with a cross-curricular digital photography project.
These will need to be prepared in Photostory. It might also be a good idea to make the photos' durations about the same as the recordings.
After the pupils have watched this pre-prepared slide show, allow time for discussion to determine which recorded track could go with each photo and to experiment with what effects could be added to make the sounds even more effective.
The class can sit back and enjoy their "rubbish" movie complete with their "rubbish" soundtrack.
Give them plenty of time to discuss the success of the final work and, if necessary, go back to re-edit some of the sounds and pictures as appropriate.
These tasks are accessible and help with understanding and the variety of possible outcomes offers good scope for personalised learning www.audacity.sourceforge.net
Tim Brooks is music consultant for York Arts Education.