ICT - Sound bite

13th May 2011 at 01:00
Primary children are starting to create tracks with the help of free online programs that make light work of recording and editing, writes Gerald Haigh

Not many of us can boast a catalogue of compositions by primary school children in our iTunes library, but I do. Among them is a track called The Minion War, which starts with a series of restless piano arpeggios over staccato strings.

"As the minions went to war, they suddenly realised they only had one hundred men..." says the narrator. Music and voice build the story to a shout of triumph and a dramatic final burst of percussion.

Another, in contrast, is a song with jolly, bouncing instrumental accompaniment: "I saw a spider in a tree, and it nearly ate me for its tea ..."

The first was produced by nine-year-old Luke at Old Mill Primary in Broughton Astley, Leicestershire, using a free online resource called Music Creator from Aviary. It offers a library of sound clips that can be edited, as well as providing the facility to record, add and manipulate live voices and instruments - essential if the children are to add their own voice or classroom percussion, for example.

The spider song, meanwhile, is the work of Emily at Pedmore CofE Primary in Dudley, West Midlands, using Microsoft's Songsmith program, which is free to schools. This takes whatever you sing into it and adds an appropriate accompanying chord sequence in a chosen style.

At Pedmore, Emily and her fellow pupils record their songs, export the files to music editing program Audacity, add different effects and then produce a final MP3 version they can burn on to a CD or make available online for parents.

More and more primaries are making use of the vast array of applications available to record and edit music, as well as libraries of recorded sounds and phrases.

They can choose music or sounds, sequence them, edit them, digitally manipulate them and finally combine them with their own live input.

I spent an afternoon with Years 4 and 5 at Old Mill as they worked on their Music Creator projects with ICT teacher Kevin McLoughlin. Pupils Josie and Emily produced a track with a comedy theme, including a set of their own crazy vocal effects that reduced the three of us to helpless laughter.

But how much can pupils actually learn if they are simply choosing from a menu of sound effects? Children still need to make choices about the sounds to fit the mood of their song, as well as how they structure it - and all the time they are doing this they are exercising ICT skills.

What a specialist can bring to the process, though, is understanding of the musical learning that is taking place. David Dunn, deputy head at Pedmore, is a musician and can see precisely what the pupils are learning.

"They learn about the structure of songs, the relationship between tunes and words, how harmony works, chord progressions," he says.

"They experience rhythm and tempo changes, time signatures, the feel of major and minor chords. There is just a huge amount of musical knowledge. And they come out with a product that they have created from scratch, something they want to add to their iPods," Mr Dunn adds.

Along the way, of course, there is a range of ICT skills - using the internet, editing, cutting and pasting, saving and moving their work around.

The beauty is that most of the programs available are free to use. And that availability, according to David Ashworth, convenor of the ICT special interest group of the National Association of Music Educators, is underpinning a profound shift in the way all teachers perceive ICT.

"They (teachers) have gone beyond the stage of regarding ICT as an add-on. Now it is becoming truly embedded as the medium to work with," he says.

There are still culture clashes, of course. David Ashworth points to the huge fund of musical knowledge and skills freely available on YouTube. There are tutorials for every conceivable instrument, from tin whistle to theremin (an early electronic device), and children picked for a school show now come back after a weekend note and word perfect on all the songs. Yet many schools routinely block this rich source of online learning.

The way ICT is used also strongly challenges the traditional assumption that music educators can work by separately addressing the skills of composing, performing and listening. That three-strand approach, suggested by Professor Keith Swanwick in his 1979 book, A Basis for Music Education, heavily influenced the national curriculum and the public examination system.

Now, though, it is made almost meaningless by technology. A child who works with music software to appraise, choose and edit sounds, add a vocal line and some classroom percussion, remix the result, perhaps using further software, and then publish it on to the school learning platform, is certainly composing, performing and listening. But there is little discernible boundary between the three elements, and it is difficult to assess them separately.

So while a groundswell of schools combines ICT and music effectively, how that work should be measured and assessed remains to be seen.


Aviary's free online resources for music and other creative projects at www.aviary.com

Microsoft Songsmith is free if you sign up to Microsoft's Partners in Learning Network: http:uk.partnersinlearningnetwork.com

Audacity is free to download from www.download-audacity.com

David Ashworth's forum for music teachers www.teachingmusic.org.uk has resources and articles.

Paid-for resources

Music Toolkit from 2Simple Software, single user #163;37.95, site licence #163;392.95, www.2simple.com. Simon Haughton, ICT Manager at Parkfield Primary in Rochdale, writes a useful blog on using this. http:simonhaughton.typepad.comict.

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