Gail Robinson looks at how free digital libraries can revolutionise music access for schools
"We believe that music is important for the social and cultural values it represents and promotes and for the communities it can help build and unite."
These rather grandiose words come from the Government's music manifesto and it's all admirable stuff. And as part of this manifesto wouldn't it be great if we could give every pupil access to a huge library of digital music?
As Andy Hill, founder of music library Broadchart, says, "Just as schools have a library of books so they should be able to have access to a library of music."
The problem is copyright. Working out what tracks you can download and what you can't is a legal minefield. Teachers simply don't have time to get to grips with the ins and outs of complex copyright laws.
Schools need help, as Robert Hurst, founder of the music and sound effects library Audio Network, acknowledges: "We ought to be doing our bit for schools," he says, "because trying to clear music rights in school can be an absolute nightmare and the sad thing is the music industry is shouting about these things but not coming up with any solutions."
Thankfully, digital music libraries are being developed for schools and the good news is that you could get hold of them free.
The PlayTime music library contains 2.5 million recordings and that includes every Top 40 hit since charts began in November 1952. And it's not just pop, the library also covers classical, jazz, country and film soundtracks.
The company behind PlayTime, Broadchart, wants to make this library free to every school in the UK. The service is being piloted in a handful of schools and should go live by the summer.
Students and teachers can search for tracks by title, artist, genre and release date. From there you can create your own playlists, which can be shared with others. Once you've chosen the tracks the music is streamed down to the school over broadband connections from the PlayTime servers.
The tracks are in mono to dissuade anybody from storing and copying them on to their MP3 players. That said, the quality is fine for most uses, as Milton Mount Primary School in Crawley found out.
The school is currently piloting PlayTime and, after ironing out a few technical teething problems, the library is now being used extensively. The audio is played through their laptop sound systems and interactive whiteboards.
Headteacher Brian Thomas says: "I've got a Year 4 teacher creating playlists as a central resource for all our teachers. We've also been developing children's thinking skills by taking a brain gym approach. We break up lessons and let the children listen to a piece of music for a few minutes. As long as the music is judged right it's very effective."
Brian has also been using PlayTime in his own lessons. "I've found it useful for emotional literacy," he says. "Music is a powerful vehicle to address some difficult issues. Recently I was doing some work with a group of children on feeling betrayed or alone. To be able to click on the Beatles' 'Eleanor Rigby' and play the track whenever you want during a whiteboard presentation is very powerful, because you can give the visuals as well as the music.
"I also did some work on alienation and we used Nelson Mandela's story as an example of alienation on a grand scale. We not only showed visuals of his life but we also tapped into the rousing song 'Free Nelson Mandela'."
Expectation is high and other schools are eager to get their hands on PlayTime, as Jodie Cappleman, music teacher at Bridlington Secondary School in Leeds explains: "The problem we constantly face is finding the recordings on the A-levelGCSE syllabuses and when we do have them it's only one copy, which isn't enough to share among all the students. The school has the technology to receive PlayTime with all the PCs now linked to the internet and the time and money it would save searching, sourcing, maintaining and managing a music library could be put to much better use."
Audio Network's music library of about 6,000 recordings from a team of 100 composers is now available free to schools. Students are asked to log records of tracks used so they "acknowledge the value of copyright and the creative process".
The company makes its money by selling the same music to film and TV producers to accompany their productions and so the library is largely made up of instrumental pieces. But it's all handy material for audio-visual projects in the classroom.
Audio Network's Robert Hurst hopes it will inspire pupils to greater things: "We wanted to encourage school kids to use good quality music in their productions because technology is allowing them all to become editors and producers".
The most impressive feature of the Audio Network library is its excellent search facility. For example, choose to search for music by mood or atmosphere and pupils can take their pick from a long list of categories ranging from coollaid-back to jauntywhimsical and taking in schmaltz and kitsch along the way. With this kind of search tool it's easy to find the right tune for any project.
* For more details on PlayTime visit: www.broadchart.complaytimeindex.html
* Audio Network is free to any school attached to the National Schools Network via the Regional Broadband Consortium (RBC). If your school isn't connected you can get hold of a set of 66 Audio Network CDs containing the library for Pounds 200 + VAT.
For details see www.audiolicense.net or contact the London Grid for Learning www.lgfl.org.uk
Tel: 020 8408 4466 or the RBC for your area.