Sound advice for software

4th April 2003 at 01:00
The creators of a hugely popular core-writing program are launching five music resources for primary through to secondary teachers and students. Hugh John reports

SIBELIUS 2 pound;339 Auralia pound;85 Musition pound;85 Sibelius Starclass pound;79 Sibelius Teaching Tools pound;49 Sibelius Instruments pound;99 Sibelius Compass pound;119 Site Licences Sibelius 2, five copies pound;678 Musition or Auralia, five copies pound;299 Sibelius Starclass, three copies pound;149 (All prices exclude VAT)

It's almost 10 years since Ben and Jonathan Finn released their score-writing program to instant acclaim and considerable press interest.

The story is well documented: the twins who studied music at university realised there was a dearth of intuitive music notation software and set about creating a program written "by musicians for musicians".

Since then Sibelius - originally developed for the Acorn platform, but long since available for Macs and PCs - has established itself as the foremost score-writing software and is used extensively within the music and film industry, as well as in schools and colleges throughout the UK. (The company estimates that Sibelius 2 is used by almost all local education authority advisers and in more than half of all secondary schools.) This year will see the release of a quintet of new programs which, in addition to Sibelius 2, Sibelius Notes (formerly Teaching Tools) and the Scorch Internet, will provide teachers and students with a collection of integrated software .

Starclass, launched at the BETT Show in January, is promoted as the first comprehensive software specifically designed to help primary teachers teach music. With more than 180 lesson plans (which support Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's standards for key stages 1 and 2), a full explanation of musical concepts, and hundreds of music clips and printable pictures, the program should provide welcome support for primary teachers, especially those who are non-specialists. Experienced music teachers can augment their lessons by calling up additional information and there's a Wizard-like assistant who offers extra teaching notes.

Ben Finn acknowledges "the need for primary music teachers - especially those who have little musical training - to be provided with assistance and materials". He hopes Starclass "will engender a sense of confidence and fun around teaching music at this level".

Starclass's homepage is divided into six topics - rhythm, pitch, dynamics and tempo, texture, form and tone colour - each of which is subdivided into another six sections. Suggested class activities include a blues improvisation, rhythm call and response, and a group composition project.

There are some extremely useful cross-curricular links to dance, drama, literacy, numeracy, visual arts and ICT.

With an increasing number of non-specialist teachers in the primary sector now required to take music lessons, Starclass could establish itself as an essential classroom resource, not least because of its well presented and impressively structured lesson plans.

Sibelius will also be distributing Auralia and Musition - two educational titles from Australian-based Rising Software. Both are well regarded drill-based teaching programs intended for use by students from primary to tertiary level.

Auralia is an aural training program with four learning sections - intervals and scales, chords, rhythm, pitch and melody - covering 26 different areas. These include interval recognition, scale singing, note recognition, melodic dictation and interval singing. There's a pro-active element to Auralia that sets it apart from many of its competitors. The software doesn't simply tell students if they have selected, say, the correct interval or chord from a multiple choice list. There's also the option - which requires using a microphone - of singing the correct note, which can then be verified.

It's good to see that the program offers aural training resources for jazz students. The chords section has graded examples of jazz chords, jazz-chord singing and jazz-chord progressions. Suss these out and you'll never have a problem with a sus(pended) fourth again.

Musition, with its 25 topics, concentrates on theory and general musicianship. Harmony, rhythm, modulation, key signatures, chord and scale relationships, jazz chords and scales are among the areas covered. As with Auralia, the drills cater for a wide knowledge span. Chord recognition, for instance, begins at level one with major and minor chords in root position and proceeds to dominant seventh chords in third inversion at level five.

Both programs have administrative options that will commend them to teachers. Different levels of security can be set up to deny pupils access to settings configured by the administrator. Students are able to check their progress on screen as the software displays a percentage success rate in the toolbar. Both programs have score-keeping systems that allow teachers to review and assess their students' progress. Individual records can then be made available to each user. Additionally, Auralia and Musition are fully network-compliant.

Drill-based educational software has its pitfalls but, certainly in music, there are some tangible advantages. Firstly, it can free the teacher to give support where it is most needed. Secondly, it frees children from the fear of making mistakes in front of the whole class. Well designed, discrete programs such as these can only enhance and reinforce children's musical skills and help prepare them for the joy of playing with other young musicians.

And that's not all. Last month, the company released Sibelius Instruments - a complete guide to orchestral and band instruments - and later this year will release Sibelius Compass - a software package intended to assist composition.

For various product combination prices (such as Sibelius 2 and Auralia), and details of the Sibelius 2 demonstrations, visit the Sibelius website

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