by Donna Williams

Fall 1998, Vol. 10 No. 1

Everybody talks about how well music and computers go together. This is certainly true in the professional arena, but in education, the connection is less obvious. Professional music software is expensive and elaborate to use, and usually is out of the range of most school music programs.

I recently took a course on educational technology at The College of New Jersey and was pleased to find alternatives to expensive software written for professional musicians. I was delighted to discover the extent to which music and sound are integrated into many low-cost, children's software programs. With a little creativity, these programs can be used in music classes to engage children in the joy and discipline of musical invention.

Since there are so many programs on the market from which to choose, I thought it would be helpful to provide some pointers on how to select programs which match the music curriculum and how to organize a music class around computer-based activities. In the box you will find 10 programs which I have successfully used in music classes. Some I listed because they are neat or beautiful and full of color, sound, and music. Some will appeal to limited age spans, while others have enough intricacies for any age. They all provide highly engaging opportunities for children to experiment with music and sounds, listen critically, solve musical puzzles, explore art history, and/or experience musical composition.

What Should I Look For?

I chose the software titles in the accompanying box because they meet the following criteria:
Easy-to-Use: I prefer programs which do not require hours of time (my time or my students' time) to learn to use. Can my students access help easily or get suggestions if they don't know where to begin? Is there a "help" icon or "hint" buttons which explain how to perform a certain task? Can I give a group direction that everyone will be able to follow? Can a student with a physical disability use this program?

Low Frustration Producer: Do students get adequate time and multiple chances to work through a problem? Are gentle reminders provided? If the program is a game, do characters get killed or eliminated? Is there a way to start over without restarting the game?

Ease of Changing Preferences: Can preferences (difficulty levels, speed) be chosen without exiting the program? Do I need to memorize function keys and keystroke patterns, or can I just click on something?

Reading Issues: For my students who are non-readers or non-English readers, a program with little or no reading will facilitate their successful completion of activities. Poor, slow, or early readers, on the other hand, may benefit from a program that requires some reading. I look for programs that highlight words as a voice reads them, such as directions or background information, and allows the student to repeat the reading as needed.

Potential for Cross-Curricular Teaching: Does this music software incorporate information from other subject areas? Can I use this non-music program to teach a music lesson? Sometimes you don't want a program that is strictly music since art, gaming, history, critical thinking, and puzzle programs often incorporate music activities or obstacles, and at the least have theme songs, background music, and rich sound effects (Have you played Myst lately?!) On the other hand, we also need to advertise the way music in general and specifically music software can help students reach developmental milestones, master basic skills, use higher-level thinking, see events in historical contexts, generalize mathematical concepts, etc. No administrator in his/her right mind would call math and reading a "frill; " use their language to inform them why they need this software.

Quality Graphics and Animation: Any good chef will tell you, "If the food looks good, the person will expect it to taste good." While we all know that it doesn't necessarily mean it is good for us, appearance makes us want to taste it. Students using software are no different. Choose programs with smooth animation, depth of artwork and design, bright colors (especially at the elementary level), and CLEAR TEXT!

Staying Power: Choose programs that you can use year after year to minimize your need to replace and upgrade ($$$). Spend your money on a few basic programs with multiple skills levels that will take time for students to complete, then purchase one or two titles a year. Also, rotate programs week to week if possible so they don't get "old" so fast.

Tech Support: Do they have a toll free number? What are the hours? The more accessible the company makes itself to you, the more they want and deserve your present and future business. However, it is up to you to know the system requirements of the software and if your hardware can support it before you curse out the technicians.

But I Don't Have a Computer!

Teachers see my enthusiasm for computers in music class and they gripe, "How can I use music software if I don't have access to a computer? I don't even have a classroom!" But over the years I have learned to problem solve. My school has a computer lab. I jump in it whenever it's free, with the full support of the computer teachers. (By the way, more than once I have heard them doing music activities with students during computer class, which I thought was great.)

Know your school's classrooms: Sometimes bilingual and special education classrooms have computers. Familiarize yourself with what they have, and hold a few music classes in their rooms to use the software. If you feel comfortable with the teachers, let them borrow or install a program. Recommend titles that your students have used successfully and enjoyed.

Lastly, I test out new titles in our after-school program. Have a music club and include computer activities. When there's a will, there's a way.

Tips for Teachers

I have learned (the hard way) that a clear structure and a few simple rules are necessary to maximize computer-based music activities.

Give students an objective to focus the activity. Start off simply, like "create your own four note pattern," then expand.

List what is forbidden. "Do not click on these words: Exit, Shutdown, Save, Delete." Put the list where it is visible. Give a list of alternatives, and help students problem-solve when they get stuck. Don't be afraid to exclude someone who does not follow this rule; usually their partners are frustrated also.

Always debrief. Give students a chance to talk about what they have done. Students' misinterpretations of directions can be useful. Ask students who make errors to explain what they did differently from your directions. One of my groups strung together their patterns and created a group song. Unexpected creations can lead to great places.

Cultivate helpers. Second graders can install and put away CD-ROMs. Older students can supervise younger ones. There's plenty of set up and break down work to do, and students can learn additional skills from helping.

Rules for Students

Buddies are required. Duets, trios, and maybe quartets are acceptable, but no solos.

Sit down or sit out! Students using computers must stay seated at all times, period.

No physical contact: One hand on the mouse at a time. Sit so your legs don't touch.


Know what you have, what you need, what you can get, and what you will do with it. When you can answer these questions, you will be able to make wise software choices for your school that won't gather dust or make children cry or run away. The best learning takes place when students are engaged and having fun. Good music software choices and exciting computer-based activities can only enhance a strong music program.

* This article is based on a presentation by the author at the New Jersey Music Educators Association Conference in East Brunswick, February 1998.

Donna Williams is an alumna of the graduate program of the Department of Special Education at The College of New Jersey.


ArtRageous! Softkey/The Learning Company art history exploration,
elements of compostition
art & music connections
in history
Share this with the art teacher.
Dazzleloids Voyager story with original theme songs
by contemporary computer artist
R. A. Greenblat
Share this with the art teacher.
Julliard Music Theatrix experimentation, Adventure
composition, critical listening,
theory, puzzles
Students will need instruction time at first; has different levels of difficulty
Lamb Chop Loves Music Philips instruments, sequencing For young children
Morton Subotnick's Forest Technologies/ experimentation, composition, no reading required;
Making Music Voyager critical listening, theory,
QuickTime 3.0 or later needed for instrument sounds
The Lost Mind of Dr.Brain Sierra Knowledge Adventure/puzzles,
some music history, notation,
multiple intelligence, theory
has different levels of difficulty; for grades 5+
Thinkin Things 1, 2 and 3 Edmark ear training,experimentation (1 & 2),
drill design (3)
Classic! (and they're not really music programs)

* Some of these titles may no longer be available for purchase.

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