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Teaching Composition with Electronic Music

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

I'm often surprised by my student's musical interests. A couple of years ago, all my middle school students in partnerships would talk about was dub step.  When I finally got around to checking out this style of music, I discovered it was simply a type of Electronic Dance Music (EDM), something I had been listening to and creating just for fun in one form or another since high school. And it wasn't just older students who were into it either. At one partnership, I had seen 2nd graders go nuts dancing around to a dub step version of the Imperial March from Star Wars.  I suppose it makes sense that students respond to electronic music since most genres of popular music are exclusively electronic.

Composing electronic music was a nice alternative to composing using standard notation since students can create mature, legit sounding music without having to know the gritty details of harmony and notation. Not that you shouldn't be teaching those things as well, but students are sometimes turned off to the idea of composing because all they can write are quarter notes and quarter rests.  Doesn't make the most exciting music, not to mention that students who compose electronic music address a real world question: How do I create an interesting piece of music?   

I started to include Electronic Music composition in my partnership teaching a few years ago. National Standard for Music #4: Composing and Arranging music within specified guidelines is easily satisfied using free software. All of which are web-based and don't involve any IT help or installation. I learned most of these programs by spending just a few minutes goofing around with them on my own, but mostly I learned from my students. Having a class of twenty-five middle schoolers is like getting a masters degree in using a computer. They'd teach me how to do things and when they'd ask a question I didn't have an answer to, we became co-learners rather than a teacher and student.

So what can you teach with the following programs? Harmony, form, balance, melody, texture, orchestration, rhythm...pretty much anything.  Not to mention National Standard #6: Listening to, analyzing, and describing music, #7. Evaluating music and music performances, and #8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts. Not to mention you are teaching your students that composing isn't an activity reserved for dead guys wearing powdered wigs.

So now onto the actual programs!

Monkey Machine is a simple to use drum machine. It gives you a grid of squares and if you fill in a square it plays a note. You could use this with any age student and it gives the student immediate satisfaction. You can change the length of patterns and create some pretty good beats with the built in sounds. Before you use it in class, test it on one of the school's computers, it requires an update of some sort which older computers may need.

iNudge is the next step up in complexity and uses a similar grid set up. But now you get several different grids so you can layer in melodies and accompaniments over your drum beats. iNudge has interesting sounds and student love to use it.  You can also easily share your composition via email. It even has a ready made lesson plan embedded next to the player. I have a sub plan that uses iNudge at the ready.

Soundation is a free, online digital audio workstation(DAW). I use this as a substitute for Garageband.  You can drag and drop pre-made loops, many of which sound like dub step, mix a song, use a synth, record your voice or an instrument, and you can even create your own loops and parts using an onscreen keyboard or a grid.  Like most things, there is a free version and a premium version which offers more features. When you create a free account you can save your compositions online, which is what I do for partnerships and then have all the students log in and save their compositions.

The most powerful and complex application is Audiotool. Thanks go to Phil Welch for showing this one to me.  Audiotool took me a little while to figure out, but once you get the hang of it, the musical possibilities are endless.  Like Reason, Audiotool uses a virtual workspace where you drop virtual pieces of hardware like drum machines, synths, and effects pedals. You then link them all using virtual cables and compose either on the workspace or in the built in timeline.  You can shape the sounds in myriad ways by subtly adjusting and combining effects pedals. Again you can create an account to save online.

High School physics teachers could also use the synths to demonstrate the science of acoustics. Students who are interested in electronic music will find this program to be the most satisfying and it simply looks cool.  Below is a video I made introducing how to get started, hopefully it will save you some time!

I suggest you try a few of these out and see if they spark any curricular ideas.  In the near future I will post some lesson plans that show specifically what I teach. Macphail teachers: if you are interested in learning more, please do not hesitate to email me, I'd be happy to sit down with you and help you get composing!

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