Technology can sometimes complicate things but it can also make things much easier for everyone. I know that getting your learners to be creative and being creative yourself can be a challenge. As classically trained musicians, we tend to over-think improvising and composition but these are not as complex as we make them seem. Here are a list of apps and technologies to get you and your kids creating music in a simple, real-life, and practical way.
Stay tuned for this and more in my upcoming book called Creative Musicking: Practical, Real-Life Ideas to get Your Learners Creating Their Own Music.
GarageBand is really under-rated, the only problem with it is that it’s exclusive to Apple products so ‘regular’ ol’ PCs, Android devices, and the like cannot support it. If you’ve not used it yourself, you should. It gives a really easy way to get over your fear of improvising and composing and it is a lot of fun. Here are a couple of screen shots of how the app looks on an iPhone 5S:
And here is one for iPad:
There is just so much to this very versatile app. You can create really ‘good-sounding’ chord progressions with a variety of instruments from guitars to orchestral strings just with the tap, or the slide of a finger. As well, you can create drum loops, cool patterns, and there is even a collection of scale patterns converted to play in all the ‘white keys’ so you cannot possibly play a ‘wrong note’ even if you tried:
Here are the scales it lets you play with:
- Major (1-2-3-4-5-6-7)
- Major Pentatonic (1-2-3-5-6)
- Major Blues (1-2-b3-3-5-6)
- Mixolydian (1-2-3-4-5-6-b7)
- Klezmer (1-b2-3-4-5-b6-b7)
- Minor Pentatonic (1-b3-4-5-b7 but I like to think of this one as 6-1-2-3-5)
- Minor Blues (1-b3-4-b5-5-b7 but I like to think of this one as 6-1-2-b3-3-5)
- Japanese (1-b2-4-5-b6)
- Minor (1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7)
- Harmonic Minor (1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7)
- Dorian (1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7)
- South-East Asian (1-b2-b3-5-b6)
There is an ability to multi-track too so you can make great-sounding accompaniments. The possibilities really are endless with this app. I’ve only scratched the surface of this but here are some ways that I have used GarageBand in my classroom.
Chrome Music Lab
Here is a screenshot of some of the apps in Chrome Music Lab. Some schools (like mine) have class sets of Chrome Books where GarageBand isn’t available. Chrome Music Lab isn’t near as comprehensive but does have some pretty neat tools to help you and your learners create their own music. As you play around with these apps, you will quickly realize how easily you can create music. Here are some ideas you could use with your learners using a few different apps:
There are a few really cool features about the Song Maker app that I would like to point out: 1) The beat is subdivided into 8th notes so making really simple compositions is easy which also means you can transfer it to traditional notation quite easily; 2) the pitches are notated in the chromatic colour system like boomwhackers are. This means that C is always red; D is always orange and so on; 3) it is divided into a 4-measure phrase. The parameters are already laid out for you. Here are a few things you could do:
- Create a song on the Song Maker app and then write it down in traditional notation or another standardized notation of your choice (Tablature, Nashville Number, Solfege).
- Create a boomwhacker piece that other learners will perform
- Create a song in the Song Maker app and then learn it by ear on another instrument
- Put lyrics to the melody in the song
- Create a bass line and then a melody to go over top
- Create a chord progression and build chords by experimenting with note spacing.
This cool app has some clever features to it as well. There are four metres to choose from: ¾, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4 and each has a different flavour so-to-speak. The second one (in 4/4) has a distinct drum set or rock and popular feel to it while the fourth one (in 6/4) has a very latinesque flavour to it. The beats are also subdivided into eighth notes. Here are some ways you could use this app:
- Create rhythm pattern and a recorder melody to go with it
- Create a pattern and write it down in traditional notation or a notation of your choice or invented notation.
- Use it as a backing drum track for a piece you are working on as a class. You can change the pattern minimally rather quickly by clicking and dragging.
This one is similar to the Smart Piano and Smart Guitar functions in GarageBand but instead there is no key per se. Closely related chords are close together and there is the ability to play all major and minor chords in a given key signature. There are no diminished chords because, well, they don’t sound good and are rarely used. The best part about this app is that you can experiment easily with borrowed chords because if you don’t stray too far from where you started, it will still sound good. Borrowed chords are good especially if it sounds good—there are no real ‘rules.’ Like the GarageBand app It will autoplay a few preset patterns for you but you can adjust the tempo. Learning an instrument doesn’t get in the way of the creativity here. A few things you could do with this:
- Have learners go in pairs: one creates a chord progression while the other solos over top. This one you might have to give a few parameters like what three chords to use or they can only use one closely related chord or something like that especially if they are beginning improvisers. More advanced learners may be able to hear the changes.
- Create a chord progression and a melody to go along with it.
- Create a pop song that has lyrics and a cool progression.
- Use it for you group moshing (see Chapter ___)
This is an online music DJ/hip-hop/beatboxing composition app found at incredibox.com. It is very intuitive and can make anyone sound like they know what they are doing very early. With the right combination of voices, a user can unlock specific mixes or composition material to add to their works. You can also record, save, and share on social media. Unfortuately, Incredibox was blocked on the student Chrome Books at school but not on the teacher laptops so I’ve done this as a whole group where everyone has input on what parts to add. It can be an amazing thing if your learners have access to this at school. Here are some ways you can use Incredibox:
- Create compositions and present them to the class
- Host a composition contest where the top three get a prize
- Create a composition on Incredibox that becomes the track or ‘beat’ for a rap song where you record the form and have learners create a rap to go over top of it.
- Compose a track and play a solo over it on an instrument of their choice.
- Use it as a backing track for rhythm activities.
Looper Pedal/Looping Station
Looper pedals/station are fun to play around with and there are some really good ‘looper’ musicians out there. You can do this with any instrument as long as you can plug it into an amplifier or use a microphone to record the sounds with. With a looper pedal, a musician can create short loops of music that then repeat so another part can be added to create a live multi-track recording. They can be as complex or as simple as possible. Just google “looper compositions” or something similar and you will get an idea of what I mean. These work best with one musician but there is quite a learning curve with it. It seems it is all about timing and what you can do with, sometimes, only one button. Take a look, it could be an option for you and your learners.
Audacity is a free recording production software. It has a good chunk of the functionality of some of the industry standards. You can download it for free using a quick Google search. Here are some things you can do with the software:
- Multi-track recording—using a nice set of microphones and a headphone amplifier, you can produce a very respectable recording of any group, either solo or together.
- Electro-acoustic compositions—it has enough functionality to be able to create sounds that sound like other sounds. You have your learners be their very own Karlheinz Stockhausen.
- Transpose—using the software, you can transpose up or down a number of steps. The farther you transpose from the original key though, the more distorted it sounds.
- Cut and Paste—The software makes it fairly easy to cut out other parts and insert them in another place within the same composition. Your learners could literally rearrange the music.
NOTE: This software is pretty versatile and I have used it to transpose songs for my rock groups to learn if it was in a strange key.
Soundtrap is another production and recording app that is comparable to the industry standards like ProTools. The paid version (which you can try free for 30 days) has a collection of hundreds of loops, ‘beats,’ drum patterns, effects, MIDI capabilities, and yes, Auto-Tune. There is a free version, but what really sets this apart from most of the others mentioned is that you can easily collaborate with other musicians around the world. For example, you can create a great track and ‘hire’ a ‘topliner’ (a melody writer or rapper) to do their vocal part over it using the track-and-hook method for composition. Of course, the producer (composer) could certainly sing or rap their own parts for this too. Also, much like the industry standards, it is compatible with MIDI controllers to input notes but also has a built in MIDI controller if you do not have access to one. There is just so much this can do:
Here are some ways you could use this online app for you or your learners:
- Multi-track recording of any kind. Have your band learners play and learn all four parts of a quartet and record each track using the software or they could create their own harmonies for a particular melody.
- Have learners compose four-beat rhythmic patterns to insert into a song.
- Have learners re-arrange and re-compose the sample tracks provided by the developer.
- Have one group of learners compose the track (the ‘beat’) and then get another learner in the class to provide the vocal part (the topline).
- Compose a track as a group where everyone has input using a projector.
- Use it in combination with more ‘traditional’ methods of composition. For example, compose a track and then play a solo over it or perform a composed vocal part with the track in the back. This way, the writer can ‘open up’ a bit in a performance setting.
- Use it as a backing track for rhythm activities.
- Use it to compose a backing track to go with any composition.
- Use it to compose a drum track if your group needs a drummer.
Composing and improvising do not have to be complicated. I hope these will help you and your learners to create their own music in an accessible and relevant way. What are your best tech ideas for creating original music in your classroom. Tell me about them!