STEAM in Music Class with Coding

This is an adapted draft of a chapter section that has been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in the forthcoming book Technology for Unleashing Creativity by Steve Giddings due for publication in 2022.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, or STEAM, is an approach to education that prioritizes cross-curricular learning with the five mentioned subject areas through project-based and inquiry-based lenses. It is often seen as STEM, not taking into consideration the arts as an important avenue of learning in this way (as science often does, unfortunately). Modern music making easily takes into account the STEAM approach as most music produced and performed today incorporates technology. Here are some apps and devices you can use to integrate coding into your music classes.

ience, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, or STEAM, is an approach to education that prioritizes cross-curricular learning with the five mentioned subject areas through project-based and inquiry-based lenses. It is often seen as STEM, not taking into consideration the arts as an important avenue of learning in this way (as science often does, unfortunately). Modern music making easily takes into account the STEAM approach as most music produced and performed today incorporates technology. Here are some apps and devices you can use to integrate coding into your music classes.
STEAM in Music Class with Coding

Makey Makey

The Makey Makey is an invention kit by JoyLabzTM designed as a STEAM facilitating device. Makey Makey can be programmed with the help of a computer device like a laptop or a phone to do many different things, but namely, it can be programmed to produce sounds and act as a MIDI controller of sorts. It facilitates the use of alligator clips to connect to conductive material (fruit, Play-Doh, copper tape, etc) to the device that can be activated just by touch.

Block Coding and Scratch

Block coding sites contain pre-set blocks of code that can be mixed-and-matched to program a game on a screen or a piece of hardware like a Makey Makey or Micro:bit. There are useful music and Makey Makey-specific extensions to make programming easier. The following video is a fantastic lesson on how to create a ukulele with Scratch and Makey Makey, and even gives a way for learners to explore theory in an approachable way:

Learners can use Scratch without an account and can also save their code for future use. If learners save the project to their computer, it saves as sb3 project file that can be uploaded at any time to rework. Another similar site for block coding is called MakeCode. There are also lots of sites that use traditional text-based coding for more advanced programmers as well with sites like Python.

Scratch Desktop and Scratch Jr

Scratch is available on Android devices from the Google Play Store and also has a downloadable desktop version for Windows, ChromeOS, and Mac Operating Systems. Please note that if you are plugging any inventor kit into a mobile device, you will likely need an adapter cable to switch standard USB to whatever input your device uses. Scratch is catered to learners aged 8 to 16 and also has Scratch Junior catered to 5-to-7-year-olds available on the App Store and the Google Play Store. This means that Scratch Junior is only available for iOS and Android-powered devices. There is currently no web-based app for Scratch Junior. The touch-screen interface means that young learners can easily drag and drop their code into the space at the bottom and tap it to see what happens. They can also design a character or a picture to go with their composition. A great way to introduce arranging, recording, and composing. They could also create a character and record a short motif or theme music to go with them. They could even make their “sprite” dance to a prescribed song. They could even choreograph a dance to go with the music all in-app.

GitHub

Github is where many software developers write code for a variety of different open-source apps and software:

  • The modifications for BeebBox (ModBox and others) were written in GitHub.
  • You may also notice that the Mario Paint Sequencer was written in GitHub too.
  • Audacity has open-source code on GitHub as well.
  • GitHub, in particular has a learning section called GitHub Education designed for schools with access to the premium features.

Micro:bit

The Micro:bit by BBC is another—more advanced—invention kit similar to the Makey Makey except it has a tiny microchip, sound processor, accelerometer, a small LED display, and Bluetooth capability. Scratch has a devoted Micro:bit extension too but Microsoft’s MakeCode seems to integrate more smoothly with it. Learners can attach speakers to the Micro:bit to hear the sounds that are programmed into it. Code for the Micro:bit has to be downloaded to the Micro:bit itself. Like Scratch, there is a simulator screen on the side to see what the code is supposed to do.

PLAYTRON

Playtron with Watermelon

Playtron is a similar idea to the Makey Makey, but has the possibility to program up to 16 triggers at one time. It is designed to be a programmable MIDI controller and with 16 triggers meaning learners could have access to a little over an octave of chromatic pitches. Of course, if many of those chromatic notes aren’t needed, those other available triggers can be used for other purposes, like samples or loops, or can remain unused. Unlike the Makey Makey, PLAYTRON is programmed automatically to use USB MIDI protocol, so it works exactly like a MIDI controller without any further programming. Learners could plug it into their favourite DAW with virtual instruments and use those sounds. Much like Makey Makey, though, it is essentially an extension of learners’ QWERTY keyboard and all it needs is a completed circuit and any conductive object to make a sound. Using adapters for a particular device, learners can hook these into anything.

TouchMe

TouchMe from Playtronica

TouchME is another MIDI controller from Playtronica designed to explore music through human touch. Once it is connected to a virtual instrument, one person holds on to one end, and another holds on to the other end. To complete the circuit (make the sound), each person needs to make skin contact. The virtual synths on playtronica.com have specific sounds designed for this particular MIDI controller. This one is also touch sensitive (go figure), so the softer the touch, the quieter the sound. It can be set to play a particular scale too. Learn more about these two devices from Playtronica at playtronica.com.

Other Coding Sites and Kits

Sites

Blockly

Blockly is less a coding site and more code-training site. There is a specific music code training section to it. Each section has the user solve a series of puzzles to learn the coding language using block coding.

EarSketch

EarSketch is a music coding site that uses text-based coding languages to input code into a DAW on the simulation screen.

Sonic Pi

Sonic Pi is a site similar to EarSketch but where the music is generated and inputted completely through text-based programming. There is no visual simulation other than when it runs the code.

Kits

Korg LittleBits Synth Kit

The LittleBits Synth Kit is a modular synth kit for building and creating analog synthesizers. Each unit has a separate specific function and can be mixed-and-matched very much like block coding, but with actual physical blocks. Each unit effects the synth differently, so the possibilities of sounds that can be produced are vast.

Pocket Operater

Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators are small, handheld, digital audio workstations that resemble a large micro:bit with more buttons. There are a range of different ones that all have different features. Not coding specifically but completely programmable.

To ConclODE!! ?

There is so much you and your learners can explore with coding and STEAM. These really only scratch the surface. How have you integrated coding into your music classes? Have you used these before? What lessons work best for you? Regardless, I’m hoping these are able to get you started on coding in the music class.

Until next time, Happy Musicking!

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