Gadgetry and Musicality: Technology Enhancing Music Education

Ian Boynton is a music teacher for the Redford Union School District near Detroit. He received his masters in educational technology from Central Michigan University, and has been embracing technology in his music classes ever since becoming a teacher 12 years ago.

Students, particularly young ones, figure things out through active learning, play and experimentation. “Have you ever tried to walk up to the side of a seesaw that was in the air and not been able to do it?” Boynton asked. “That’s active learning. You figured out weight and gravity all by yourself through play and experimentation.”

Boynton employs a hands-on strategy in his Detroit school district classes. With music, he says, there is an intrinsic desire to want to participate. Whenever a new instrument is introduced, he allows the students the entire class period to play with it and see what it does. By this method students gain a natural working knowledge of the instrument before ever looking at the first page of sheet music.

Ian Boynton using the ENO Board. Photo courtesy of Echo Hunter.

“In the traditional ‘desk in rows and teacher lectures’ system, the learner’s brain isn’t really engaged. Think about long meetings you have to go where the presider just talks for minutes at a time,” he said. “Gets hard to pay attention yes? After say, three minutes or so, students just plain aren’t paying attention; they’re bored, they start to amuse themselves. If they’re actively engaged with something the level of understanding and retention goes up.” 

Boynton was fortunate enough to receive an ENO Board with his pre-K students and uses it to enhance his curriculum. When exposing them to various instruments, he says he first shows someone playing the instrument and then uses the board to make music maps, which look like piano rolls. Duration of sound is determined by horizontal icons, and pitch is determined by where the icon appears on the vertical axis. He offered a map of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as an example. “For a song the students know I would have the icons lined up at the bottom of the screen. They take turns moving them to different heights and see what it sounds like,” he said. “Right now that means I sing the pattern and they compare it. One day I hope to find software that they can use which will play pitch based on vertical placement.” The visual representation of the piece reaches young kids on a different level than sheet music.

Boynton views technology as a way to enhance student learning. He says that educators should keep up with what’s new and innovating but always understand that technology is a tool for achieving educational goals. It’s also useful for filling in gaps in learning and extending the reach of the curriculum to distant places. For a project he’s working on for the upcoming Fall semester, Boynton is thinking about contacting a South African children’s musician in order to put together a presentation for his class. He’s considering asking him to send a video or some other media so that his kids can experience learning a song from another country. Boynton currently teaches kids as young as four, and it’s easy to imagine such a child’s youthful wonder at hearing and learning music from around the world by way of YouTube.

In an example of using technology for expression and feeling, Boynton’s fifth-grade students composed soundtracks for movie clips, learning about how musical elements can set mood. “They always wanted to do scary movies for some reason,” he said. “So I’d make them figure out if it was spine-tingling music or being-chased-by-a-monster music.” The students spent two class periods composing, and then Boynton used Apple’s Soundtrack Pro to splice in the audio with the clip for the final product.

If money was no object, schools across America would have iPads and the latest educational apps and software. Music classes would have studios and brand new instruments and computers and programs for mixing and recording. Boynton’s school qualifies for Title 1 funds from the federal government because the district has 60% of the population living below the poverty line, but it hasn’t stopped him from using technology to benefit his students. He uses his personal iPad and an app called Rockmate to explore instruments like pianos, drums, and guitars. “Ideally, they’d have the real instrument, but this is a decent substitute,” he says.

Music reaches kids in an alternative, transcendental way that core subjects like math and english typically do not, something that Ian Boynton appears to understand. It entertains them, it allows them to express and experience emotions, and it can form whatever meaning they can imagine. Using technology is one more way kids can be creative when learning the capabilities of all kinds of musical instruments.

  • Janice Joo

    Very cool article! Are the 5th graders being taught to record and produce music with the computer?