Teaching Music Theory with Technology

By James Frankel

 

 

     Aside from notation software, computer-aided instruction, or CAI, is the most prevalent use of technology in the music classroom today.  Todayıs CAI software has come a long way from the early drill and practice programs available in the late 1980ıs.  With the advent of multimedia and the CD-ROM, music educators now have a wide variety of software available to them today that takes full advantage of what the technology can actually do.

     To some, the idea of CAI is a scary one.  Many techno-phobic music educators feel that computers will take over their place in the classroom.  Quite frankly, it will never happen.  Technology should be treated purely as a tool for enhancing education, not as a threat. 

     One of the most useful places for technology in the music curriculum is in teaching music theory skills.   There are a number of excellent theory software packages available on the market today for a variety of age levels.  The following is a review of three of them: Practica Musica 4.0, Alfredıs Essential Music Theory Series, and Music Ace 1 & 2 .  Following the reviews there are also a few general suggestions for teaching both an entire class and an individual student with music theory software.

 

Practica Musica 4.0

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by Ars Nova

Hybrid (PC or Mac)

$90.00

 

There is little question that the most successful music theory software for students in grades 6 and up is the Practica Musica series.  There are 24 different activity types, everything from pitch matching to rhythmic dictation.  For each activity there are four different skill levels.  Even the most skilled theoretician will find the advanced activities quite challenging.  Some of the features of Practica Musica include: an advanced record keeping for up to four students , a well written theory textbook /workbook that accompanies the software, ability for the teacher to create custom activities, students can enter answers using a MIDI instrument, and their are several styles of keyboard or even a guitar fret board.

 

Pros:

Incredibly comprehensive theory training course.

Customizability.

Record keeping capability.

elementary to advanced skills are taught.

textbook.

MIDI capable but not required.  Uses QuickTime Musical Instruments.

wide variety of input options.

four levels of difficulty for each activity.

 

 

Cons:

Cost. This software should be treated as a consumable - meaning once a student has completed the activities on the software, it can no longer keep records.  Previous student work cannot be erased.  The software keeps records for four students at a time. In order for other students to use the software you need to purchase additional student disks at $15 a piece.  A site license allows one to install the software on many computers, but you will still need to purchase additional student disks.

Graphically dull.

Windows are very small.  It is difficult to read the on screen instructions.

 

Alfredıs Essentials of Music Theory Vol. 1 - 3

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by Alfred

Hybrid (PC or Mac)

$180.00 ($80 each volume)

 

Based on the Alfred Theory Course, this new and incredibly in-depth theory program is intended for students in grades 3 and up.  Although it can be used in the elementary setting, it is just as appropriate in a high school setting.  Each volume has six units.  Each unit has a number of different activities as well as narrated instruction.  Unlike Practica Musica which really requires a teacher to teach the theoretical concepts, Essentials of Music Theory can act as a stand- alone tutor.  The units contained on the three volumes cover virtually all of the main theory concepts, from pitch reading to advanced ear training.  There is also an extremely helpful glossary which defines hundreds of theory terms and gives both visual and audio examples.  As with Practica Musica, Essentials of Music Theory provides record-keeping capabilities for up to 30 students.

 

Pros:

Incredibly comprehensive theory training course.

Customizability of tests.

Record keeping capability.

elementary to advanced skills are taught.

listening examples are actual recordings rather than synthesized reproductions.

Guided instruction.  A narrated voice teaches the lesson, then activities are presented for the students to complete.

Graphically appealing.

Uses wonderful art work, animation and photographs of the composers, instruments and musical examples are easy to read.

Glossary is terrific.

Up to 30 students per CD-ROM.

Perfect for a one computer classroom.

You can erase student records when they are finished with the software.

 

Cons:

It is a set course.  Teachers can customize tests, but not the material presented.

No MIDI capabilities.

Cannot load the software on to multiple computers.  Each computer needs the CD-ROM to run. 

Site licenses are not currently available although 10-packs are reasonably priced at $240.

No student or teacher guide is included with the software, although the Alfred Theory Series is easy to purchase.

 

 

Music Ace  & Music Ace 2

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by Harmonic Vision

Hybrid (PC and Mac)

Music Ace 1 - $65.00

Music Ace 2 - $85.00

 

This is my favorite theory program for younger students.  It is primarily intended for students in elementary school, but I have used it with middle school students and they love it too.  Both Music Ace and Music Ace 2 employ Maestro Max to teach basic music theory concepts.  There are 24 lessons included on each volume covering concepts from tempo to melodic contour.  This self-paced tutorial is perfect for the beginning music student.  The exercises that reinforce the lessons are fun and make creative use of the technology.  The positive reinforcement is terrific.  The musical examples used to illustrate the theory concepts are wonderful and cover all periods of music history.  Music Ace is primarily focused on reading music and focuses on melody while Music Ace 2 is primarily concerned with notation, rhythmic dictation and much more.  With the addition of the Doodle Pad, students are able to do some basic composition as well.  Like Essentials of Music Theory, both Music Ace and Music Ace 2 provide record-keeping capabilities for up to 30 students.

 

Pros:

Together, Music Ace and Music Ace 2 are a very comprehensive theory training course for younger students.

Record keeping capability.

Guided instruction.  A narrated voice teaches the lesson, then activities are presented for the students to complete.

Graphically speaking, this software is a lot of fun.  The animated notes and Maestro Max are quite amusing.

Up to 30 students per CD-ROM.

Perfect for a one computer classroom.

Musical examples are terrific.

MIDI capable (optional).

Software is generally entertaining and highly interactive.

A comprehensive teacherıs guide accompanies the software.

Doodle pad allows students to compose and save.

 

Cons:

It is a set course.  Teachers cannot  customize tests or the material presented.

Cannot load the software on to multiple computers.  Each computer needs the CD-ROM to run.  Site licenses are available however for $600.

 

Ideas for Classroom Use

 

Each of the software titles listed can be used for both individualized and whole-class instruction whether you have only one computer or an entire lab.  Also, all aspects of music education can utilize the software as well.  Whether it is an instrumental music teacher supplementing group lessons, a high-school AP Music Theory course, or used in a middle school general music class all students can benefit from these software titles.  If you happen to teach in a one computer classroom, it is essential that you have some sort of projection device so that many students can see the screen at once.  It is not advisable to have 30 students hunched around one computer screen, especially if you are being observed.  With a projection device, the teacher can use the lessons or the activities to make music theory a bit more exciting.  How many of us have had a music theory teacher who we would not like to remember?  Theory is typically a dry subject.  This software actually makes it fun.  I have used each of these titles in the classroom setting and the students love working with it.  Consider CAI as one of many resources available to you to make your subject matter more interesting to your students.  After all, with TV, video games, and the internet - look what we are competing with.