The Transparent Use of Technology in the Music Classroom       

By: Dr. James Frankel


Every one of us uses technology transparently every day in our classroom perhaps without even realizing it.    The term transparent technology is one that is becoming more and more common in educational technology.  It basically means using technology to teach a concept, rather than teaching the technology.  Further, truly transparent use of technology happens when the technology is used without a second thought, avoiding the novelty factor that technology often has when it is rarely used. 

When VCR's became available to the education world, they were supposed to revolutionize instruction, and many feared that they might even eliminate the need for a teacher.  This revolution didn't quite happen.  However, today we use VCR's in our classroom without the slightest thought that it is using technology, we just use them.  The same can be said of chalkboards, record players, cassette recorders, and compact discs.  These technologies today, although some are outdated, are all used seamlessly during instruction to better illustrate or   facilitate the learning of a musical concept.    In order for newer technologies (computers & synthesizers) to be effective learning tools, we must use them in the same transparent manner that we use older technologies.

My school district has recently purchased a 10-station music technology lab for my colleague and I to teach the different facets of our middle school music curriculum, including 6th through 8th grade general music, as well as vocal and instrumental music.  Coincidentally, our middle school music curriculum needed to be rewritten to better incorporate the core curriculum content standards.   As members of the curriculum writing team, our first priority was to create a comprehensive middle school music curriculum.  Once that task was accomplished we looked for opportunities to integrate the technology transparently into teaching the musical concepts that we wanted our students to master.  It is important to note that we did not bend the curriculum to fit the technology; we bent the technology to fit the curriculum.  The following are some examples of how to use technology transparently in the music classroom.

In the sixth grade, we teach the students about American Music.  In the folk music unit, one of the activities requires the students to write their own verse to This Land is Your Land.  In years past, the students would hand in their newly created verse on a piece of paper in paragraph form, without any form of musical notation.  With the music technology lab now in place the transparent application would be to have the students add the lyrics to their newly created verses into a teacher created notation file.  This file, using either Finale or Sibelius as a notation program could then be printed out with the new verses for classroom performance.  Students do not need a great deal of prior knowledge in order to successfully insert a verse into an existing song.  The teacher could easily teach the already techno-literate students how to perform this function within in 5 or 10 minutes.  The application of technology here is transparent because the overall objective of the lesson has not shifted, and the technology is being used purely as a tool, a tool that has very real applications in the music world.

In the seventh grade we teach the students about the many types of World Music.  In the African unit, we cover the Jongo drum notation of Western Ghana.  For those of you unfamiliar with Jongo notation, there is a horizontal line of eight connected boxes representing the rhythmic pattern of one percussion instrument.  There are numerous lines below the first, each a new instrument and a new rhythmic pattern.  In years past, I drew a grid on the board and had the students create each line of the Jongo.  I would then distribute various percussion instruments to the class and we would perform the Jongo.  While seemingly a great idea, it is a classroom management nightmare even at this grade level.  Everyone wants their idea on the board and they all want to play the congas and no one wants to play the shakers.  In order to solve this problem while still maintaining the learning opportunity, a transparent application of technology can be applied.  Those of you who have read my articles over the years may recall my fondness for the Thinkin Things series by Edmark.  In Volume 2 there is a section called Oranga BangaÕs Band where you can actually create and orchestrate your own Jongo (although it doesn't tell you that you are).  Instead of having the students call out, or feel left out of the creative process, the teacher could ask the students to create their own Jongo using the software (and headphones).  After sufficient work time, the teacher could then ask each student to play his or her Jongo for the class. The teacher could then select one of the Jongos to be played on the real percussion instruments.  The software is easy to learn and would require little or no instruction time to get the students started.  Again, the application of technology in this example is transparent because it is being used as a tool to enhance both the instruction, and the learning environment, and not an agent of change in regard to the curriculum.

In the eighth grade, the students learn about the Classical music genre, specifically a representative composer from each period of music history.  For 20th Century music, the students learn about Igor Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring.  One of the elements of this unit is to make connections to the visual arts.  While this particular unit has not been taught yet in my school, similar units have.  In the past, if a teacher wanted their students to visualize what they heard in the music and then make comparisons to artwork from the same time period, they would have to make a trip to either a gallery or a library.  While both are worthwhile endeavors, time is of the essence in education, and many might shy away from making the interdisciplinary connection because of the amount of time required.  They might also encounter scheduling conflicts with the art teacher in their school, making it even more difficult to attempt such an activity.  Here is an example of a perfect opportunity for the transparent use of technology in the music classroom.  The Internet has made it possible to have a vast amount of information at our fingertips.  Included in this information are visual images.  Using an amazing website created by Mark Harden called Artchive  (, the students have the ability to look at most of the great artwork created over the past two thousand years for free.  They can browse through the artwork of specific artists looking for images that might be similar to their own after listening to the Rite.  They could then download the artwork, write a brief description of their rationale behind the selection of the image(s) and create a short PowerPoint presentation that could accompany a segment of Stravinsky's masterpiece. The use of technology here is transparent because the learning concept is enhanced by the technology from both a logistical and temporal standpoint.

You might now be wondering what non-transparent use of technology in the music classroom entails.  Quite simply it is when you use technology just for the sake of using it, or when you teach the technology and not the subject matter.  Technology is a wonderful tool.  We use it every day in every facet of our lives. Once you have used technology for a period of time you'll find that you rarely think, ÒHey, IÕm using technologyÓ when you are deleting junk mail from your email service, or when you are surfing the net.  This is the heart of transparency.  It is my sincere belief that if you use technology in your classroom in a similar way to your everyday use of it, your instruction will be greatly enhanced and your students will thank you for it.

As always, I would love to hear what you think about this issue.  Feel free to email me at the address listed above.