Applications for the High School Music Program

By James Frankel


Over the past year I have had the opportunity to visit with and train many music teachers who are utilizing technology in their high school music programs.  Many have wonderful equipment and great software, but most primarily need help with how to actually teach with what they have.  The need in many cases is compounded by the fact that the administration wants to see what their investment can do in the hands of the teacher and the students. 

When most think of technology applications in a high school music program, they immediately think of music theory.  While this aspect of a music program can be greatly enhanced by technology, there are also some great uses of technology in the instrumental and vocal aspects of a music program as well. The following is a look at some of the many different ways that technology can be used in all facets of a high school music program, complete with software titles, prices, and lesson ideas.


A Typical Technology Lab


            Before we get to the software, it is necessary to quickly review the hardware associated with a music technology lab.  It should be noted that it is possible to do some wonderful things with just one workstation (defined below) provided that the teacher has a projection and amplification system available so that the students do not have to huddle around a 12-inch monitor or struggle to hear the womping sound output of a one-inch computer speaker.

            Music workstations consist of a computer (usually a Mac, but PCıs are fine), a synthesizer (make sure it has General MIDI and is multi-timbral), a USB MIDI interface device (Midiman 1x1ıs are fine) with the appropriate software, and software (notation, sequencing, tutorial, word processor, web-design, digital audio editing, and PowerPoint).  In my middle school music technology lab we have 10 iMac computers with 10 Korg X5D synthesizers, 10 Midiman interfaces, and lab packs of Sibelius, Logic, Band-in-a-Box, Auralia, Alfredıs Essentials of Music Theory, Microsoft Office, and Adobe GoLive).  All of the software mentioned below is available for both Macintosh and Windows platforms.


Instrumental Music


            Many band directors that I have talked with over the years dismiss the possibility of using technology in their ensemble rehearsals.  I am a band director, and I must say that the pressure of performing on concerts always puts the integration of technology on the back burner.  OK, the way back burner.  Who has enough rehearsal time built into their schedule to have their students go to the computer lab?  What school has a computer lab large enough to fit the whole band?  It is simply unrealistic to have individual students on computers during a rehearsal, instead of playing their instruments.  However, in some contexts it is realistic to have the teacher at a computer. 

One use of technology that is often overlooked is digital audio recording.  One of the best tools for any ensemble is listening to their performances and critiquing them.   With some good cardioid condenser microphones, an audio interface card (Digidesign), a mixer and some free software (ProTools LE), you can make some great recordings of your band for evaluative or archival purposes (technically you need permission from the publisher to record the work).  The price tag for all of this equipment is pretty high, but if you already own a computer, a complete system costs approximately $1,000.

Technology can also provide some wonderful opportunities in instrumental lessons.  SmartMusic is a great software title that provides ³smart² accompaniments for standard solos on each instrument.  For example, if you have a clarinet student auditioning for Region Band and youıd like them to practice with the accompaniment, you can purchase a MIDI arrangement of the piece that includes both the melody and the accompaniment.  The student then plays the solo into a microphone that is connected to the computer.  Students first tune their instrument to the software.  Next they can choose the tempo and the count off.   The ³smart² accompaniment feature follows the student by slowing down on ritards and speeding up with accelerandos.  It can even stay with the student during rubato sections.  I have seen a demonstration of the software at a conference, and was amazed by the ³smart² feature.  While it would certainly be better to have a live accompanist to practice with, it is just unrealistic.  I would never recommend using it performance, but you could if necessary.

In addition to the 20,000 accompaniment  titles available, there are over 50,000 exercises, including online versions of many popular method books.  Students can complete exercises either in a practice room or at home (if they purchase a student disk).  The software assesses how successfully the student has completed each exercise.  When a student feels that they are ready to be tested on a certain exercise, they can record their performance and send it to the band or orchestra director for assessment.  Itıs a very comprehensive program, and I recommend that you get a demonstration copy to check it out for yourself.  Prices for a yearly subscription to this online system vary depending on how many computers you install the software on.  The advertised price quotes the price as low as $20 per student.


Music Theory


In addition to practice software, I strongly recommend having some music theory software available to supplement the instrumental music lessons as well as the vocal music program.  These titles are also perfect for music theory courses, including AP Music Theory.  There are three major titles available that are geared for high school: Alfredıs Essentials of Music Theory, Practica Musica from Ars Nova, and Auralia which is now part of the Sibelius Education Suite. 

Essentials of Music Theory (EMT) is by far the most visually attractive and is the software version of the standard Alfred Theory books of the same name.  There are three volumes available, each with six units of study.  The software covers everything from the basics of music reading to analyzing chord progressions.  Each unit of study has numerous assessment activities.  The Educator Version of the software allows you to keep track of student progress.  The software can be run on a single computer in a practice room, or in a technology lab.  EMT is priced at $159 for the complete educator version (Volumes 1, 2 & 3) and $59 for the complete student version.  The student version does not allow multiple students to be assessed, although you can delete students from year to year.

Practica Musica has been around a long time, and the content of the software is wonderful.  It does not win any points for graphics however.  There are seventeen units of study, each with four levels of difficulty.  Practica Musica is primarily keyboard based.  There are a number of ways to input information.  First, a user can click on a number of different keyboard types (including a guitar fretboard and a labeled keyboard).  You can also use a MIDI keyboard to input information.  The only drawback with Practica Musica is that once a student has completed a test, the score cannot be recorded over.  You need to buy additional student disks each year with a cost as low as $4 per student.  Practica Musica  is priced at $87, although you will need to purchase student disks to allow multiple students to be assessed.

Auralia is hands down the best ear training software available.  About 10 years ago, Opcode came out with an ear-training program called Claire.  It was a great concept, but the processors back then couldnıt handle it.  Now, Auralia makes the concept possible.  What it does is provide four aspects of ear-training (intervals and scales, chords, rhythmic dictation, and melodic dictation).  Within each aspect there are numerous types of exercises.  Each exercise has various levels of difficulty and also allows the user to customize the exercises to focus on certain intervals, triads, rhythms, etc. The exercises have the students listen and respond to intervals, triads, chord progressions, scales, etc.  Students are also required to sing into the computer using either a built-in microphone, or an external one.  The software judges their accuracy and keeps track of their progress.  Even the most well trained musician will find the exercises challenging, especially at the higher levels.  For example, there is an exercise that involves jazz chord progressions.  At the highest level one must listen to approximately eight chords and identify them.  Sounds easy at first, but when they include every type of jazz chord under the sun and the inversions, it gets extremely difficult.  I highly recommend this software to anyone looking to improve the aural skills of their students (or themselves). 

Perhaps my single most favorite aspect of Auralia is the tuning exercise.  There are six levels of difficulty.  The easiest level asks students to listen to two pitches.  The first is in tune and the second is not.  Students are asked whether the second note is sharp or flat.  The higher levels of difficulty exercises actually have the students user a slider to adjust the pitch until it is correct.  This aspect alone is perfect for teaching any level of student how to tune, and how to tell when a note is in tune or out.  Auralia is priced at $115 per computer, although lab packs are available at discounted prices. 


Vocal Music


            Vocal music teachers that I have spoken with over the years often feel left out of the music technology discourse.  There are two tremendous vocal music teachers who are also strong advocates of technology: James Wynne at Jefferson Township High School and Joe Cantaffa at Howell High School.  In speaking with them, they mentioned the use of digital recording for evaluative and archival purposes that I mentioned in the instrumental section of this article.  They also have specific classes for music technology, and they do great things.  You probably have seen both of these great educators present at the NJMEA In-Service Conferences. 

Additionally, vocal music students can benefit greatly from all of the music theory software titles that I mentioned, especially Auralia.  Most regional auditions require students to sing some type of scale.  Auralia is a perfect way for students to drill and practice their scales.  The software judges how accurately the student sings the scale.  Students can select their voice type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) so that the exercises are in their vocal range.  The software can also provide students with sight-singing practice, another crucial element of musicianship skills. 


Music Appreciation


            There are many CD-ROM titles available for teachers to use to enhance a Music Appreciation course.  Clear-Vue has many different titles available covering all aspects of music history.  Basically, they are multimedia presentations with an encyclopedia and quizzes.  The titles include History of Music and Music and Culture.  They are priced at around $70 per title.

            Microsoftıs PowerPoint, which is part of the Microsoft Office Suite, is the perfect tool for music teachers to create their own teaching materials.  I have my entire 6th and 8th grade General Music curriculum on PowerPoint and it makes the material so much more interesting for the students.  You can include images, sounds, videos, and web links to your lectures.   The students will appreciate the visual aid, and you will appreciate having the completed presentation for years to come.

            Using web design software to create websites is a wonderful way for students to present research as opposed to the traditional term paper.  You might think of adding this as an option to writing a paper.  As you are most likely aware, many of our students are amazing web programmers.  Programs like Adobe GoLive, Macromediaıs Dreamweaver, or Microsoftıs FrontPage are readily available in most school computer labs.  One idea for a web project would be to have students research a specific composer from a given period of music history.  Once all of the students have completed their websites, they can link them through one website that is about the specific period of music history. 


            As you can see, there are many different ways to utilize technology throughout a high school music program.  Hopefully some of the ideas presented will inspire you to include technology in your teaching.  I recommend that you get demo copies of any software that you are interested in purchasing.  Most software companies offer free downloads of their demos on their websites, but you can also contact music technology retailers such as SoundTree or J.W. Pepper who will be happy to send you free copies of demos.  As always, if you have any questions about the software mentioned in this article feel free to email me.  You can also visit my new website at to get some more ideas on how to incorporate technology into your teaching.