Taking singing further with technology

Simple, easy to implement ideas for using technology to support and extend singing activities, from David Ashworth.

One of the great strengths of singing in the classroom is that, apart from being fun, it doesn’t require much in the way of resourcing as the children’s voices are the resource! However, with the addition of some easy-to-use music technology applications, singing-based activity can be even more engaging and creative. Children on the whole love using technology but their teachers are sometimes less keen! This article is full of ideas to get hands on with technology in your music lessons. 

Songwriting

Sing Up’s songwriting backing tracks provide the perfect way in; they are catchy and engaging, and the supporting notes help teachers and children write effective melodies and lyrics, which also links beautifully into literacy.

Encourage children to continue with this type of activity outside of school using apps such as pocket songwriter. This particular app comes with 14 backing tracks in different styles, an engaging interface for writing words, a rhyming dictionary (with all the ‘naughty’ words removed!) and a recording facility for adding vocals to the backing track. 

You can take songwriting even further by providing the opportunity for children to create their own backing tracks for brand new songs. The type of app you need is called a sequencer and they are widely available for computers and mobile devices, and many are low cost or even free. A sequencer is essentially a grid or timeline that sounds can be dragged onto. Short sound recordings (called loops or samples) of instruments such as drums, bass, guitars, etc. can be layered to create a full instrumental backing. 

Using technology in this way replicates the ways in which many contemporary musicians put their songs together: artists such as Kanye West and Rihanna make extensive use of sampled sounds in their recordings – this video shows some of Kanye West’s samples next to the original recordings. Many programmes and apps come with ready-made samples, which can be used for creating effective backing tracks in an ‘authentic’ and culturally relevant way. 

Activity – create a backing track using a sequencer

What you’ll need:

  • A computer sequencer programme or app – look for the Cloud-based software Soundation or an app such as GarageBand
  • A library of sampled sounds (usually included with the programme)

Learning objective:

I can use a computer or tablet to make a backing for a song. 

Preparation:

Listen to the sounds in the library and choose a selection for your students to use. Start with about twelve (eg. 3 x drums, 3 x bass, 3 x keyboards and 3 x guitars). It’s important that they are all the same tempo and in the same key, so that they will ‘fit’ together. But don’t worry if this sounds complicated; sample libraries are often organised in this way. 

Decide on a template structure for your students to follow. This can be any mix of verses and choruses, plus an introduction and an ending. Or try this one: 4 bar introduction – 8 bar verse – 8 bar chorus – repeat verse – repeat chorus – repeat chorus – 4 bar ending.

Tell students they can work with a maximum of six sounds in their composition (too many sounds changing in a piece can make it sound a bit messy).

Step 1: Create a chorus

  • Begin by adding a drum part. Find a drum sound you like and drag it into the composing area.
  • Now find a keyboard part that goes well with this.
  • Add a guitar next, followed by a bass part. Make sure that they fit together with the drums and keyboard.
  • Perhaps add another guitar or keyboard part for a fuller sound. 

Step 2: Create a verse

Repeat the process above but make the verse less ‘busy’ than the chorus. So, for example, a chorus might use all six sounds, whereas a verse might use only four. 

Step 3: Create an intro and ending

Finally, use some of your sounds to put together a short introduction and an ending. 

This is, of course, a very prescriptive approach, but it’s a great way to instil a sound, structured approach to standard songwriting and it can produce some fantastic results!

Understanding notation

A good way into understanding how sounds can be represented through symbols is to use a notation programme such as Topologika’s Words and Music, which allows children to attach notes to syllables in an easy to understand graphic interface. This can then be converted into musical notes. Although these programmes are more intuitive than they used to be they may be challenging for some children to use directly, but are an ideal option to challenge your gifted and talented students.

Recording and digital effects

Recording classroom activity is commonplace, and many teachers are already using mp3 recorders, mobile phones or computer-based audio programmes for this purpose. But it needn’t end there – make this the basis for some fantastic creative work, such as activities that allow students to experiment with using their voices in different ways. This can be a great way to help children overcome inhibitions (for example, we see how some children will shy away from singing in public, but are quite happy to try out beatboxing techniques). 

The human voice is versatile and can be used to create a huge range of sounds. By simply adding a few digital effects these sounds can be manipulated to create an even wider range of weird and wonderful noises, which can be used as a basis for musical discussion and in composition and performance. Processing the sounds can make them more ‘special’. For example, recording a child scrunching cellophane and adding a bit of reverb gives a wonderful fantasy sound, and there is more mystery and a sense of magic if it is coming out of a speaker rather than from Andrew in the corner with his crisp packet. 

The freeware audio editing programme Audacity makes adding digital effects to recordings (such as reverb, echo and pitch shifting) very straightforward, and the excellent Music Mike Create, designed by primary music specialist David Wheway, is specially created for primary classroom use and is designed to allow children to record sounds, process them and even mix them to create original compositions.

Try this: create a sound world for story time

Sounds created in the ways described above could be used very effectively in story telling activities, such as this one from Jackie Schneider.

Select a story that has plenty of opportunities for accompanying sounds and discuss with your class how you might create them. Once you have recorded the sounds and added any digital effects, download a ‘virtual’ sampler such as SoundPlant, which is free and very easy to use. Then, simply drag and drop your recorded sounds onto a QWERTY display on the software interface to allocate each sound to a key on your computer keyboard. 

When the time comes to tell the story, ask different pupils to trigger the playback of a sound by hitting the relevant key on the computer keyboard at the required points in the narration – a fun way to keep everyone engaged and breathe new life into your story! 

The ideas above describe just a few effective ways to support and extend your singing activities using technology. Integrating music and technology in this way not only aids cross-curricular learning but also opens the door to more creativity and fun, so give these ideas a go, even if ICT is not your forte – both you and your students will soon be enjoying the benefits!

 

David Ashworth has published many resources for music teachers with Rhinegold, Scholastic and the BBC. He works as a freelance music education consultant, providing nationwide INSET and training.

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