Create/Compose…and the technology that can help


…and the technology that can help

By NAfME member Michael Hayden


Now more than ever, music technology has the transformative power to strengthen our music classrooms and deepen student educational experiences. With the various district initiatives it can at times be overwhelming to keep up with the latest tech trends and keep the focus on music learning outcomes. By using technology to help students create, educators can deepen student understanding in all facets of music and provide a venue to showcase musical creativity.

Let’s take a closer look…

Students create music every day. So how can technology help? Programs such as Ableton Live and SoundTrap are excellent pieces of software that offer templates and additional sound packs in a wide range of musical styles, which allow students to make music in styles and genres that may extend beyond the classical and jazz traditions. Using pre-generated sounds or ones made from scratch, your student’s favorite Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a great tool for music creation and creativity.


Create Using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

Soundtrap and Ableton

For free and cloud based, you’d be hard pressed to find a program that offers more overall features than SoundTrap. There are also other programs that allow students to create loop based music such as Soundation and AudioTool. Each of these are fantastic and I encourage all educators to explore their functions and assess how they may use each with students. For me, the features that really sell Soundtrap are: 1. Ease of use 2. Wide range of templates and sounds (to meet the ever changing musical taste of our students) and 3. Ability to record via MIDI, using pre-generated looped clips, AND 4. Ability to record audio. SoundTrap even includes these feature for free (you will need to create an account). Should you wish to use SoundTrap with your entire class or want unlimited projects, premium and classroom packages are available for purchase.


Ableton Live


For those that are looking for a more powerful, industry standard recording and sequencing program, look no further than Ableton Live. Similar to using the free, cloud based software, there are numerous routes you could go when selecting a more powerful recording program to use with your students. Ableton Live has been my go-to software to use in all classes for the past three years. I have found ways to easily use it with elementary students, middle and high school general classes, and middle and high school performance ensembles. Its combination of session and arrangement view make it an ideal one stop recording program. I even use Ableton Live to record, organize, and as the vehicle to export class audio recordings for students listening activities.


Create/Compose Examples

Activity #1: Create a variation (or new twist) on a favorite nursery rhyme.

While this lesson idea is not specific to Soundtrap, it is an example of how you can use music production software to help your students create music.

Step 1: Start by selecting one of the Soundtrap built-in templates for genres (dubstep, trip hop, pop).

Step 2: Use a built in computer microphone, usb mic (such as the Blue Snowball USB), or microphone connected via audio interface (like the Focusrite Scarlet Solo), to record audio into Soundtrap.

Step 3: Once audio has been recorded, use Soundtrap features to further edit, arrange, and add effects to the words of the chosen nursery rhyme. Students can even pair with their classmates to multi track record different voices speaking or record themselves singing their nursery rhyme (with the new template backing track)

Step 4: Present nursery rhyme remixes to the class or post them to music sharing websites such as Soundcloud, Youtube, or your Google Classroom for student listening activities.

This activity is a great way to deepen student understanding in musical form, specifically theme and variation. This could also be used as an entire class activity in which students experiment with different ways of arranging their favorite nursery rhythm within the different musical genres.


recording adventtr


Activity #2: Create loop-based compositions

Each student can create / arrange a 1 minute piece of music. Using a combination of pre-generated loops, MIDI and audio recordings, students will create short musical passages to share with one another.

Step 1: Students should start with Ableton Live’s arrangement view and find six to eight pre-generated “clips” to make their piece of music. Each clip varies in length but can be lengthened, duplicated, or split to make shorter.

Step 2: Use this activity as opportunity to discuss structure (Is there some type of repetition? Do or should sections come back in their short piece?), texture, and instrumentation (especially since students will be layering clips to create new sonic textures).

Step 3: Have students adjust the tempo to further customize their musical creation

Step 4: Once short compositions are complete, have students explore adding effects to different tracks, adjusting volume, panning, and experiment with automation.

Step 5: Present music compositions in class or post them to music sharing websites such as Soundcloud, Youtube, or your Google Classroom for student listening activities. In Ableton Live, students can export .WAV files and email/share them directly with you.

Looking for more inspiration about ways to use Ableton Live with younger students in the general classroom setting? CLICK HERE to view producer Lawrence Grey help 2nd graders create their own song “Shiny Gold.”


CREATE Using Notation

Beyond music production software there are also numerous high quality music notation programs available to students, some of which are even free! Programs generating excitement in my classrooms are Noteflight and Flat.IO. Both can be used by teachers and students for free (premium accounts available) and have built-in collaboration/sharing features. Each program has different pros (along with numerous similarities) so I encourage you to explore and experiment. As a bonus, if your school uses Google Apps, Flat.IO is fully integrated with Google Classroom, making it easy to sync with your existing classes.


music composition pop_jop


Activity #3: Create a four to eight measure melody using a notation program such as Noteflight or Flat.IO.

Step 1: Brainstorm with students, What makes a melody? What do we need? This is a great opportunity to link with various “memorable” melodies that students may know, ranging from classical to pop.

Step 2: Navigate to your favorite cloud based music notation program.

Some logistics: Limit to a certain key (link to what you and your students are learning in class), include some note and rhythmic repetition, start and end on the tonic, and limit range of notes to one octave.

Step 3: After 10-15 minutes, have students pair up and share their melodies

Step 4: Students should also be encouraged to play/sing the various melodies. To take this activity even further, arrange students around the classroom and have each play or sing their melody, one after another, while maintaining steady pulse, thus creating one long musical phrase.

No matter what the technology is, or the ways it’s being used, what’s most important is we continue to provide our students a variety of opportunities to make music and be creative. Technology is a great tool for teaching and in the music classroom it can be used to help our students capture their musical ideas, create new music, and collaborate with others.


Web Resources


Past Articles by Michael Hayden

Rock Band: Bridging the Gap

Teaching Theory Using Ableton Live: A New Way to Approach Music Theory


About the author:

orchestra teacher

NAfME member Michael Hayden is the Director of Orchestras at Wauwatosa East High School. He received his Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his Master of Music in Music Education from Northwestern University. Michael is the current state technology chair on the Wisconsin Music Educators Association (WMEA) Council and the North Central Representative for the NAfME Council for Music Composition. Michael is passionate about music and technology, especially the new and relevant ways students can create meaningful and unique music compositions using a variety of recording/sequencing hardware and software that are readily available. Additionally, he is a frequent presenter at various state and national education conferences in the areas of music technology, secondary general music, composition, technology integration, and personalized learning.

Additional lesson resources, including links to lessons, conference sessions, and additional articles can be found at

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