Personalized Learning Through Project-Based Music

Personalized Learning Through Project-Based Music

By Michael Hayden



How to Personalize Your Music Classroom


Project-based music is a way for students to personalize their learning, take ownership, use relevant technology, build upon and acquire new skills, and showcase their understanding to key learning outcomes—and yes, solve a real world “problem.” As with other types of personalized classrooms, project-based environments focus on learner outcomes and 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication.

This type of democratic learning environment has students learning by doing and by allowing all to explore individual interests and passions, learners are more motivated and excited about school. Finally, this real world context has a direct connection to our students’ lives outside of school.

The heart of project-based music is personalized learning. This student-centered environment places each student in control of their learning outcomes, the resources they use, and the ways in which newly acquired skills or mastered content will be showcased. A few takeaways about personalized learning and project-based learning are:

  • Learner becomes more responsible for their learning
  • Connects with learner interests, passions, and talents
  • Makes learning relevant to each individual student
  • Inquiry based education
  • Acquire skills to select and use appropriate technology
  • Makes use of various 1:1 technologies
  • Goes beyond differentiation and individualization


Let’s Get Started


Projects in which students take control of their learning can be started with any grade level and are perfect for the music classroom. There is no one size fits all first step so . . . start small, design a single project for your students, and center it around your learner outcomes. Don’t forget to make it relevant. As you get started with your first project be sure to plan formative steps that build off one another, provide students with an assessment rubric or work with individuals/groups to create their own, include an opportunity to reflect, and create opportunities for students to share (present) their projects.

You may also find it useful to create overall objectives for each project that include a project template and general guidelines. These guidelines set up the project and helps students who are not yet comfortable designing their own learning objectives.


personalized learning


What Do Some of These Music Projects Look Like?


Music Composition

  • Create a remix of a favorite song
  • Arrange pre-made loops to create new music
  • Video Game / Movie trailer Soundtrack
  • Create a cover song
  • Live audio composition using recorded (found) sounds
  • Create a Soundscape

Instructional Videos

Students work in small groups and showcase understandings of skills, concepts, or topics and create an instructional “how to” video that highlights the process and the product. These videos serve as a recourse to other students.

Graphic Novels / Comic Books

Similar to a how-to video, having students create their own instructional guide can personalize, strengthen, and showcase their own understanding while providing a resource for other students to use in the future. There are numerous graphic novel / comic book creator apps and websites available that go beyond creating a word processing document.

Student Newsletters

Students create a newsletter for their parents and the school community that highlights what is going on in music class and explains the process behind some of the skills based products (like performance). Apples Pages, Microsoft Word, and Google Docs have built in newsletter templates as a starting point for students.

Independent Musical Focus

Students independently explore one of the many facets of music. This provides students the opportunity (and the time) to further explore and investigate an area of musical interest ranging from music history to the intersection of physics and music. Students create their own learning outcomes, how they will showcase understanding, and identify what resources they may need.


Moving Forward


By placing students at the center of their own learning, music educators can really tap into the individual interests and passions. Personalized learning through project-based music increases motivation, learner outcomes, and improves a student’s outlook on education (school). In this inquiry-based learning environment, students learn by doing and develop 21st century skills such as communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. All of these are perfect for the music classroom.


How to Start


Some final thoughts on how to get started using project-based music to help personalize student learning.

  • Start small: use current learning outcomes as a guide
  • Scaffold activities and build formative steps
  • Provide valuable, timely feedback
  • Let students drive: FACILITATE (guide on the side)
  • Allow students to create HOW they will showcase learning
  • Provide time for all to share the projects


Additional Resources


Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2014). Make learning personal: The what, who, wow, where, and why. Newbury Park, CA.


Horn, M., & Staker, H. (2014). Blended: Using disruptive innovation to improve schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


McDonald, T. (2011). Unsustainable a strategy for making public schooling more productive, effective, and affordable. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education.


Schwahn, C., & McGarvey, B. (2011). Inevitable: Mass customized learning – learning in the age of empowerment. Lexington, KY: Chuck Schwahn & Bea McGarvey.


Why Project-based Learning (PBL)? (2015). Retrieved from


About the Author

Michael Hayden is a music educator from Milwaukee, WI. He teaches 6-12 grade orchestra, digital music production, and rock band for Whitnall Middle/High School, which launched 1:1 iPad programs in 2013. Hayden 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, Mike is a frequent presenter at various state and national education conferences–including this year’s National In-Service Conference—in the areas of music technology, secondary general music, composition, technology integration, and personalized learning. Finally, Mike is an instructional technology specialist, serving on various pilot and training teams for his school distric t.



Twitter @Hayden__Michael


  • technokat

    How would you implement personalized learning in a Kindergarten classroom with 25 students who meet once weekly for 45 minutes when you have 550 students weekly for whom to plan projects yet you only get a daily 45 minute prep to prepare lessons and complete paperwork, research resource material, contact parents, manage websites, etc. and you must do this for six grade levels?

    A good deal of time spent in the elementary music classroom covers social skills and behavioral concepts. If a teacher has, theoretically, 36 lessons per year per class (barring missed/disrupted classes for assemblies, field trips, testing, field days, etc.), how is he going to be able to personalize learning without taking valuable time from building all the skills necessary in the music classroom?

    Personalized learning applications for the upper grades where students 1) already have behavioral and academic foundations and 2) may meet their teachers more frequently is more feasible. Elementary students need to build skills, and while personal creativity is essential for interest and application, it is not always appropriate to every lesson.

    Musical ensemble is about bringing your personal best to a group and creating a group-entity. All music teachers should strive to encourage individual skill-building, but we elementary music teachers simply do not have the time in our schedules to implement personalized learning while meeting so many students in so little time. We need smaller classes, more prep time and flexibility in our schedules to monitor and guide students in both individualized and ensemble experiences in order to maximize learning. However this model is not economical for the elementary districts especially when school funding is dropping. We need to change the narrative about the importance of music in our schools and frame this around music as a living and collaborative (and yes, traditionally real-time) art form that can be studied on so many levels.

    Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. It is being viewed as a frill, a “fun respite” from the more “serious work” in other subjects where prep time can be facilitated for the other teachers. In my 18 years of teaching, never has any colleague nor administrator viewed my class as important enough to take into account the impact of rescheduling for various and sundry events or the disruption of missed classes because of snow days, assemblies, long weekends, etc. For young children, 11 days in between meetings is like a month for older people. Is this cause to give students “assignments” (i.e. technology-based reinforcement) through games (great for theory), videos and podcasts (good for history review), etc.? Sure. However how are we modeling and monitoring student performance when we aren’t able to meet these students regularly AND we have 525 other students to monitor that week?

    We need more time for both teaching and planning. There is too, too much to do to personalize to the extent in which this movement suggests. I think the questions we need to ask are:
    1. How will the time factor required to implement PL affect the foundational skills of our students?
    2. What sorts of benefits will our students be getting if every subject they take follows this structure? Would a more balanced approach to total learning be more beneficial?
    3. What impact will this type of learning have on the future of musical ensembles given the traditional scheduling in which we are attempting to fit it?

    • Krissie Pulley

      I believe this approach in an elementary music class CAN be done on ALL grade levels. This approach is not asking you to do it for the students, it is simply providing a place and a time for students to learn with their own interests. You would be there to guide, answer questions, encourage, get to know your students, and give them an opportunity to do something in music that they are interested in outside of your normal music class. Of course you could not do this approach without the whole school being on board, but if you picked one day out of the week every week to “think outside of the box” with your students, you could create an environment that your students would thrive on and dream. Also, what if the future music producers or music artists were exposed to something they were interested in, in elementary school, (not MS, HS, or College) and yes at the Kindergarten level, how creative and wonderful would the world be? I love this approach! Yes, elementary music teachers are on the go all the time, but don’t you love being busy and having fun with your students? That’s our “who” and “why” we became music teachers right?

    • Melissa Barrett

      I strongly agree with Krissie Pulley that this approach can be implemented in ALL classes. I have experience teaching both elementary and secondary levels of general music and chorus. I have implemented flexible learning goals in all of these grade levels and ensembles. I do understand the question of “How?” as it can be intimidating to get started. What helped me the most was shifting my lessons, for example, from “Today’s class, we will focus on identifying patterns in music by using this song, and doing this activity” to “A statement: “Music is made up of patterns. (Depending on the grade level) Where have you seen or heard these patterns? What songs? How can you demonstrate a pattern in music class? Can you see it? Hear it? create it?” You will be amazed with what your students come up with. Then let them get to work on demonstrating their level of understanding through their own venue. Think about the level of a kindergarten’s excitement when you choose them to come up with a steady beat movement, or when you let them create an additional verse to “Down by The Bay”. It’s the same concept but now the excitement and interest is pulsating through the entire class all at once. And, you would be amazed at how much more students are retaining what they have learned in your class. You are basing your mindset on the assumption that concepts will not be learned and also that students are retaining everything they have learned in your class while moving up tot he secondary level. How is their retention of material from grade 4 to grade 5? Do you have to reteach, especially when it comes to music literacy? Students retain more when they have a direct interest in the subject and activity so you would actually better prepare them for the secondary level with a stronger foundation as they will retain more. And, yes, I teach in a large school district with ten elementary schools, have very large class sizes, some of my classes meet once every six day cycle for 40 minutes, I have concerts to prep for along with managing 7 different grade levels plus a chorus, and a district wide curriculum and assessments I am responsible for. Try planning just one of your lessons with a different mindset and see what comes of it. As teachers, we are ever perfecting our art, see what doors this opens for you.

  • JohnLarmer

    Nice post! I linked to it today in my PBL News roundup blog:

    We’ve also had two other posts on music and PBL on the BIE PBL blog: