The Emergence of Music Technology in Early Years
I’ve always been fascinated by the use of technology in music. I grew up in the Seventies when synthesisers first appeared in mainstream music and their other- worldly sounds were popularised by musicians like Jean Michelle-Jarre, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.
Fast forward to the Noughties when I started to work in early years music and the advent of cheap processing had made such synthesisers and samplers (essentially digital tape recorders) affordable to the masses. Yet the surge in digital music making now also involved desktop computers and this had the unanticipated consequence of isolating musicians.
The computer could record you, provide you with accompaniment and play everything back to you. You didn’t have to do this with others (indeed, you couldn’t – only one person could access a computer at a time) or even have to leave your bedroom. Technology had increased everyone’s access to the magical sounds that first captured my imagination but had made us prisoners in the process.
As someone who made music with groups every day and who saw the wonderful benefits of such collaborative endeavours, this rankled. Why couldn’t you have the best of both worlds – cheap technology that could be used in ensemble music making? As I strove to adopt this approach in my composing and performing, so I looked for opportunities to incorporate it into my early years work. The first chance came in 2003 when my son’s nursery invited me in for a week to work with their children.
Using Music Technology for Creative Expression
“It sounds like a rocket!” says Maisie, aged 4, running her hands up the keyboard.
“Can you put the rocket in a cave?” asks Tyrone, aged 3½, listening intently.
Both children are completely “in the moment”, focussed on this strange, fantastic, electronic re-imagining of the sound of a toy lawn mower, recorded by the children into a PC and then played off a MIDI keyboard. Tyrone’s strange question is a request to add reverb to the sound (Tyrone knows what reverb sounds like, even though he can’t always remember the word for it).
I took a sampler, a microphone, a controller keyboard and a portable mini-disk recorder into my son’s nursery. We spent time recording our voices and slowing them down/speeding them up using the keyboard. We then moved on to recording sounds from around the nursery into the mini-disk recorder that I would then upload into the sampler. The children would listen to the sounds, describe what they sounded like played from the keyboard and made decisions about whether I should put effects on them.
Children love making sounds. Music technology enables them to capture those sounds and turn them into something that they can control. This can be their voice, their favourite toy or something that has just caught their attention. In particular, being able to capture their voice and hear it back in different ways can be an intense and powerful experience for children, especially if they are shy, don’t have English as a first language or have difficulties with speech. The benefits of using music technology for musical development, acquisition of language, speaking and listening, as well psychological and social well-being are documented in Olivia Lowson’s report, ‘Telling Tales’
The ability to use a computer to record, alter and playback sounds can be of benefit to many other areas of learning, for example: maths (patterning, sequencing and numbers), literacy (oracy, phonics, sentence structure exploring graphemes and phonemes, speaking and listening skills), creative development, physical development (fine motor skills on the keyboard / mouse plus auditory refinement) and science (exploration and discovery, problem solving, cause and effect, etc).
Using Music Technology for Ensemble Music Making
During my visit to my son’s nursery, the climax of the week’s work was to put the sounds into a story. 'We’re Going On A Bear Hunt' was a big favourite as it features a number of different environments that the characters have to travel through, each of which has its own special noise.
As I took this way of working into other Early Years settings across Nottingham, I saw that there was an opportunity to explore stories that could be created with input from the children and told on the spot. This meant that the children could decide what kinds of sounds they wanted to hear in the story and what kind of recordings to make to create these sounds. They could then work as a team to find, record and transform sound sources to create their story soundtrack.
I then took this a step further by using particularly effective recordings by the children as sounds to be played from a keyboard in the same way a child might play a xylophone. The use of ‘the computer as a musical instrument’ meant that it could be brought into ensemble music making, as an equal to the obligatory percussion instruments but with the added attraction for the child that the essence of the sound being played is something that they’ve made themselves. It also provided a really good introduction to reading books where the story was explored first through music.
The Benefits of Open-Ended Software Design
Up until recently my music technology work has depended on using tools designed by adults for adults. To begin with it was big boxes with flashing lights, and then it became software applications on a desktop computer but the effect on the process was always the same – I or some other adult had to act as the interface between the music technology and the child.
As recently described by Dr Manches in his blog for Earlyarts, ‘The Good The Bad and The Downright Creative’, an adult’s role in this situation is very influential and their approach to the technology for which they are the gatekeeper can influence both the child’s relationship with the process of the engaging with that technology and its outcomes. Put more simply, if an adult doesn’t properly understand how to use the software or doesn’t like it, then a child will not be able to access it.
A solution would be to offer more child-friendly software applications yet, whilst the software now available for use by adults in music is varied and highly sophisticated, much of the software for children is designed in such a way as to restrict what can and can’t be done with it in order to make it simple enough (literally) for a child to understand. Commercially this is understandable, but educationally these kinds of software applications offer little because of the closed nature of their design.
I saw a need for a software programme that could be operated by children but which offered them the same open-ended creative possibilities of the professional, adult-centred software. I designed Mr Mangle’s Magical Music Factory to do just this – it works like a professional music software application, with comparable levels of creative editing; yet its iconography and simple processes are designed for children to grasp.
How Music Technology Works in Practice
By itself, music technology can appear abstract. Its power comes when it’s combined with other activities such as singing, movement and storytelling. The creation of a story gives a place for the music technology work to reside and stimulates the children’s sense of imagination and vocabulary.
The recording starts by capturing and manipulating the children’s voices as a way of getting them interested, and then moves onto recording objects found in the nursery setting. Singing songs about the story is used both as a gateway into the children’s sense of musicality and fun (the songs involve a lot of play acting and actions) and to help the children’s vocal development. Using the instruments along with a chosen sound from the music technology work, you can build up crude little compositions about the story.
Using music technology with the under 5’s relies upon speed. The trick is to make sure that the gap between the children making a sound and the children then being able to play that sound from the computer is as brief as possible. This quickly sets up the association between the excitement of being able to play and hear “their sound” with the trickier task of recording into a microphone and waiting for the sound to be loaded into the sampler.
Once the children realise that pressing the keyboard plays “their” sound, they are hooked. This then gives the practitioner the scope to take the work further: to demonstrate effects and how they sound, and it engages the children in conversations about the nature of the sounds they’ve created.
The fascinating thing about this approach is the way in which it has so many beneficial “side-effects”. The children learn to work in pairs and as a team to accomplish their tasks. They have to learn a whole new lexicon of words to discuss sound and its manipulation. The development of the story, which is done in groups, encourages them to articulate the depths of their imagination. The experience of playing their sound in the story (in effect, a performance) gives the children confidence and a great sense of pride and ownership. As with all the best music work, there is as much active listening as there is active music making.
Mat Andasun is a multi-instrumental performer and composer who writes music for TV and film, and who produces Latin prog rock music for a small cult audience. He has been a community musician since 1993 and continues to maintain an active presence as a music practitioner in Early Years music and music for SEND children through his company, Nottingham Community Music.
He recently developed an exciting new music software programme for early years, Key Stages 1 and 2 and SEN called Mr Mangles Music Factory...