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Munchkin Mozarts
Published in the September 1998 issue of Curriculum Administrator
© 1998 - Gary S. Stager

The cultural, creative and intellectual benefits of music education are inestimable. Academic achievement and student self-esteem have been linked to participation in the performing arts. Unfortunately, as school arts budgets continue to shrink, fewer students will have such educational opportunities.

Back in the seventies I had the good fortune to attend a high school where I was able to take four years of courses in music theory. Even though I was able to enjoy two or three music classes per day throughout high school and study music in college, the compositional process was often disappointing. If I wrote for cello and bassoon and didn't have classmates who played those instruments, I never got to hear my composition. When an assignment was too difficult for a teacher to play on the piano, I was cheated of important aural feedback. Computers and low-cost digital musical instruments make music performance and composition possible for greater numbers of learners.

Music is not a spectator sport.

The increasing availability of MIDI devices and user-friendly software affords computer users an opportunity to explore music at a very personal level. MIDI, which stands for musical instrument digital interface, is the standard by which computers, keyboards and synthesizers speak to one another. Few other standards in this rapid age of technological change have been so universally embraced. MIDI takes the electronic impulses created by analog devices and communicates them to synthesizers which produce the desired sounds. Yamaha and Casio now offer General MIDI synthesizer/keyboards for less than $200. Sequencer/notation software is available from as approximately $40 on up.

Teachers around the world are finding that low-cost MIDI keyboards and easy-to-use sequencer software offers their students the chance to compose music and share those compositions with an audience. Geoff Powell of Geelong Grammar School in Australia, works with students as young as fifth grade, who use MIDI keyboards and their laptop computers to compose and learn about music theory. Jenny Moon of Brisbane Australia’s John Paul College has classes of middle school students write, compose and perform entire musicals based on nursery rhymes for younger children in the school. Geelong Grammar uses Freestyle ( and John Paul College uses Cubasis ( as their sequencer/notation software.

Sequencer software records the notes you play on a keyboard (or other MIDI device) and allows you to edit, layer and play them back one part at a time. Non-pianists can “hunt-and-peck” their way to compositional genius. Notation software allows you to create musical notation on the computer screen, edit it with word processor-like controls and print out beautiful sheet music. Easy-to-use software like Freestyle, combines sequencer and notation software in one low-cost package. More advanced users decide which tools they need most and use separate sequencer and notation software.

Morton Subotnick’s Making Music software (available from Forrest Technologies) provides even pre-readers with a rich environment in which they can “paint” music. Discussing compositional issues with a six-year old made me realize how music was one area in which computers truly enable new opportunities for learning and self-expression.

The ways in which computers, software and MIDI devices can enhance music education are limitless. School bands without tuba players can now have a pianist play the tuba part on a synthesizer keyboard and children can “take piano lessons” without a teacher by using Jump Music’s Piano Discovery software ( Band directors can transpose that oboe part they never seem to have a player for to clarinet using notation software such as Finalé (, Cakewalk ( Mosaic ( or Overture ( Marching bands can use special software to design their field maneuvers. Young jazz musicians can use Band-in-a-Box ( to provide customized rhythm section accompaniment for their improvisation or practice. SmartMusicStudio ( uses an amazing technology that will actually accompany your playing on a traditional instrument by using a microphone and some fancy programming. As you change tempo, the virtual accompanies follows you.

The sky’s the limit. More advanced users can use Cubase VST 24 ( as a virtual 24-track recording studio, containing most of the features you would find in a real recording studio, except that it costs a few hundred dollars and runs on your Mac or PC. You can even burn your own music CDs after a very small investment in a CD recorder.

Anyone know the words to Moore’s Law?

Synthesizers are the heart and soul of music making in the digital age. Many people confuse synthesizers with electronic keyboards. Some keyboards contain synthesizers, others are merely MIDI controllers. The synthesizer is the chip that produces synthesized sounds. These sounds continue to get more realistic at a lower price.

MIDI allows Stevie Wonder to play at one keyboard and have dozens of instruments synthesized in racks of synthesizer sound modules and amplified for the audience to enjoy. Modern operating systems and internal PC sound cards allow you computer to generate synthesized sounds as well. Apple’s multimedia platform, QuickTime 3 Pro, (Mac and Win ‘95) includes the fabulous sound library of the Roland Sound Canvas ( Now MIDI files played on your computer can sound like there are live musicians hiding behind your disk drive.

The Cybersound Studio ( comes complete with a small MIDI keyboard, MIDI interface and sequencing software for under $99. In this case, the processor power of the computer is used to make the music while the keyboard merely tells the computers which notes to play and remember.

Most sequencer programs have the ability to export MIDI files. Your students can use these files to add music to their MicroWorlds projects, HyperStudio stacks or web pages. As the new school year begins, please remember to keep swingin’!

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