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Collaborative composition and touchscreen technology in the classroom

Adam Hart, Lecturer in Music Technology at University of Salford

The opportunity to make music together is an important strand of every child’s education, fuelling creative, expressive and social development. A recent report by the Musicians’ Union (2019) addresses barriers to such opportunities, but also highlights the role of technology in driving positive change:

‘Music Technology should be an integral part of music education both in and out of the classroom. It… should be an integral part of each element moving forwards.’
(p. 53)


We should question what value technology adds to a learning process. Teaching music with technology does not necessarily mean one child sat at a workstation, isolated by headphones, or to demand the ability to play a MIDI keyboard. Touchscreen tablets are now widely used in education, being portable and customisable interactive devices. The question of how this might support pedagogical musical creativity has begun to be explored (Riley, 2016; Ruismäki, Juvonen, & Lehtonen, 2013).

In Spring 2019, Professor Alan Williams and I led a series of music workshops at Cathedral School of St Peter and St John Primary in Salford, working with year 2 and 4 classes to compose pieces for an ensemble from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. We used a bespoke app called Paynter (named after the composer and educationalist) which uses sound clips and simple interactive graphics. In the first session, the musicians visited the school, playing musical games which showcased the expressive range of their instruments. This was recorded and cut up into individual sound clips which were loaded into Paynter with appropriate descriptions and symbols. Over three further sessions, the classes used the app to compose pieces. In addition to using the sound clips which we loaded into the app, the pupils could record their own using percussion, voice, or any objects at hand. Clips could be manipulated in different ways through simple interaction with the touchscreen symbols, building a kind of musical storyboard. Finally, the group of musicians returned to play the pieces in a concert alongside the pupils, who provided additional sound effects. A collection for this project can be viewed on figshare (Hart & Williams, 2019).

The value added by the digital technology was evident in three main aspects of this process. First, it helped the pupils to communicate musical ideas, discussed and sketched using and building upon the descriptors and symbols of the app. Meaningful and manageable fragments of musical material have been shown to be effective pedagogical ‘building blocks’ (Bamberger, 1996), with children often ascribing imaginative descriptors when sharing their ideas (Wallerstedt, 2013). Second, the tablet offered a mode of expression via its playable surface, with the capacity to record and manipulate sounds further supporting a musical dialogue. Exploration and rehearsal of musical ideas is central to a pedagogy of composition (Winters, 2012, p. 20) and was enhanced here through the capacity to arrange these ideas into an interactive storyboard.

‘Meaningful and manageable fragments of musical material have been shown to be effective pedagogical “building blocks”, with children often ascribing imaginative descriptors when sharing their ideas.’

Finally, this format afforded all pupils a sense of contribution, which was summarised by the year 4 class teacher: ‘Everybody’s played a part in composing this piece of music, and one child who plays a lot of musical instruments said it’s been brilliant because although he’s played a lot of music he’s never composed his own piece.’ In this example, touchscreen technology was integrated within a wider collaborative activity, allowing the pupils to compose pieces for orchestral musicians. Further studies may show us how technology can support, rather than supplant, a range of musical experiences.


Bamberger, J. (1996). Turning music theory on its ear: Do we hear what we see; Do we see what we say? International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning, 1(1), 33–55.

Hart, A., & Williams, A. (2019). Paynter – A digital tablet-based platform for collaborative composition in the classroom. figshare. Collection. Retrieved from

Musicians’ Union. (2019). The state of play: A review of music education in England 2019. Retrieved from

Riley, P. (2016). iPad apps for creating in your general music classroom. General Music Today, 29(2), 4–13.

Ruismäki, H., Juvonen, A., & Lehtonen, K. (2013). The iPad and music in the new learning environment. The European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, 6(3), 1084–1096.

Wallerstedt, C. (2013). ‘Here comes the sausage’: An empirical study of children’s verbal communication during a collaborative music-making activity. Music Education Research, 15(4), 421–434.

Winters, M. (2012). The challenges of teaching composing. British Journal of Music Education, 29(1), 19–24.

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