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Accelerated learning for music

by June Kinoshita, Executive Director, New Harmony Line

“Next time you hear the phrase learning loss, think about whether we really want to define our students by their deficits instead of their potential.” – Ron Berger, “Our Kids Are Not Broken,” The Atlantic

As schools navigate the post-lockdown world, educators are turning to “accelerated learning” as a method to make up the ground lost over the past two years. But this moment can be about so much more than clawing back lost time. This is also a moment to open our minds to new possibilities. “Acceleration does not mean assigning some students to remediation while others are allowed to fly,” writes Ron Berger, senior advisor of teaching and learning at EL Education. “Accelerating learning means moving students into exciting new academic challenges with a growth mindset for their potential.” 

An accelerated learning approach for music education is precisely what we are championing through the use of HyperscoreTM and our “inverted pedagogy.”

Hyperscore is an intuitive, graphical composition tool developed at the M.I.T. Media Laboratory by composer Tod Machover and a team of musician-engineers with deep knowledge of composition, music theory, artificial intelligence, and interface design. Hyperscore has been used in Machover’s Toy Symphony and City Symphony projects, in which hundreds of school children composed original music that was incorporated into symphonic works. These children have heard their work performed by major orchestras including the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Toronto Symphony, and Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

In these projects, we saw how Hyperscore completely shifted the relationship between children and professional musicians. This technology, in the hands of creative, inspired teachers and mentors, empowered children to share their stories and experiences through music. The children were treated with respect, their voices validated.

How Hyperscore works

In the Hyperscore environment, melodic motifs are created by “dropping” dots and lines in a “melody window,” a grid in which the vertical axis represents pitch and the horizontal axis represents time. Motifs are assigned a color, and then that color “pen” is used to draw a contour in a “sketch window.” The position of the line changes the pitch of the motif. Multiple motifs can be layered and combined to build more complex musical structures. A horizonal “harmony line” can be dragged up and down to create harmonic tension, release, and modulation. The user can also impose classical western harmony on the composition with the click of a button.

“My students absolutely loved creating their own songs with ease,” enthused Jenn Stiegelmeyer, the General Music teacher at Wickham Elementary in Coralville, Iowa, who tested Hyperscore in her classroom this past spring. “The program made sense to them right away and they felt very successful from day one. They came into class excited and ready to get started, and they often wanted to share their creations.”

“Hyperscore represents a quantum leap—rather as if someone could speak in a foreign language simply by deciding what one wanted to say and using one’s body in a natural way,” says Howard Gardner, the cognitive psychologist renowned for his theory of “multiple intelligences.”

Putting creativity first

Embodied in Hyperscore is a different philosophy about teaching creativity and engaging children in music. It’s a playground for kids to experiment, go crazy, have fun, and then the teacher can guide a conversation about what they just did. How does that make you feel? Why do you think that is? What could you change to get a different effect? What’s the story you want to tell? Let’s think about how we can do that.

How does this fit in with accelerated learning? According to a Carnegie Corporation report, accelerated learning includes:

  • Deeper learning through complex and meaningful problems and projects;
  • Prioritizing high-level skills and content and creating teaching and learning pathways;
  • Access to grade-level content despite the absence of some knowledge and skills from previous grades;
  • Identifying the most crucial knowledge and skills that students need and integrating those into lessons;
  • A long-range plan, building on a foundation of assets, not deficiencies;
  • Assuming all students can learn literally anything with the right instruction and support.

In the hands of teachers who understand its capabilities, Hyperscore meets all of these criteria. It empowers users to compose deeply personal, original music. What could be more complex and meaningful? Hyperscore prioritizes high-level skills, such as constructing a sonic journey, which then opens pathways to teaching about underlying ideas such as pitch, rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint. Because it starts at the high level and “back fills” basics concepts as needed, students won’t get left behind. The ideas and skills students need become naturally integrated into work on their composition, in the service of a goal that is personally rewarding.

Composing with Hyperscore enables an empathetic educator to recognize each student’s assets—their singular stories, their unique experiences and feelings—and celebrate and validate them. It doesn’t matter if the student does not know a quarter note or a key signature at the outset. They will learn it when they have a reason to do so.

Set your imagination on fire

For educators who have not previously taught music composition, or even composed themselves, the prospect of coaching a group of students to compose can be daunting. Even for those who have taught composition, it may not come naturally to overturn their traditional training. Recognizing these hurdles, the team behind Hyperscore has developed a variety of tools and resources. These include:

  • Short video tutorials on Hyperscore basics;
  • Teaching modules which map to national arts standards and can be customized for different grades;
  • Monthly office hours on Zoom for Q&A with the Hyperscore team. Educators who are new to teaching composition to students can learn tips for running creative composing workshops for different ages and backgrounds.
  • Virtual, one-hour workshops in which anyone—educators, students, the general public—can dive into creative composing experiences in a supportive, judgement-free environment.

Hyperscore is a versatile, flexible tool that serves a broad range of backgrounds and musical genres. It brings a fun, game-like element to a variety of teaching methods and curriculums. But Hyperscore truly soars when teachers recognize its unique capabilities as tool that empowers children to explore self-expression and musical storytelling.

Our mission, ultimately, is to transform individuals’ relationship to music. When children are given the opportunity to create music, they will start to experience music in a deeper, more personal way. They will begin to venture beyond what’s popular, what’s the latest earworm, and start to discern the intention behind many different types of music. When children are given the tools to find their voice, they will also be better able to hear what other voices are trying to say.

Take away the barriers that we put in the way of young people, give them permission and space to create music, and support them in drawing out their authentic voices. The results may be among the most rewarding learning experiences they, and you, will ever have.

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