Composing with iPads in the Classroom

In this episode we are going to show an example of how the composing and music-making with iPads may look like in the classroom. The iPad offers excellent opportunities to inspire young people for music composition.

A student iPad composition

The following video is the result of a one week project, which was carried out by students at the State Vocational School of Weimar.

Compositional structure

The harmonic base of the whole composition consists of only four chords. From the point of the tone material all four chords are major and minor triads. But the two inner chords are constructed so, that it become tension chords. This makes the composition more emotional.

The musical composition shall show, that already a minimal harmonic base is sufficient, to compose well sounding music. Thus the piece starts with a classical string ensemble, followed by a rock guitar riff and then ends back in classical style.

Both parts are roofed by melodic motifs, one time in the form of a melodic soprano voice and another time in the form of a electric guitar sole. The latter consists of two parts again, namely a melodic phrase and a tapping part.

Software

Due to its purely melodic structure the soprano was recorded using the melody app ThumbJam. Principally this would also be possible for the guitar solo. But the contained chordal tapping part can be played particularly well with SoundPrism. Here you can see that different composition tasks require different music apps.

Its rhythmic character receives the piece through the animated string sound and the rock guitar riff. Both first was created using the animator of Native Instruments Session Strings. The arpeggio of the guitar riff was programmed using Spectrasonics Omnisphere. The drum track of the piece was created using Spectrasonics Stylus RMX.

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Work with students

For creating the composition and practicing the live performance showed in the video above we had only four days. Particularly as musician one easily underestimates the hurdles people without musical experience have to overcome. In our experience non-musicians often shy away from playing around and trying out. The fear of doing something wrong is often there. Therefore we decided  to reduce the musical piece only to the four chords mentioned above. This gave the students more time to for practicing and become familiar with the chords.

Furthermore we recommend to teach musical novices a simple but well sounding musical motif first. This creates an experience of success, self-confidence and encourages the student to leave predefined paths and to develop own musical ideas. Despite of this much encouragement is needed.

Another great help were large print-outs of app screenshots. The students could use these screenshots to mark and remember the playing points. This made it easier for them to play the same phrase again and again. Additionally we recorded the phrase and played it back as a loop. Thus the students could check if they were playing the phrase right.

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Technical hurdles

The created composition lives of rhythmic sounds. Present it is quite hard to synchronize different music apps, iPads or VST-Plugins without having deeper technical knowledge. For example we had difficulties to synchronize the Omnisphere guitar riff with the Session Strings ensemble. We are going to solve this by a future AudioBus extension.

Another difficult thing is the connection of multiple iPads with the sound Laptop via MIDI WIFI. At first glance, this looks very tempting because it saves a lot of cabling. But in practice we lost the WIFI connection very often. A part of the used iPads worked quite well, while other iPads were very bad. This difference is hard to understand. We recommend to connect the iPads not over WIFY but via hardware like the  iConnectMIDI4plus.

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Summary

  • There are many many apps for iPad, which can be used to solve specific compositorial tasks. Skillful use of musical knowledge helps to create well sounding compositions by utilizing simple means.
  • Musical unexperienced people often shy away from playing straight on. This difficulties can be reduced by giving them simple motives that can be easily replayed. After that students should be encouraged to create something own.
  • Technically iOS has not yet matured enough to connect and synchronize multiple iPads easily. Thus many teachers will have difficulties to run a setup like the one used in the composition presented here.
  • To open up the iPad for a broad application in classroom music composition several technical obstacles have to be reduced. We are going to work on this.

Tension and Relaxation

In the last Episode we showed that musical harmony is about relationships between notes. This relationships doesn’t always need to be relaxed and harmonious. Like good movies owe their existence to a permanent change of tension, conflict, dispute and their resolution, in the same way also a musical composition requires a steady alternation of tension and relaxation.

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Tension and relaxation is one of the basic principles behind western music. There are composition techniques to create and resolute musical tension. In the following video David explains this by comparing musical tension and relaxation to interpersonal relationships. At the end he shows how tension and relaxation sounds using SoundPrism Pro.

Harmony is about relationships

On April, 12th I had the chance to attend my brother David’s class room. David is teacher at the State Vocational Training Center in Weimar, Germany. He trains aspiring educators in Guitar, Music Theory and Music Education. In this context David conducted a student project “Composition and Music Production with iPads”.

In this and the next two episodes I’m going to show some excerpts of the final presentation of this project. The expcerpts particularly show David’s talent for explaining complicated musical terms in easy to understand images.

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In the following video David explains harmony as relations between tones which can be compared to human relationships: In the same way there are persons that get on brilliantly with each other and others which are quite difficult, in the same way there also tones that fit good together and others, that don’t.