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Music & Coding: Song Maker

Forget sheet music, Chrome Music Lab's Song Maker lets students code their own tunes, no experience required. Imagine dots transforming into melodies – that's the magic of Song Maker. Just like ones and zeros power computers, dots on the staff bring music to life. The adventure starts with drawing shapes on the staff, each creating a unique sound. Then, students become musical detectives, filling in the missing notes of familiar tunes. It's a captivating blend of coding and music, perfect for sparking creativity and igniting a love for both!

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Chrome Music Lab

Chrome Music Lab, created by Google's Creative Lab, is a browser-based platform offering 14 interactive experiments that make learning music engaging and accessible. Experiment with sounds by manipulating recordings, visualizing them as colorful spectrograms, or creating your own rhythms. But the fun doesn't stop there. You can explore other Google Music offerings outside of Chrome Music Lab like word-synth that turns speech into music, paint with music that creates sounds with every brushstroke, or conduct your own virtual orchestra in Blob Opera. So, unleash your inner musician and embark on a creative journey of musical exploration.

Connecting Music & Coding in Song Maker

Music and technology have been linked for longer than you might think. One example is the player piano, which was created in the early 1900s and is a truly amazing piece of mechanical engineering. These instruments used perforated paper rolls containing patterns of holes, similar to binary code, to control the piano's action and produce music. Every hole on the roll represented a note, and as the roll was read by the machine, the matching piano keys were pressed, to play the song.

While player pianos are no longer commonplace, their legacy lives on in educational tools like Song Maker.

While player pianos are no longer commonplace, their legacy lives on in educational tools like Song Maker. This interactive tool, available through Google Chrome Music Lab, allows students to experiment with music composition while also gradually introducing key coding principles. As opposed to traditional text coding, SongMaker has a visual interface that lets students make tunes and represent notes by dragging and dropping squares. This process mirrors the way programmers use visual elements to manipulate code and build software.

In Song Maker, placing a dot on the virtual sheet music resembles punching a hole in a player piano roll. The position and spacing of these dots determine both the pitch of the notes (similar to the location of the holes on the player piano roll) and the tempo of the piece. When students hit play, their creation comes to life, just like a player piano faithfully reproducing the encoded music.

Song Maker Activities

Song Maker transforms music creation into an intuitive and engaging experience for students. Its user-friendly interface eliminates the need for prior musical knowledge, making it accessible to everyone. Song Maker utilizes a visual approach, where placing dots on the staff corresponds to different musical notes. Similar to building blocks, these dots can be arranged to create melodies and rhythms so students can become composers with just a few clicks and drags. The beauty lies in its simplicity. Give students a few minutes to explore, and you'll witness them quickly grasping the core concepts. Encourage them to experiment with various instruments, tempo adjustments, and settings. To ensure a fresh canvas for each creation, it's recommended to reset Song Maker before each activity, either by reloading the page or restarting the tool itself.

Before diving into the activities, it's helpful for students to understand the connection between Song Maker and binary. Begin by discussing how player pianos use perforated paper rolls to play music. Show the video on Stanford's player piano roll collection from the Lesson Slideshow, highlighting the holes punched in the paper. Explain how these holes act like a binary system, where a hole represents a played note and the absence of a hole signifies a rest. This closely resembles the ones and zeros used by computers to process information. Emphasize the similarity between how player pianos read music and how Song Maker operates.

Screenshot of Song Maker

In the Music Shape activity, students use Song Maker notes to form a shape and then describe the sound it produces. This activity works best if kids use a computer with a touch screen. The Music Shape Worksheet includes 17 shapes for students to make in Song Maker, as well as three more shapes that they may create themselves. After they make a shape on Song Maker, they should draw it on the worksheet. They can do this by clicking in a box, going to Insert then Drawing then New. This will let them use the drawing tool in Google Docs. Alternatively, they can take a screenshot of their Song Maker drawing and put it on the worksheet. 

Example student response

Students enjoy creating sounds with Song Maker, but their descriptions of the sounds are often bland. To help them use more interesting words, I added a list of descriptive sound words to the activity sheet. You could modify the word bank to have different words depending on the age of the students, or they could even make their own list. They could also compare the sounds to things they already know, like chirping birds or rushing water. After completing the worksheet, listen to the sound shapes as a class and record the words used by students to describe the sounds. Ask children why they picked their descriptive terms and why the various shapes created the sounds they did. This conversation might be a wonderful opportunity to introduce terminology like harmony and discord.

The "Finish that Tune!" activity in Song Maker challenges students to become musical detectives. Presented with incomplete melodies, they embark on a mission to identify and fill in the missing notes. As a class, it's beneficial to begin by tackling the first song, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," together. Don't hesitate to utilize the full melody provided on the teacher's worksheet if needed. To guide students, alternate between playing the complete and incomplete versions, highlighting the missing notes. In fact, some students discovered a collaborative approach by working in pairs, playing the full and incomplete melodies simultaneously on separate computers to pinpoint the missing elements. This engaging activity fosters critical listening skills, problem-solving abilities, and musical understanding, making it a valuable addition to any music exploration journey.

Scratch example of missing commands

This activity highlight that the worlds of music and coding share a common thread: sequentiality. Just as notes in a song follow one another to create a melody, commands in code execute in a specific order to achieve a desired outcome. Imagine a song missing a crucial note – the melody would sound incomplete, just like a program missing a command wouldn't function as intended. For instance, consider creating a square in Scratch. If your code only instructs the computer to draw three sides, the square would remain unfinished, similar to a song missing a note.


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