Free Online Music Composition Software: Lessons in Student Ingenuity
The two-way exchange of ideas is one of the most rewarding interactions between students and teachers. While students look to their instructors for knowledge, instructors also benefit from the ingenious solutions that students can offer. Following are a few recent scenarios where students demonstrated the usefulness of free online music composition programs. While I discuss specific programs in this essay, I did not intend this as a review or endorsement, and I am not affiliated with any of the products mentioned. Any programs or websites referred to here are merely illustrations of how free online software can be effectively utilized.
My most recent Music Theory III and IV cohort consisted of a small but talented group of students, so I decided to teach the courses in a seminar style that emphasized music composition. We covered the standard material of chord extensions, augmented sixth chords, 12-tone technique, and the like, but nearly every piece of theoretical content was directly applied in one of four or five major composition assignments I assigned throughout the semester. To help the students experience a wide range of compositional and engraving possibilities, I strongly suggested but did not require that they use the Finale or Sibelius programs installed on the college’s piano lab computers. To my initial surprise, all of the students completed their assignments not in Finale or Sibelius, but in the MuseScore app. While programs like Finale and Sibelius are wonderful for professional-level engraving, my students highly valued the convenience of composing on their personal laptops rather than on school computers, and the $99 price for a Finale student license was enough of a deterrent to prevent them from purchasing it. Some of the students attempted to work in Finale, but they expressed that the free MuseScore app was simpler and more intuitive to use. Throughout the year, all students successfully completed their compositions in MuseScore and did not have to alter their pieces due to any engraving shortcomings in the free composition app.
While my music theory students composed in MuseScore, I also taught composition lessons to a freshman business major. He had studied composition in high school and possessed much innate talent. I taught him the basics of Finale, and while he initially used it, he soon grew frustrated with the amount of time it took to learn certain skills in the program. He also turned to composing in MuseScore and published his pieces in the online MuseScore community, an excellent social component related to the MuseScore app. As with my music theory students, he had no issues engraving in MuseScore, and when we entered him in the MTNA Young Artist Composition competition, he won third place in the national finals at age nineteen. His composition was adjudicated in the three competition rounds by a total of seven distinguished and widely published composers, and none of them criticized MuseScore’s engraving aesthetics.
Following these positive experiences with student compositions in MuseScore, I decided to assign Music Appreciation students a MuseScore composition assignment four weeks into the semester. Out of forty students, only two had ever written music before, and only about ten could even read music. While we had briefly covered the basics of music notation and compositional features such as motives, sequences, and phrases, most students did not fully know how to read or write music. The assignment parameters were simple: each work needed a minimum of twelve measures, and a minimum of three harmonic intervals had to be present. The class seemed to understand MuseScore from my demonstrations, and they expressed enthusiasm along with slight nervousness about writing music for the first time. Upon receiving the final submissions, I observed two results. First, despite the class’s lack of musical notation literacy, nearly every composition contained striking motivic development, even if the students could not verbalize exactly how they developed their motives. Second, several of the students found the MuseScore app somewhat overwhelming and instead turned to an online web-based app called Flat. The free version of Flat is much more limited than MuseScore, but the students found it sufficient and easier to use for writing basic compositions. Flat’s web app design solved the issue some students had with their MuseScore app crashing, and the ability to share Flat compositions via a weblink was much simpler than uploading a MuseScore file to Canvas, the school’s learning management system. Once again, students discovered an easier and more intuitive way to effectively complete their composition assignments without sacrificing quality.
A third scenario that recently demonstrated the usefulness of free composition software involved one of my private piano students, an intellectually gifted six-year-old. Despite her mental acuity, she consistently experienced difficulty connecting musical letter names with the lines and spaces on the staff. Flashcards, mnemonics, and writing out notes on the staff helped some, but her staff reading worsened when we continued lessons remotely after I relocated to a different state. One day, it occurred to me that my student possessed strong computer skills, as she attended a school where every kindergartner used a tablet for all of their schoolwork. I decided to look for online games for my student to play in the hopes that these would help her make the cognitive jump to music staff fluency. Searching online yielded an excellent and visually-appealing site published by a classical radio station in Cincinnati, 90.9 WGUC (www.classicsforkids.com). My student loved this site and quickly wrote several four-measure compositions on the website’s game-like program. She enjoyed composing on the site so much that she soon complained that only four measures of composition were allowed in the program. In response, I introduced her to Flat, and while it took some time to explain the program initially, with her parents’ assistance she quickly learned how to use Flat’s features. Within a few days, she had composed pieces twenty measures long or more, completely independent of outside help. The most satisfying educational outcome, however, was that within a few weeks of using Flat, she independently learned a great deal about musical notation. Knowledge mastered included staff fluency, the most common orchestral instruments and groups, and many types of articulation, dynamic, and expressive terms and symbols. A few weeks spent with a simple, free online composition program revolutionized my student’s ability to read, discuss, and create music.
While I will certainly continue to use and recommend professional-grade music composition software, my students have repeatedly discovered simple, effective ways to compose and learn via free alternatives. In certain scenarios, free, intuitive, online music composition programs can serve excellent pedagogical purposes. These recent experiences also provide a timely reminder that students, in their pursuit of efficiency, can often creatively problem-solve and offer valuable new perspectives.
Adam Booher is an Assistant Professor at Freed-Hardeman University where he teaches applied piano and music lecture courses. He frequently performs as a solo and collaborative pianist, and he serves as National Coordinator of MTNA Senior Performance Competitions. Mr. Booher also adjudicates state, regional, and international piano competitions.