Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Golden Record 2.0


How do you teach students about music history and world music without using the traditional lecture/listen format? Head to outer space, of course! 

The Golden Record, image from

 This week, students in Music+STEM attempted to represent Earth’s musical history and cultures on a new Golden Record.  The Golden Record was created by Carl Sagan and NASA for its 1977 Voyager Interstellar Mission.  The mission was originally to explore the giant planets of our solar system but now continues to study the outer reaches of our Sun’s energy.  The record includes sounds, scenes, greetings, and music from Earth.  Scientists know the chances of it ever being found and played is slim, but it was included as a hopeful message of life on Earth.


The Golden Record took a turn and landed in our classroom

 Our students were tasked with creating a new collection of music for a future Golden Record.  In order to represent as much of Earth’s music history as possible, their selections had to represent 6 continents and at least 4 centuries.  Initially, this seems like a simple enough task.  In reality, this involved a great deal of teaching and learning.  Here are just a few of the questions and challenges students faced as they worked to complete this project:

  • What continents do I need to represent? 

    Students at work on their research

  • What centuries can I find music from?
  • What is an authentic example of music?
  • What is a high quality example of music?
  • How do I search for music from a specific place and/or time?
  • How do I narrow down my search to the most useful information?
  • How do I follow a “trail” to the goal of my search?

As you can see, students not only met musical goals of discovering music from multiple times and cultures, they learned valuable internet seach tools and discrimination.  

Here are a few of the musical examples students included on their Golden Record 2.o …
As a teacher, my favorite part of this project was the sounds I heard in the classroom as students worked – excerpts of The Nutcracker in one corner mixed with sounds of a didgeridoo, while Spring from The Four Seasons played alongside a fife and drum tune from colonial America.  

And the best moment was when a 6th grade boy sat listening to a piece of music he disovered and then told me, “This music is so relaxing it makes me cry.”  Equipping students with the ability to find music that they can emotionally connect with – that’s a life lesson that won’t be measured on a standardized test – but one that will be life changing.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

Whew! Here we are at part 4 of the Build An Instrument unit posts! 20150910_120232-1

Let’s look back at what we’ve done so far …

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – The Science of Sound

Part 3 – Building

and finally Part 4 – Compose and Perform!

Our principal came in when we were in the midst of composing and asked, “How do you teach a kid to compose?”  Luckily, I had an answer, but the truth is I taught many years before I figured out an approach. When I was in my undergrad theory classes and had to compose, the only guidance I remember is knowing some traditional chord progressions – and I wasn’t very successful.  I’ve found the key to teaching students to compose is starting with a very limited structure – the fewer choices the better.

For our middle school students, this meant composing in a modified Rondo form (ABACA) with 8 beats in each phrase.  Every student wrote a solo following this form.  They used traditional or non-traditional notation to indicate rhythm and where each note was to be played on their instrument.  Since we had a wide variety of instruments there were a lot of different sounds.  Another challenge was that most instruments didn’t play consistent pitches – so students notated pitches by labeling strings or making “fret” marks on their instruments and notating them in their music.

Once students wrote their solo, they teamed up in groups of 2, 3, or 4.  The group “sampled” their solos to create a new piece for their group.  This new piece also followed the Rondo form by adding “D” and “E” sections for the groups of 3 and 4.  Everyone agreed on a phrase for the group to play together for each recurring “A” phrase.  Then, each student chose their favorite composed phrase to play as a solo in each alternating section.  In the end, it looked something like this….

A – group

B – student 1 solo

A – group

C – student 2 solo

A – group

After a day of practicing with their group to perfect their piece, we celebrated with a day of performances!  Here’s an example …

Overall, the results of this unit were outstanding.  Students applied the science of sound to the instruments they built and more importantly, learned from trial and error.  Most students did not end up with the exact instrument they first conceived – but many of the results were even better.  Composing and performing was new for most kids, but many had very successful first attempts!  We’re looking forward to see what else they can accomplish throughout the semester!