December 8, 2015 at 4:08 pm

Music Education Hackathon Focuses on New Ways to Teach Music


Learning music should be fun, although you might get the wrong impression from stories of those who took lessons as kids. Hours of practicing solo, struggling to translate a cryptic set of notes, and the sinking feeling of showing up to a lesson underprepared are elements common to music lesson lore. The challenge of teaching music is to help kids find their way through these barriers, to the kingdom of delights that comes with a solid foundation in music.

What if technology could help innovate music education to be more accessible, more inspiring, and accommodate different approaches to learning?

Cue the 2nd annual Music Education Hackathon hosted at Spotify NYC, organized by Jonathan Marmor, an engineering lead at Spotify, and a team of more than a dozen co-organizers. As part of the ongoing Monthly Music Hackathon NYC (MMH) series, a diverse group of students, teachers, education theorists, musicians, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs all gathered to address challenges in music education. Almost half the participants were women and many were of high school or college age, and it was one of the most culturally diverse Monthly Music Hackathons to date.

(Coming soon: the Sound Visualization & Data Sonification Hackathon on December 12.)

Projects ranged from a QWERTY keyboard-based approach to learning modal scales, (which I was able to test out with my Mom, who is an expert in childhood music education — more on that later), to an open platform for sharing and reviewing students’ practice sessions. The latter arose out of troubleshooting a method to prevent backsliding between weekly music classes. In brainstorming sessions and scheduled talks, attendees discussed bringing tech-based music education to underserved populations such as the blind, differently-abled, and to the poorest parts of New York City, as well as a slew of other worthy topics.

Here are some highlights from the weekend:



by Ruofeng Chen, Minwei Gu (pictured playing the violin)

Creators’ description: An open platform for music practice, sharing and peer review with a real time grading system.


Kpop Starter Kit

by Ana Leon, Amber Marrero, Lauren Clark

Creators’ description: This site is to help people get into kpop because it is an immense genre that is taking over the world.

Ana, Amber, and Lauren are 16 year old high school students who did a course on computer programming this summer with Girls Who Code. They came to the hackathon to learn more about how coding could be used in music. Their ambitious project to make an app to lower the barrier to entry to Korean Pop music for Americans was a crowd favorite.



by Kevin Farrell, Mathab Ghamsari-Esfahani, Kevin Bohimsky, Julian Duque, Noah Teshu, Asyrique Thevendran

Creators’ description: An interactive site for the music classroom where a teacher can post music and students can record and upload a version of the piece anonymously. The class can then give feedback to the recordings in the comments section. Ideally, over the course of a term, each student will record themselves as well as give feedback to every other student.

This group of hackers — including a music teacher, undergrad students in computer science and music, graduate student in music business, and a software developer with Bands In Town — met at the hackathon and were inspired by Kevin Farrell’s talk Friday describing the challenge of keeping kids from regressing between weekly music classes.

Web-based music app aQWERTYon is a project out of NYU’s MusEdLab that ingeniously uses the computer keyboard, (already omnipresent and requiring no setup), to help students explore different modes and scales. Choosing a root note and scale type, (major, minor or other, then various sub-scales after that), users can improvise freely while only playing notes in that scale. Here’s me playing triads and a melody line in Locrian mode:


Lifelong early-learning music educator and former head of the Kodály Center of America Faith Knowles (the mother mentioned above) helped me put aQWERTYon to the test. She identified the scales were accurate, and quickly figured out that if you play three keys closest to being in a row, you get a triad made from the notes in that scale (a trick I used in my demonstration). Knowles thought it would be an excellent tool for comparing the various modes and hearing the differences between them.

Header graphic by Athena Koumis